Last week I participated in a tour of Buenos Aires’ former Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), one of Argentina’s numerous illegal detention centers during the Dirty War of 1976-83. A symbol of the military dictatorship’s campaign against undesirable elements of the population, the ESMA alone witnessed the imprisonment and torture of an estimated 5,000 such elements, with the subsequent disappearance of most of these often a result of the fact that they had been injected with tranquilizers and dropped from airplanes into the river. As for other disappeared items, the tour guide noted that the ESMA complex had not been converted into a museum until 2004, giving the military ample time to dispose of evidence.
My tour group was composed mainly of Argentines but also included three female visitors from Germany—who departed once the guide had explained that the point of the visit was not to look at torture devices—and a middle-aged Italian couple, the male half of which was named Claudio. In addition to learning Claudio’s name and a list of relatives he had in Argentina, the group also acquired other pertinent details such as that it had taken him two hours to reach the museum from his place of accommodation and that prior to his Argentine sojourn he had completed a tour of Nazi concentration camps in Europe. One of Claudio’s main concerns was why the Argentines had succumbed to fascist domination, a concern that was expressed in the same tone of admonition I had become acquainted with at breakfast time in Italy when the contents of my bowl prompted Italian companions to inform me that the only proper human breakfast consisted of coffee; they generally refrained, however, from also denying that Benito Mussolini was a significant part of Italian history.
As for Claudio’s tour of camps erected by Italy’s choice of wartime allies, this was again brought up outside the cramped room at the ESMA where women who were more than 7 months pregnant had been kept prior to giving birth—at which point they were disappeared and their offspring were appropriated by military officials and other members of the elite. Women who were less than 7 months pregnant had enjoyed the same treatment as the other prisoners, which generally involved being chained to cots in an attic room with bags over their heads and limited opportunities to use the bathroom; Claudio nonetheless found it fitting to respond to the tour guide’s request for questions with a long-winded aside on how the ESMA was “nothing” compared to Dachau.
The guide eventually abandoned his attempts to interrupt and Claudio eventually came up with something that did qualify as a question, which was why appropriated babies were not killed instead. He did not explain whether such a practice might have rendered the ESMA less of a nothing, or why it was necessary to assign ratings to human suffering.