Day 27, 27JAN2017
Sleeping in this morning we began our day just after noon. The objective today was twofold: check out a particular museum and walk off our rigid and sore bodies from yesterday’s bike ride.
These two goals in mind we may have gone overboard because we actually had to walk two full hours one way to the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos ex ESMA. The walk however was very beautiful. With over 10km each way we chose the park route on the way to the museum. This walk took us through beautiful parkland from Recoleta, through Palermo, Belgrano and into the Nunez neighborhoods.
There were a few moments when Josh and I pondered whether we should have walked. As beautiful and serene the parks look from a natural perspective, they are lined by an extremely busy and dusty main through-way making the route very noisy instead of quaint.
Regardless, sweating and thirsty, we decided to stop at McDonalds before entering the museum premise. I am including McDonalds in this post because it was an event in and of itself. The two story restaurant was very new and extremely clean – however, 1430 is definitely rush hour for portenos lunch and so the place was a mad house! We walked into the crowded building and queued for a touch screen ordering kiosk only to find that the kiosk was only in Spanish and neither of our cards would work in the machine! So we then dedicated ourselves to line up and order – in my broken Spanish mind you – the traditional way. Much to our glee, lunch was presented to us within minutes and we found the only free table in the entire place – a two seater thank goodness!
After lunch we finished the remaining 1km walk to the museum and were yet again met with Spanish. This is not to complain, we are traveling in a Spanish speaking country, and neither of us knowing Spanish is our own fault. However, when I tried to determine through the website and reviews whether the museum offered English information, I could not discern, so there really was no warning.
The museum grounds is actually a composition of over a dozen museums and cultural centers. There were a few the lady at the entry gate highlighted for us, but in the end only the first one (the one we actually wanted to go to) had any English translations. For this reason, we spent less than an hour touring the grounds, but we were affected by the place nevertheless.
The museum offered in both Spanish and English was the former extermination center housed in the Naval School of Mechanic’s Casino (or officer’s quarters). The entire museum’s grounds are that of the former Naval School, a large campus filled with beautiful red-tile roofed buildings and Greco-Roman columns. The place was used to train generations of naval non-commissioned officers, and even during the 1976-1983 Dictatorship, the school was used as such. However, the building referred to as the Officer’s Casino, housing teachers and officers alike, was a dual purpose building – 5,000 enemies of the state were imprisoned in the rafters and roof of this seemingly quaint building.
On March 24th, 1976, Argentina’s Constitutional government was overthrown by a military junta led by Admiral Massera, and Generals Videla and Agosti. What transcended was a period of internal fear and illegal executions. Over 30,000 Argentinians were rounded up during the dictatorship’s rule and summarily executed after a period of torture. There were several locations throughout the country where prisoners were captured and held, the Naval Mechanic School was just one of several sites. It was estimated that at this site alone, over 5,000 people were tortured, and of those, less than 200 survived. Additionally, 32 children were born to female prisoners at this site, all were sold or adopted into families partial to the dictatorship – many of them the military families which actually tortured and murdered their parents in the prisons. To this day, Argentina has an ongoing DNA campaign to match children of military members to their biological parents. Mothers, and now surviving children of this phenomenon, march in front of the Presidential palace in Plaza de Maya every Thursday throughout the year, wearing white scarfs to indicate their solidarity.
The building itself is only five stories: a basement, three regular floors housing the living quarters of teachers and officers assigned to the Academy, and then the attic. It is in the basement where inmates were tortured for information, and in the attic where they were kept. Makeshift cells – depicted in drawings for every shred of evidence following the dictatorships ousting was either “lost” or destroyed – were made of canvas hoods. Prisoners who survived the ordeal described the cells as an instituted hood: they could not sit, talk, use the bathroom, drink, eat, or move. All they could do was lay still under this canvas material. They could not see other prisoners although they knew there were people all around them in the putrid heat of the airless ceiling. The only time prisoners did see each other was when they were permitted to use the two toilets in the attic – its eerie that today these bathrooms, unchanged, are fitted with normal looking toilets and marble counters, it’s a testament to how recent these atrocities took place.
The attic was actually divided into several compartments: the bathrooms, the baby delivery closet, the large expanse where most prisoners were housed, a work area where prisoners deemed useful were forced to make fake documents and sift through piles of stolen property, and then there was the water tower where a second detachment of military intelligence housed their own prisoners. In short, the building housed two sets of prisoners belonging to two different military “intelligence gathering” units. They had different agendas, were controlled by different divisions within the military dictatorship’s leadership, but both committed atrocities against the human race.
Following the harrowing museum, Josh and I attempted to view the Malvinas Museum: we did not know that Malvinas was the Argentinian term for the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately the entire museum was in Spanish. We thought perhaps this was a sneaky way of shunning English speakers who may have differing views regarding the islands’ sovereignty. This theory was only further substantiated when the guide at the entrance tried to assure me in Spanish that the museum was about the flora and fauna of the island – but then in the first room we saw references especially to the war.
We wandered the grounds for a while afterwards and then stopped on our 10km walk home for helado (ice cream). With deep Italian origins in Argentina, they take ice cream seriously and boy do they deserve recognition! We each opted for two scoops and then looked at each other happy we had such a long walk to try and work off the huge caloric intake!
Once home, we admitted to our tiredness and decided to call it a night.