For those who fought on either side of the conflict, the memories linger long
ON THE morning of April 2nd, 1982, Juan Carlos Ianuzzo was a naval officer on the bridge of the Cabo San Antonio when the order came: “First wave into the water.”
The landing ship’s bow doors swung open and disgorged amphibious armoured personnel carriers filled with Argentinian marines. After 149 years of British control, the Falkland Islands were about to revert to being Las Malvinas. “It was a very emotional moment. We were recovering part of our fatherland,” recalls Ianuzzo.
But to the shock of the military junta in Buenos Aires, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher did not meekly surrender the Falklands, instead sending a taskforce to liberate them and their 1,800 inhabitants.
Having launched an invasion, Argentina found itself completely unprepared for a war. Within 74 days its poorly trained conscripts were routed by the professionals of the British army. “We went from euphoria to disaster,” says Ianuzzo.
As the 30th anniversary of the invasion approaches, memories are being stirred on both sides of the conflict, their charge heightened by rising political tensions over the islands’ still disputed sovereignty.
In Argentina the war still gives rise to deeply conflicting emotions. The government of Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has sought to use the anniversary to consecrate the memory of the soldiers who fought and died for the islands, while vindicating Argentina’s claim to them.
But at the same time she has sought to use the war’s disastrous planning to further discredit the legacy of the bloody dictatorship that launched the invasion. She has declassified the military’s own 1983 inquiry into the debacle, which slammed the junta’s “adventurism”. She also wants to open trials of officers who abused and tortured their own conscripts during the occupation.
For the families of the soldiers who died, Kirchner’s policy of differentiating between generals and soldiers is welcome. “Our sons died as heroes defending the fatherland and the flag and have nothing to do with those who sent them. We have to separate the two things – the fallen heroes and the dictatorship,” says Delmira Cao, whose son Julio left his job as a teacher to volunteer to fight on the islands and died on Mount Longdon.
Last year Kirchner ordered that a letter Julio Cao sent from the islands, in which he told his students “I find myself accomplishing my soldier’s duty of defending our flag”, was to be read to all primary-school children.
Kirchner’s policy is part of a wider strategy to portray Argentinians as the victims in the conflict, whether of the dictatorship or of the British. In a speech last week in which she said Argentina would “always be on the side of peace”, the president resurrected the debate about Britain’s sinking of the Argentinian battleship the General Belgrano with the loss of 323 lives, claiming the decision to torpedo it was a “war crime”.
Though Argentina’s navy accepts the General Belgrano’s sinking was an “act of war”, the foreign ministry in Buenos Aires has signalled it is considering taking Britain to the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the incident.
Labelling the sinking of the General Belgrano a war crime leaves many Argentinian veterans unhappy. “It dishonours the men who died on board. They were defending the fatherland in war. They are not just innocent victims of a crime,” says Ianuzzo, today secretary of the biggest Malvinas veterans association. “Our soldiers fought with honour. They showed great bravery and great valour.”
On the Falklands, memories of the Argentinians’ time on the islands are different. Though there was no atrocity committed against them, many islanders still speak with anger as they recall the shattering of their quiet world by Argentinian soldiers thrusting guns into the faces of their children.
Others can barely conceal their contempt. “After the war, when we got back to our home all the family heirlooms had been destroyed by the troops who had occupied it. Worst of all they had smeared excrement all over the walls,” recalls Bonnie Greenland, who like many left the capital Stanley for the countryside during the conflict.
Others remember miserable Argentinian conscripts begging the islanders for food as the local cats started to mysteriously disappear. From the beginning the invaders seemed to have little idea about conditions on the Falklands. After they surrendered, British troops filled a shipping container with Argentinian chainsaws. They had been issued to infantry units so they could fell trees for timber to build bunkers, apparently unaware that the islands’ high winds prevent trees from growing.
“You keep hearing from Argentinian officers that they fought with valour and all that. It is classic Argentinian officer-speak, this obsession with honour. But on the whole they were military midgets,” says one former British officer back visiting the islands for the anniversary.
Three decades have done nothing to diminish the bond between the Falklanders and their liberators. In 2009 the islands’ government built Liberty Lodge – a large, comfortable guesthouse in Stanley where returning British veterans can stay free of charge. Any veteran who wishes to retire to the islands is granted automatic Falkland Islands citizenship, bypassing the standard seven-year wait.
“Any local cannot do enough for the vets who liberated us. That is common law on the islands. We do what we can for them,” says Colin Shepherd, who was one of 113 people locked up in the community hall in Goose Green for 29 days by Argentinian troops until freed by British paratroopers.
Shepherd, who flies a parachute regiment flag over his workshop, has got to know many of the men involved in the battle of Goose Green, the fiercest of the war. “For many, the hardest thing is coming back down. Some are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. But all say it has helped put ghosts to rest.”
But like many islanders Shepherd is far less welcoming towards Argentinians coming to visit their military cemetery in nearby Darwin at a time when the government in Buenos Aires is trying to mount an economic blockade around the islands. “It is wrong that they come walking in here, taking photos of themselves with their flag, when at the same time they are trying to mess with our air links and shipping to the outside world. If they do that then we should stop them entering the islands.”
Asked if the Falklands and Argentina will ever get on, Shepherd shrugs. “Only if they accept their defeat and forget about sovereignty.”
But in Buenos Aires the war and its loss seem to have hardened belief in the righteousness of Argentina’s claim. “Las Malvinas are ours. They belong to us,” says Delmira Cao. “Before, I didn’t care about them, to be honest. But now my son and all our 649 sons are there. Our fallen left their blood there so now we want them more than before.”