Britain recently began oil exploration around the Falkland Islands, which promptly stoked old tensions with Argentina. The two countries fought a war over the islands back in 1982. The Falklands, or Malvinas as the Argentines call them, remain a British territory. But despite defeat in 1982, Argentina still claims sovereignty. And that’s not the only dispute related to the Falklands that keeps going, 28 years after the war. Argentina’s government officially recognizes as war veterans only those who fought the British directly. That leaves some former soldiers out, as Julia Kumari Drapkin found out in Buenos Aires.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Britain and Argentina fought a brief war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Britain won the war, but Argentina still claims the islands as its own. In fact, it still calls them the Malvinas. And there’s another dispute over the Falklands that still hasn’t been settled. Argentina’s government officially recognizes as war veterans, only those who fought the British. That leaves out one group of former Argentine soldiers. So they’re camping out in the heart of Buenos Aires. Reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin visited with them as their protest camp turned two years old.
JULIA KUMARI DRAPKIN: Ruben Dario Gonzales reaches into the fridge and unwraps a home made chocolate cake. But this isn’t his home. It’s a tent camp, a homey one though. There are beds, a dining mess, a kitchen, even electricity, all in the middle of the Plaza de Mayo, the city’s iconic political plaza. The cake says “Happy Birthday to the Veteran’s Camp of the Plaza de Mayo”. It has two candles. Two years without an answer, says Gonzales. He and his buddies, all former soldiers, want to be recognized as war veterans. They admit they didn’t fight the British directly; instead they were on the home front defending Argentina’s coast and air bases during the war. Sergio Freire says that makes them all war veterans, just like the guys who fought on the islands.
INTERPRETER: They are all recognized, we’re not. Event though we were thrown in a ditch for 45 days without food, without sleep and without dignity. We were abused by our own officers. All our human rights were violated. We are nothing, we are nobody, we don’t exist.
DRAPKIN: That sort of bitterness is borne out of what many former soldiers say were the other battles fought during the Malvinas war. They say that back on the mainland their worst enemies were not the British, but their own superior officers. They starved, humiliated, and even tortured their charges. One common form of punishment involved tying a naked soldier to stakes on the ground and leaving him at the mercy of the Patagonian cold for days.
TULIO FRAVOZKI: It’s not necessary to have a mark on the body.
DRAPKIN: Tulio Fravozki is President of the Plaza de Mayo Veteran’s Camp. He and others say many of the men have psychological wounds that haven’t healed. But he says the worst part is being treated as if they never served at all.
FRAVOZKI: They never gave us honors. They never receive us like veterans or people who go for war.
DRAPKIN: Many of these former soldiers say they were told to keep quiet after the war. But now they want the truth to come out and justice to be done. That’s what they’re fighting for now. And they’re making their stand in the place where Argentines come to demand truth and justice. The stars of the Plaza de Mayo though, are the mothers of those who were disappeared by the military junta. They still march here every week. Tourists snap pictures of the women, but seem not to notice the men in the background. Still, the former soldiers have tremendous respect for the mothers. What’s important, says Ruben Dario Gonzales, is that they feel our presence, referring to Argentina’s politicians. Recognition would mean government benefits for these men. But it doesn’t look good for them. Combat veterans of the Falklands/Malvinas war who already receive pensions are fighting for back payments. They would get priority and increasing the veteran payroll is difficult for lawmakers to justify in cash strapped Argentina. The sun starts to set on the Plaza de Mayo and the men stand in formation to sing the national anthem. Friends and family take pictures. People en route to the subway pause. The former soldier’s presence is felt, at least for a moment. For The World, I’m Julia Kumari Drapkin in Buenos Aires.
WERMAN: We have pictures of some of the veterans Julia spoke with at the world dot org.
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