No Exit

Jeri Laber is a founder of Human Rights Watch and its senior advisor

More than 20 years have passed since the 1976 military coup that launched Argentina's "dirty war." Twenty thousand to 30,000 people perished under four successive juntas before Argentina, broken by the ill-considered Falklands War, returned in 1983 to civilian government under President Raul Alfonsin. Early attempts at truth-telling and prosecuting abusers were undermined by military pressure on Alfonsin, who passed laws absolving all officers below a certain rank and setting February 1987 as the final date for all trials related to the "dirty war." President Carlos Menem, who assumed office in 1989, capitulated still further by pardoning all senior military officers convicted or facing trial, including the convicted top commanders.

In Argentina today, former torture victims may find themselves sitting opposite their torturers on the subway or pass them walking down a city street. Most relatives of the "disappeared"--more than 9,000 cases have been documented--still do not know exactly what was done to their loved ones or by whom, and the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue their weekly vigils. Those who speak out on abuses of the past are subjected to threats and intimidation or even worse: Adolfo Scilingo, a retired navy captain who confessed publicly in 1995 to having pushed 30 drugged, naked people out of airplanes over the Atlantic, was silenced by two years in prison on false charges of writing bad checks. Then, after his release, he was attacked by four men who warned him to stop talking to the press about the "disappeared" and the initials of three prominent reporters were carved into his cheeks and forehead.

Marguerite Feitlowitz's "A Lexicon of Terror" may be seen as part of an ongoing movement for justice both within and outside Argentina. (Earlier this month, for example, General Jorge Rafael Videla, a junta leader who had been previously pardoned, was detained on charges of stealing children and arranging illegal adoptions during the "dirty war.") Feitlowitz, who teaches in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University and spent more than six years in Argentina conducting research for this book, is not a dispassionate observer. She interviewed her subjects--mainly survivors and the families of victims--many times, seeking to know not just what happened but exactly how it felt, emotionally, physically and psychologically. The testimonies are powerful, sometimes profound and unsparingly candid.

Feitlowitz discusses the language of oppression (the "lexicon" of her title) but wisely abandons this topic after the first chapter. That tyrants use Orwellian speech to cloak their heinous practices, that torturers use abusive and degrading labels to deny the humanity of their victims, is not new or unique to Argentina, and there is only so much one can say on the subject, although Argentina does have the distinction of adding desaparecidos--the "disappeared"--to the vocabulary, turning a simple verb into a noun with horrifying implications, as well as trasladar to describe the transfer of prisoners chosen "to fly." Feitlowitz makes the telling point that the language of the "dirty war" has been incorporated into current Argentine slang--for example, "stop already with the machine," a reference to the instruments of torture, means "don't bother me"--and thus that the experience of the camps has been internalized by the society as a whole and cannot be erased by government fiat.

Many of the victims she describes were heartbreakingly young, youths who were deemed terrorists for doing nothing more than working among the poor or joining leftist causes. A young woman identified as Alicia G., for example, abducted when she was 16, was the youngest child in a close-knit family and had "the open gaze of someone who knew she was cherished." Surviving prisoners remember her "radiance," which affected even the guards, who gave her special privileges like allowing her to read aloud to blindfolded prisoners. Then, one day, they took her away and shot her. Graciela Mellibovsky, who "wanted to change the world," worked with the poor in the shantytowns ever since high school; then, one day, she disappeared. For her mother, who doesn't know how she died, there is no peace. "After fourteen years," she told Feitlowitz, "every day I feel more desperate. There's no anesthesia for this pain, no scarring over. They say time heals--but no. . . . Time doesn't heal, it makes you crazy."

One of the most remarkable of Feitlowitz's witnesses is a physicist, Mario Cesar Villani, who spent four years in five clandestine camps and survived to become a key witness at the trials of the ex-commanders. Villani not only identified 93 torturers, doctors, kidnappers, extortionists and guards but also brought extraordinary intelligence and insight to his conversations with Feitlowitz, which make up one chapter of the book. He describes, for example, the various methods that enabled him to survive, including an understanding of his torturer as "a man like me." "It helped me to get along with them," he recalls, to "inhabit myself." He describes how he spent hours alone, blindfolded, in his cell, working out complicated physics problems in his head. "Certain neurotic aspects of my personality saved me," Mario confesses. "They were immensely useful."

Feitlowitz also devotes a chapter to the under-reported kidnappings and killings of tobacco farm workers in the remote northeastern province of Corrientes who were persecuted for organizing Agrarian Leagues.

"A Lexicon of Terror" raises questions about human depravity that are deeply disturbing. Victims describe their torturers: the one who went home each day at noon to make lunch for his mother before returning to work; the one called Blood who brought his young daughter to the camp to meet his favorite victim ("You've heard so much about each other, I wanted you to meet"); and the one called Julian the Turk, "an animal," who wore a big swastika on his watch chain and loved opera (between torture sessions, he shared tapes of his favorite operas with one of his victims).

The victims also describe Jorge Antonio Berges, an obstetrician with a private practice who taught at the medical school; his other "job" was torturing pregnant prisoners and selling their babies on the black market. Scilingo, wracked with guilt for having shoved 30 people from a plane, went to confession only to be absolved by a priest who, supporting the official line, assured him that the death flights were a "Christian form of death."

Feitlowitz is critical of those who pretended not to see. She is especially hard on the Jewish community leaders who downplayed the problem, despite the fact that a significantly disproportionate number of the "disappeared" were Jews. She asks witnesses and bystanders why they did not speak out, citing, as an example, the case of Susana Barros, who was kidnapped on a public bus during evening rush hour. Soldiers in civilian dress boarded the bus, grabbed her by her long hair and pulled her off the bus, shoving her into a waiting car. They met with no protest from the driver or other passengers, except for one woman who softly murmured, "Not by the hair." Susana, who was eventually released, remembered those words and the silence, and Feitlowitz ventures that Susana was already stripped, blindfolded and being tortured with an electric prod while the passengers were completing their silent ride home.

Although "A Lexicon of Terror" is dense, curiously organized and written in a style that is often polemical and preachy, it carried me deep into the inferno, breaking through the self-protective defenses that I have developed over two decades of human rights work in which I read and hear many testimonies of torture and killings. In part this is because of the author's passionate involvement with the people she describes; in part it comes from her descriptions of the particularly grotesque practice of "disappearing" people, which denies to those who remain even the bitter relief of knowing what happened to their loved ones. Feitlowitz has made a deeply upsetting and important contribution to a still unfinished process in Argentina: the process of coming to terms with the past.

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