30 years after Falklands war, visible scars remain

March 31, 2012 - 9:36 PM
Falkland Islands Argentina Scars

In this Sunday March 4, 2012 photo, a sign warns of land mines just outside Stanley, Falkland Islands. Many scars remain from Argentina's occupation of the islands, both physical and those harder to see at first. The beautiful white-sand beach where Argentine troops came ashore on April 2, 1982 remains off-limits to all but the penguins, which aren't heavy enough to explode the land mines. And islanders say they can never trust Argentines again after being held at gunpoint in their streets and homes during the 74-day occupation. (AP Photo/Michael Warren)

STANLEY, Falkland Islands (AP) — Thirty years after Argentina and Britain spilled blood over these remote islands in the South Atlantic, the scars of war are still being scratched raw.

Argentina's occupation of the islands it claims as "Las Malvinas" lasted just 74 days, but the trauma extends well beyond the families of the 907 people killed.

Islanders still live among land mines the Argentines planted; only light-footed penguins can step onto the beautiful white-sand beach just outside town where troops came ashore on April 2, 1982. Islanders still feel they need an extensive military garrison, with warships and a nuclear submarine circling somewhere in the deep, to protect them from their Latin American neighbor.

Arriving planes and cruise ships make some islanders worry whether Argentines on board will make trouble. Each day they steel themselves for news of another attempt to isolate them economically and diplomatically, part of the Argentine government's intensifying campaign to pressure Britain to concede sovereignty.

Islanders will turn out for a march by the Falkland Islands Defense Force on Sunday, remembering the day their local militia mobilized just ahead of the invasion, while Argentines hold vigil at their Monument to the Fallen, in Ushuaia, capital of the country's southernmost province. On Monday, President Cristina Fernandez will be in Ushuaia as well, leading rallies nationwide that honor the veterans as heroes and press her country's claim.

"Although 30 years is quite a while, on the other hand it's yesterday. As soon as you start making threats all that comes back again. It makes people nervous, it puts people on edge. We don't believe they'll use military force, but the other things they are doing aren't helpful," said Tony Smith, an islander who gives tours and laments the hardening positions on both sides. "Nearly every Argentine I've met has been perfectly all right," he says.

Argentines also see themselves as victims. Many focus their anger on Britain's historical role as the world's leading colonial power, even though the islands are no longer a colony, and blame the 1982 war on the military junta that led Argentina at the time, even though taking the islands by force had considerable popular support.

Polls show most remain convinced that "Las Malvinas" have always been Argentine, and are cheered by President Cristina Fernandez's current campaign. But looking deeper can be painful because her nationalist speeches only seem to push the islands farther from reach.

"It's a very emotional subject for us. We still teach our children that the Malvinas are Argentine. I still hope they will be," said Marcelo Pozzo, 49, who was a 19-year-old conscript sailor when he survived the sinking of the Argentine Navy's light cruiser General Belgrano by British torpedoes.

"We don't know what the presidency is trying to accomplish," said Pozzo. "It should be trying to build ties, but the islanders don't want to be close to Argentina. They want to live in peace."

For Pozzo and other Argentine war veterans, emotions are even more complicated because they were drafted by a military focused on eliminating leftist "subversives" at home, then sent into a war they were unprepared for. Soldiers were abused by their own officers during the occupation, sometimes left nearly starving as supplies rotted on the docks, or freezing in foxholes in clothes meant for northern Argentina's subtropics.

Gustavo Pirich remembers the blows he received from a superior officer for stealing food from a warehouse in desperation. Officers ate the meat and potatoes, leaving the troops with nothing but watery gruel, said Pirich, who testified that such abuses are still-prosecutable war crimes — a question now before Argentina's Supreme Court.

Pirich still suffers from trench foot, caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, cold and unsanitary conditions, as well as the panic attacks and irritability that come with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He acknowledges that "one day I looked with great love at an open window," but says he overcame suicidal thoughts through years of therapy and medication.

"We were very young, completely innocent. Nobody thought we were going to war. We didn't know what war was," said Pozzo, now a systems engineer, describing the harrowing experience of surviving the sinking that killed 323 fellow sailors.

After their surrender that June 14, a day islanders now celebrate as "Liberation Day," the Argentines returned to a country ashamed, and many had experiences familiar to U.S. Vietnam War veterans. There were no ticker-tape parades; nobody wanted to remember the humiliation.

"In the early years there was neglect, a lack of attention. To see a war veteran was to see living proof of a mistake," said Dario Volonte, another Belgrano sinking survivor and now a renowned operatic tenor who credits Eastern religion for helping him avoid suicide.

It took more than ten years before the veterans were granted monthly war pensions. The first mental health clinic focused on their care opened just last month, too late for the 439 veterans, by the president's count, who committed suicide after the war. The only government mental health survey of veterans, in 1995, found that more than 80 percent still suffered from anxiety and irritability, and 58 percent said they were frequently depressed.

"As with other facts of national history, the episode of the Malvinas war remains one of those hazy things that nobody wants to examine too closely," said psychologist Maria Cristina Solano, who ran the survey. "But there still remain survivors, and traces of things that keep it from being forgotten."

Hundreds of the 649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers who were killed, along with three elderly islanders whose house was hit by friendly British fire, were buried on the island in separate cemeteries. Because many Argentine soldiers lacked dogtags, nearly half of their graves are inscribed with the words: "known only to God."

Argentine Justice Minister Julio Alak recently promised veterans to identify the remains through DNA, saying "It's not possible that 30 years after the conflict there are still 123 Argentine heroes without a name, forgotten in anonymity."

Pozzo is against it, saying too many corpses were blown to pieces. "It would be very hard for the people to see that," he said.

John Smith, an islander whose book "74 days" details the suffering of the occupying troops, said "it would serve no useful purpose at all."

"They're resting there thinking they've got a complete son or husband buried in the Falklands, but in actual fact, they might not be as complete as you'd imagine," Smith said.

Many islanders interviewed ahead of the anniversary still have sympathy for the Argentine troops they met during the occupation, while scorning their officers.

The Argentines had arrived thinking that they'd be welcomed, and that Britain would let Argentina take over without a fight. They handed out fliers saying: "People of the Malvinas: You have been liberated from the illegal colonial government. The People and Armed Forces of Argentina embrace you as brothers. JOIN US IN FORGING A GREAT FUTURE FOR THE ISLANDS."

"The poor soldiers who arrived in 1982 honestly thought they were here to liberate a poor Argentine population from under the hell of the wicked Brits," recalled Jan Cheek, a member of the islands' legislative assembly.

Instead, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher mobilized an armada that traveled 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) and quickly drove the Argentines to surrender. The military force that remains has enabled the islands to diversify from a sheep-farming backwater into a potential offshore oil hub that could make the islanders the world's richest people.

That infuriates Argentines who see an imperial enemy dominating the developing world's resources again. And it has islanders feeling more suspicious than ever that their neighbor wants to take over everything they've built.

"Given the macho mentality that exists in Argentina, that attitude will always exist there," said Dick Sawle, another legislative assembly member. "Their intention would only be to destroy what we already have. They would want to take it and claim it and destroy it."

Argentina war veteran Ramon Lopez recalls the death of a fellow soldier he'd known for years.

"Seeing him die was very sad because of the way he died; he bleed to death. A shot hit a femoral (artery) and he bled out," Lopez said.

Argentine forces couldn't rescue his friend immediately because of the presence of British troops and by the time they got him out it was too late, Lopez recalls.

The veteran says he hopes there are no more wars, but added that "many of us should live just one day of war to appreciate life in its full magnitude."

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Associated Press writer Debora Rey in Buenos Aires contributed to this report. Follow Michael Warren on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mwarrenap