Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos
“The space for memory and human rights”
Ex ESMA (Naval School of Mechanics)
My visit to the “museum” began as I entered the building. Faces of the victims fill the windows and glass walls that welcome you to the Officials House, a former site of both the Argentine Naval School of Mechanics and, beginning in 1977, one of the more than 600 clandestine detention centers the military dictatorship created as concentration, torture and extermination centers during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship from 1976-1983.
Fifteen buildings occupy the 42-acre property renamed the Space for Memory and Human Rights, known as ex ESMA. ESMA was the Spanish abbreviation for the former base of operations and living space for the officials who worked in this detention center, one of more than 600 detention centers located throughout Argentina. No wonder our bus driver corrected me when I indicated we wanted to exit the bus at ESMA. “EX ESMA?” he asked. “Si.” The space it formerly occupied no longer exists. It is undoubtedly EX ESMA now. I stand corrected.
So far I have visited four of the fifteen buildings so far: the “Casino de Oficiales”; the Casa por la Identidad; 30,000 Compañeros Presentes, and the Harold Conti Cultural Center.
Throughout the site appear various photographic, story panels that show some of those who were disappeared, telling the story of their short lives. Each records the dates of their entries into and disappearances from the ESMA detention center.
Hand-painted portraits of political activists from those years through today appear on the exterior walls of some buildings, like this one of Milagro Sala, a political organizer in NW Argentina who was imprisoned in January 2016 for her beliefs and work on behalf of the people who live in the Tupac Amaru community.
Other buildings on the 42-acre property are vacant, some are being used for educational, artistic, research, film, music, theatre photography, workshops, guided visits for schools, seminars and debates, programs for young children and many educational and cultural events—a place where the power of art is transformative! In the following posts, I write about visiting three other buildings/exhibits on the property: the Harold Conti Cultural Center; 30,000 Compañeros Presente; and the Casa de la Identidad.
In the actual detention and torture center, the former Casino de Oficiales, I toured the building with a Spanish-speaking guide. I wandered alone throughout the rest of the buildings and around the property itself. Except for 2 or 3 text explanations in English all of the text panels and printed materials are exclusively available in Spanish. And while it is true that a photograph is worth a thousand words, the words of those who survived this horrible place with its horrible activities, it is especially poignant to read from their memories. It is possible to arrange for a tour of this space and the property in general—in English, but I didn’t do so. With English speakers, however, I recommend an English-speaking guide so you don’t miss the moving testimonies of the survivors.
Much of what is known and spoke about in this space is based on survivors’ testimonies and various historical documents. Large video screens display interview excerpts with many survivors. The building, now empty, except for the display panels and multiple video screens it is stark and quiet. But not always. Not then. Then the torturers blared rock music throughout the detention center, though it rarely muffled the sounds emanating from the rooms where the detainees were kept. As if loud hard rock music could block out the screams from the men and women being questioned and tortured, while the capucho or hood blocked their faces from their captors and from each other.
The building tour took us to the military and prisoners’ housing spaces, bathroom, torture centers, and birthing center. Yes, this was where pregnant prisoners “dieron luz”, that is, where the women gave birth to their babies, and then lost their own lives as well as their newborns’. This space and its macabre reality struck me as very very powerful, and left me more than ready for the beautiful testimonies to the families of the disappeared children I saw on display in the Casa de la Identidad.
INSIDE THE DETENTION CENTER
The principal space where the prisoners were kept was known as the “Capucha” (literally, the hood). Each small cubicle had a bed on the floor. Those detained had their hands and feet tied and each wore a hood or silk mask that covered their faces/eyes. Prisoners here weren’t known by their names, but by their numbers.
Some prisoners remained here for hours, days, or months, while others were kept here for years. Every Wednesday the guards would call a group of prisoners by their numbers. They were made to form a line and descend two flights of stairs down to the basement where they would be “transferred.”
The basement was used for torturing and eliminating victims It was the first place where those abducted were taken to and gathered to be killed. Torture was the main activity of the center. Prisoners were taken their after arriveal, where they were interrogated. Officers wanted information from them aboth other political activisits. Also located here was the Infirmary where prisoners were kept alive after their torture and where the military gave prisoners sedatives for their “traslado” once it was determined that they would die. Here, wrote Alberto Girondo, “Torture happened practically every day and when I was in the infirmary I could hear perfectly well the screams of those being tortured, in spite of the music played to ‘cover up’ their screams and the voices of the torturers who also screamed very loudly to demand information from the prisoners.
The euphemism for death. “Traslado” (transfers) was what the military called the disappearance of those imprisoned here. Their prinicipal method of exterminating prisoners here consisted in rounding them up alive, drugging, stripping and dropping them from airplanes into the sea or the Rio de la Plata. This method was later known as the “death squad.”
Pieza de las Embarazadas
The registries show that more than 30 pregnant women were sent to ESMA, even though it is believed that the number is actually larger. A number of the children born here would be returned to their families (after 1983) thanks to the work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. These women did and continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the children of those disappeared.
After the mothers were separated from their newborn children, their jailers would make them write a letter with the child’s details. They assured the mothers that they would get these letters to the families where their children would be sent. But it wasn’t so. A few days after giving birth most of the women were assassinated and their babies given away. There is only one exception to this. The son of Elizabeth Patricia Marcuzzo, who she named Sebastian, born on APRIL 15, 1978, is the ONLY child who was ever reunited with his biological family, in part because his mother Elizabeth’s letter actually did reach Sebastian’s new family.
A small photo appears in an exhibit focusing on the perpetrators of the crimes against the people. It shows the official Héctor Febrés, in charge of the clandestine efforts that took place here, where more than 30 children were given away. Febrés, the only one implicated during the first trial of those responsible died in his cell after taking cyanide pills only a few hours after being sentenced, in December of 2007.
It was in the bathrooms that those abducted by the Navy Intelligence Service were able to communicate with one another. If not actually speak, at least they could look at one another in the mirrors of those bathrooms. As a result, survivors identified many of the disappeared and their testimonies were part of the main evidence provided in the court trials afterwards.
The last stop on our tour was a long, rectangular room with floor to ceiling windows separated by cement columns. It was completely empty, except for the 16 slide projectors overhead that projected onto all the walls photographs and histories of the military officials responsible for the disappeared at ESMA during these painful years. How moved I was to reach the end of this horrific slide show, to read the word Condenados and see the sentences meted out by Argentine courts to the torturers. Then. And now.
Continue on to read Part Two: Espacio de Memoria y Derechos Humanos, Casa de la Identidad.