BUENOS AIRES—Cut into the tapis trees here on the former campus of the Navy Mechanics School, and the branches bleed a blood-red sap. Their canopy of leaves turns afternoon showers into a gentle drizzle that guide Daniel Schiavi calls "lagrima," or the tears. "They are weeping," he says, gesturing to the grove beside him, "for what took place in the basements and attics."
It is among these elegantly neoclassical, whitewashed buildings that Schiavi's college sweetheart, the mother of his child, was tortured three decades ago. It is on this site, too, that the country continues to wrestle with the horrors of the "dirty war" under the military junta that seized and held power here from 1976 to 1983.
The grounds, which more closely resemble a country club than a concentration camp, reopened in late 2007 as a museum called the Space for the Memory, Promotion, and Defense of Human Rights to commemorate those who were kidnapped and "disappeared" under the dictatorship. This has proved, however, a wrenching and controversial undertaking in a nation that is still grappling mightily with its recent past.
Nicknamed the Sorbonne of Repression, the school was the site of the largest of a national network of secret death camps where the Argentine military brought university students, trade unionists, and others suspected of supporting socialism and "subverting" what the junta called its "western and Christian values." Here, some received electric shocks and were made to lie down in rows before being run over with motorcycles. Others were told they were being transferred to southern prisons where they would need special antimalaria medication. They were then given injections of sedatives, loaded onto a twice-weekly plane flight, and dropped unconscious into the freezing waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. Of the roughly 5,000 people brought here, only some 200 survived.
Decades-long efforts to bring those responsible to justice have not fared well. After democracy was restored in 1983, ex-generals accused of kidnapping and assassinations were protected from prosecution by amnesty laws. It was not until Nestor Kirchner became president in 2003 that the government began overturning the pardons. Since then, in several cases where trials have taken place, photographs and evidence painstakingly smuggled out of the prison have been "lost." Alleged torturers awaiting trial in jail have escaped, aided by the police themselves.
Those who have been brought to trial after decades remain contemptuous of those they killed and convinced that they were a government at war with subversives who threatened national security. A general convicted of torture and murder in August told the court, "Argentina flaunts the dubious merits of being the first country in history to judge its victorious soldiers." He took issue with the fact that the court called "the operations of the armed forces illegal repression." After another ex-general sentenced in the same trial was told that he would remain under house arrest rather than being jailed because he was 70 years old, police in riot gear used tear gas to restrain angry crowds that promptly began protesting outside the court.
Evicted. The Navy school has become a focal point for controversy in the face of what many view as this continued disdain for the victims among the ex-military, as well as among some conservatives within the government. In the late 1990s, the Navy, supported by then President Carlos Menem, fought to destroy the buildings and create what it called a park of remembrance and a monument to reconciliation. In 2004, Kirchner evicted the Navy and turned the campus over to the city government, which created a board that included human rights organizations, as well as the country's Ministry of Human Rights. The move sparked military protests, and five provincial governors declined to attend the base's handover ceremony.
Organizations including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which continue to protest for the full accounting of disappeared children and grandchildren, were among the most vocal proponents of keeping the campus intact. "To make a place without memory, without justice, without accountability," says Schiavi, his voice trailing off. He and others fought to keep the buildings.
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.
- Read more by Anna Mulrine.