Do You Know What a ‘Dirty War’ Looks Like?

buenos aires disappeared protest plaza de mayo man 500 1

One of the things I love most about traveling is learning about the cultures and history of the countries I visit.  The world has a much more diverse history than what we learn about in school (US school system anyway).  Ancient history is definitely one of the driving forces behind the destinations I choose along the way.  I just love to be exposed to the greatness of the civilizations that came before us, whether it’s exploring an ancient Mayan city, climbing to the top of Machu Picchu, or simply meeting the history of a place in its main square through the monuments and people.  I’m often impressed with what I learn and experience, but in this case I was saddened and shocked. 

During my visit to Argentina I spent about 2 weeks exploring Buenos Aries, the country’s capital.  It is known as the Paris of South America and you can certainly see why from the grand architecture and European influences throughout the city. 

Early one morning I set out to walk from my hostel in San Telmo to the cemetery in Recoletta.  I knew it was going to be quite a walk but it was a gorgeous day and I had heard the cemetery, of all things, was the biggest attraction in the city.  Along the way I got more than a little sidetracked and needless to say never made it to the cemetery. 

When I neared the Plaza de Maya which is home to the Pink House (like the White House in the US) I began to see groups of people with banners.  An older local couple saw me, probably looking like a lost gringo, and encouraged me not to enter the plaza as there was a ‘manifestacion’, or protest, that day and they believed it would be dangerous for me (locals almost always go out of their way to help travelers!).  Little did they know that bit of info peaked my curiosity so of course I had to go see what the fuss was about.

A Protest in Argentina is More Like an American Parade

When I arrived in the plaza there were hundreds of people wandering around, a stage was being built, and banners were hung in various spots and on buildings.  While my Spanish had greatly improved by this point, I still struggle with understanding context and was confused reading banners that said 30,000 Presente (present).  I began talking with locals who were more than happy to explain what was going on and I slowly began to piece the story together. 

What Was the Dirty War?

I am constantly amazed at how little I learned about the world in the US school system, especially compared with travelers from other countries but on this occasion every foreigner seemed to know as little as I did.  The Dirty War was the name for a period of time (1970s and 1980s) in Argentina’s history where the military ousted the government and made Argentina a military run state.  In its effort to hold power, the military government waged war on many of its citizens that it considered to have dissenting opinions and essentially people all around the country and from all walks of life began simply disappearing.    

These weren’t people that were necessarily militant, though some were, but also included actors, writers, and generally anyone who was expressing opinions that did not align with the military regime.  Today, sadly most of the ‘Dissappeared’ are still missing.  Some have returned home, some were found dead, but in total Argentina is a country still reeling from the impact of the tyrannical government they lived through in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. 

Disappeared Banner
Remember, Justice, Not Forgotten

Aside from the families still looking for information on their missing loved ones, there’s also the tragedy that involved the children of the missing.  It is clear that young children of the disappeared were not killed but were offered out for adoption often to members of the military.  Many children adopted during this time have learned in later life that their parents were among the missing and they had been adopted by members of the regime that took them from their families. 

What Was the Protest About?

In 1977 the mothers of people that were missing began meeting in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Pink House every Thursday and marching around the square.  At the time they did not believe their loved ones to be dead and only wanted information about their whereabouts and crimes.  Unfortunately these women were met with a stern hand from the military government with some being detained and tortured and others being thrown out of planes into the sea while still alive (the same fate that met many of the disappeared).  More than 35 years later, these women, known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, have grown into a large group and many still march the Plaza every Thursday in hopes that one day they will learn what happened to their sons and daughters. 

Mother's protesting the disappearance of their children

The day I happened through the Plaza marked the yearly protest of these horrible events that are still clouded with little information.  There have been, and continue to be, legal proceedings and trials trying to learn more information and to bring the remaining living members of the previous regime to justice.

Protesting the 30,000 Disappeared in Buenos Aires, Argentina 

As I started to hear the story and talk to locals, some of which were wearing signs with the faces of their family members that were either found or that are still missing, I was overcome with the tragedy of it all.  Needless to say I nixed my plans for the day and found a spot at a café on the street.  The street seemed to be a never ending stream of people with banners, signs, flags who were singing and dancing their way towards the plaza.  Three or four hours in I realy got a a glimpse of the extent of the people impacted.  Not only were there probably more than 100,000 people participating but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo led the march of a banner that pictured each of the victims. 30,000 faces do not go by quickly so it really set in what that number meant. 

In the company of locals at the café as well as another traveler I learned more than I could stomach about the atrocities these people were subjected to and was overcome by the emotion of the people around me.  While nowhere near the same scale, it was sort of like learning about the Holocaust for the first time.  Just unimaginable that events like these could have occurred. 

I wanted to share the experience and some pictures of the day to do my part to create awareness about this tragedy but also because this was one of the most moving experiences I have had in my travels.  I’m always surprised by what I discover along the way but it’s very moving to be a part of the culture and to see and feel the emotion of the people. 

30,000 Disappeared in Photos

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