Raw Nerves at a Museum of Argentina's "Dirty War"

A former death camp remains a focal point for controversy over a dark time in Argentina's history.

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In the basement of the former officers' quarters, Schiavi points to a low beam where guards would let unwitting prisoners bang their heads as they were walked toward torture rooms down a hallway morbidly called "the avenue of happiness." The rooms are empty, blood-stained walls painted over. Should the museum bring back the metal beds on which prisoners were kept, hooded and hogtied, so that visitors can better visualize the conditions that the disappeared endured? The museum has grappled with this point, he says. "But then do you use ketchup for fake blood? Where do you draw the line?"

Carlos Lordkipanidse has been in the middle of this debate. He is a member of the Association of the Ex-Disappeared and Detained. His wife was kidnapped in 1978 along with his 3-week-old son. One hour later, he, too, was taken. He arrived to the sounds of his wife being tortured and was then told it was his turn. When he told his captors that he did not know the answers to their questions, the officers instructed a guard to "bring in the baby." They hooked up electrical cables to his son's belly and threatened to crush his head on the floor if Lordkipanidse didn't talk.

Days after Lordkipanidse was abducted, the Navy gave his baby back to his wife's family and offered to free his wife as well if he agreed to work at the prison making counterfeit passports for military officers who planned to infiltrate neighboring countries and kidnap activists who had fled Argentina. He agreed, beginning what he calls his "time of slavery," and a few months later his wife was freed. In 1981, Lordkipanidse was released under house arrest. He later fled with his family to Brazil with the help of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Even his survival, however, remains controversial in a country rife with open wounds. Like others who were abducted and lived through the torture camps, the mere fact that he did not die at the Navy school is often viewed with suspicion, the underlying subtext of frequent questions about how he survived being, "Who did you sell out in order to live?"

"I spent 2½ years there. And afterwards, so many people judged me. They asked, 'Why did you survive and not the others?' " His answer is that he can look anyone in the eyes and know that he did nothing wrong.

Today, the campus evokes not only painful memories for Lordkipanidse but deep concerns as well. Because of ongoing disagreements over just how the victims of the dirty war should be remembered and how the museum should be run, various human-rights groups have been given control of different areas of the old campus. In the building run by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, there are weekly cooking classes, theater performances, discussions, and concerts. Lordkipanidse detests this. "Their motto is 'Create life in a place where before there was death.' But is it necessary to put life in that place?" he asks. "We have life everywhere. Do we need to bring happiness to a cemetery? It's a place where people go to keep vigil over their dead. It's not where you go to play jazz. You have so many places to play jazz. Why here?"

His worry now is whether the young generation will remember the country's recent past and care about what happened in a former death camp nestled among tony apartment buildings in a pricey neighborhood. "If everyone who passes in front of [the Navy school] knows and understands what happened here, it will be more difficult for it to happen again," he says. "And for this, we are going to fight."

With Federico Llumá.

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