BUENOS AIRES – This is a country of memories – not all of them happy.
Amidst the statues and monuments to the leaders who liberated Argentina from Spanish rule and to those who have since controlled its destiny, there are reminders of the darkest period of the country’s modern history.
The walls of the immigration area at Ezeiza International Airport are literally covered with posters of missing people. So are the security areas of at least some of the regional airports.
These are not posters of the original desaparecidos (disappeared) – the estimated 30,000 dissidents who were rounded up, tortured and murdered by Argentina’s military government during the so-called “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983.
These are images of the more than 6,000 children, teenagers and adults – more than half of them from the Buenos Aires area – who have been reported missing in Argentina in recent years.
Teenage girls make up the largest group of the “modern missing,” most of whom are believed to be victims of forced labour and sex trafficking.
Confronted by the sheer volume of these shocking posters, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there’s a connection between the desaparecidos and the modern missing.
It’s as if there is a need to publicly acknowledge today’s missing persons in a way that the original victims could never be acknowledged during the years of repression and state-sponsored terror – especially since so many of those responsible for the latter have managed to this day to escape prosecution.
“This is still an open wound in our society,” our tour guide tells us. “There are those who want to pretend it never happened, but it is still with us.”
There is a disturbing Jewish connection to the Dirty War. Although Jews made up less than one per cent of Argentina’s population at the time, a 1999 report by the Barcelona-based Commission of Solidarity with Relatives of the Disappeared found that Jews made up about 12 per cent of the victims of the military regime.
They were prime targets, in part because Nazi ideology had permeated the military. Indeed, some sources say that recordings of Hitler’s speeches were played during torture sessions.
And some sections of the military believed in the “Andinia Plan,” a fictitious Israeli conspiracy to take over part of the Patagonia region and establish a second Jewish state there.
The 1990s saw new and deadly challenges for the Jews in Buenos Aires. In March 1992, a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck loaded with explosives into the front of the Israeli Embassy. The attack killed 29 and injured 242. In July 1994, another suicide bomber drove a van full of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil into AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), a Jewish community centre. Eighty-five people were killed and more than 200 were wounded.
Although Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the embassy murders, both attacks are believed to have been masterminded by the late Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah arch-terrorist whose long list of crimes included the deadly 1983 attacks on French paratroopers, U.S. military barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
But neither Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in 2008, nor the other suspects were ever successfully prosecuted – another reminder of the limitations of Argentinian justice.
The economy, not terror, has caused the biggest Jewish exodus from Argentina in recent years. Since the economic crisis of 1998-2002, 10,000 Argentinian Jews have immigrated to Israel, although many returned when the economy improved.
The Jewish population in Argentina has dropped to 181,500 today from 310,000 in the early 1960s. But it is still the largest Jewish population in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. It is 80 per cent Ashkenazi.
And, despite scattered anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, the Jewish community of Buenos Aires is vibrant, with impressive synagogues, a bustling business district and kosher restaurants and butchers.
But the AMIA building now looks like a fortress, and visitors need to submit their passports days in advance for security checks. A huge memorial sign that resembles a chalkboard lists the names of the victims.
The Israeli Embassy is now just one of many tenants at a nondescript office building. A memorial park on the original embassy site includes a piece of the old wall, along with 21 trees and seven benches in memory of the victims.
Just as Argentina still bears the scars and shame of its tragedies, the Jewish community here must live with the ghosts and memories of its own Disappeared.