Malvinas war veterans have their night of glory in Argentina | International
The icy wind cuts the face like broken glass. In the city of Río Grande, province of Tierra del Fuego, a stone’s throw from Antarctica, the cold freezes the hands and dries the skin of the face. Río Grande is just over 500 kilometers west of the Malvinas Islands and almost 3,000 kilometers south of Buenos Aires. The same wind that punishes this city of 100,000 inhabitants was merciless with the Argentine soldiers who, since April 2, 1982, had been waiting for the British counterattack, hidden for days in damp trenches. They were poorly fed, with wet feet on the peat and without proper clothing. You have to be in Río Grande to imagine what that must have been like.
“There were trench feet, gangrenous, and many soldiers had to be cut off. They sent boys from Corrientes and Chaco (north), used to living with 40 degrees”, recalls Héctor Raúl Moyano. In 1982, Moyano was 23 years old and was a second electrician on board the ship San Antonio. On April 2 he participated in the Argentine landing in the Malvinas. “That’s why the last one to surrender on the islands was BIM 5, the Marine battalion that is here, because they were used to the cold,” he says.
40 years ago the war crossed the lives of the 12,000 people who then lived in Rio Grande. By closeness and by spirit. The town became a city around BIM 5, which since 1947 served as a police station, hospital and grocery store. And also from the naval air base that is close to the civil airport. From there came the four Super Etendards that harassed the British ships. The Exocet, the French-made anti-ship missiles that killed the destroyer HMS Sheffield in May 1982, were kept and operated in its sheds. There is no other city in Argentina where the Malvinas cause goes as deep as in Río Grande. And the vigil has been a sample of them.
At minute zero on April 2 the siren sounded. Thus began the official ceremony in honor of veterans. Before there was a mock landing, with boats reaching the coast and soldiers firing blank bullets. The objective was a wooden box located on a hill, similar to the one occupied by the British governor of the islands. The ex-combatants watched the show on a platform with their backs to the sea.
The vigil is the most important event of the year in Rio Grande, bringing together thousands of people. There was applause and the anthem was sung, but also claims. Former soldier Sergio Marroco spoke on behalf of his companions. Before the Minister of Defense, Jorge Taiana, he called for more attention to veterans and, above all, an official history of the Malvinas war. The memory of the war today is a scattered mosaic of personal stories and political conveniences.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
In a tent on the beach, the War Veterans Center exhibits since March 24 weapons, uniforms and photos of the war. For almost a month thousands of students from the city’s schools have passed through there. While they fight the cold with a hot chocolate, they listen to some veteran who tells them about Malvinas. “We try to keep the flame alive,” says Alberto Ante, boat skipper during the landing in Malvinas. “Like that burning pan over there,” he adds, pointing to a metal drum, one of those used to transport fuel, from which the flames come out.
The drum is today a symbol. Twenty-seven years ago, a group of Malvinas veterans decided to wait on April 2 on the beach, facing the sea where many of their companions had died. The drum loaded with burning logs was the weapon against the cold, and a similar one burns every year as a symbol of those first encounters. This Friday, five veterans warmed their hands on it, while discussing who had the right to consider themselves a Malvinas ex-combatant. Forty years after the war, many of those who set foot on the islands feel more entitled than those who participated from the rear, either on the mainland or aboard the ships that transported weapons and food. Moyano says out loud that the “boys” who fought in the trenches are “the true heroes of Malvinas”, and triggered the discussion. Those “guys” were mostly from the Army, and in Río Grande they are mostly from the Navy and the Air Force.
The veterans roam among the people, with their medals on their chest or a cap of the group they represent. Others dress in civilian clothes, and even seem to hide. There is Martin Vargas. Like his companions, he was 19 years old when the war broke out and will soon be 60. The war found him aboard the cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by British missiles on May 4, 1982. 323 soldiers drowned that day in the Atlantic, almost half of the 649 casualties suffered by Argentina during the war. “I am castaway from the Belgrano,” Vargas introduces himself. And he says that he was saved for five minutes.
“I was lucky to be on the main deck at the moment of impact. Those who left the watch at four in the afternoon and went down to the cabins all died. The attack was at five minutes past four,” he recalls. “Of the 20 who arrived on the ship as friends, four of us were saved.” Then it was 45 hours adrift in the life rafts. “Because of sea currents we were heading towards Antarctica. We withstand waves of ten meters and temperatures of 12 degrees below zero. We peed and vomited on each other to keep us warm. We had no food. There one becomes more of a believer than ever,” she recalls.
Vargas spent two post-war years in the Navy and became a diver. It was a vital necessity, he says, because when he stepped ashore after the shipwreck he made a promise to himself. “I wanted to visit my comrades from the Belgrano at the bottom of the sea, but when I found out that I was at 4,000 meters I knew I couldn’t do it,” he laments. Vargas was not reunited with the Belgrano, but he was a diver for the rest of his life. At 60, he still hooks up the hoses of oil rigs operating in the Atlantic underwater. He says that helps him get over his tragedy: “I have an obligation to remember them and give them an offering. Every time I dive I feel like I’m with my teammates”.
Subscribe here to newsletter of EL PAÍS America and receive all the informative keys of the current situation in the region.