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September 18, 2009
Memories of “Dirty War” linger for Argentinians

I haven’t met an Argentinian who wasn’t affected in some deep, personal way by the “Dirty War” waged by their country’s right-wing military from 1975-1983, in which as many as 30,000 people were seized, disappeared and murdered.

It was the Argentine military dictatorship’s organized terror campaign to seize young people, old people, their children, teachers, unionists, students — anyone on the their dread list of names — in the guise of fighting communism.

Some were lucky enough to escape, but suffered the loss of children, mothers, fathers, brothers, grandparents, grandchildren and friends. The wounds never heal.

Argentinians have been increasingly engaged in chronicling those years of atrocities. Stories that relive the past appear almost daily. A recent example is in the Buenos Aires Herald, which describes a new book about its former editor, Robert Cox, and his courageous efforts to publish the truth about the official terror policy of the military dictatorship.

The book, Dirty Secrets, Dirty War, was written by Cox’s son, David Cox. Robert Cox was a lonely voice during the dictatorship: One of the few journalists who dared to tell the story, before he was forced to flee Argentina, facing death threats.

The book is the latest effort by writers and others who feel compelled to chronicle those days. Commemorating 30 years since the Dirty War, there are new films, lectures and plays about that period, all with the aim of never forgetting the crimes, or the victims.

I’ve just come across one poignant example of the remembrance program, first produced two years ago by photojournalist, Gustavo Germano.

Germano produced a series of side-by-side photographs entitled Ausencias, “Absences.”  In each paired set, we see people at the beach,  in snapshots or family portraits — alongside the same scene years later missing those who were snatched from life. The result is ghostly and harrowing; profound.

In one paired set, the first photo is labeled 1975: Clara Altelman de Fink stands at a dining table looking over the shoulder of her son, Claudio Marcelo Fink. In 2006, the mother stands in the exact same place, hand on empty chair, looking at the camera. Claudio is not there.

In another, brothers Omar Dario Amestoy and Mario Alfredo Amestoy are charging down a grassy hill, filled with youth and vigor. Thirty one years later, we see Mario Alfredo running down the same hill alone.

A portion of Gustavo Germano’s photo series as seen on his Web site.

In a third, a young man, Orlando Rene Mendez, and a woman, Leticia Margarita Oliva, are at Happy Turtle Beach in Concordia, Entre Rios. In 2006, the beach is empty.

We absorb the anguish, the years and the injustice with hardly a word.

Germano’s exhibit was accompanied with a preface written by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s most renowned journalists.

More than criminal trials, or journalistic investigations, or philosophical essays, art accounts for the emptiness that unexplained absence provokes….The photos  of Gustavo Germano….evoke that deep trauma of contemporary Argentine identity, and introduce us to the mystery of time with the mute violence of a frozen gesture.

– Peter Eisner

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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