‘82 Falklands Conflict Left a Legacy of Tragedy, Hope
The landing craft came ashore on a beach of white sand and turquoise water, a solitary spot where Patrick Watts and his friends chased away the penguins and raced motorcycles in their youth.
On that April morning, it was thousands of Argentine teenagers who spilled onto the beach. They were chicos from the pampas on the adventure of their lives, a tragicomic little war that would change Argentina forever and leave scars that linger, a generation later, on these remote islands in the South Atlantic.
The beach at Yorke Bay is closed today, as are many beaches, hillsides and meadows here. The treeless moonscape of the Falklands is dotted with more than 100 abandoned minefields, each a no man’s land since the Argentines invaded the islands 20 years ago this Tuesday.
The scars also run deep in Buenos Aires, where thousands of veterans live as broken men. Some sell trinkets on buses and trains, hit hard by their nation’s economic hard times. A powerful stigma haunts many of the 13,000 Argentine survivors of the war.
“Here it says I’m a hero,” Raul Barrera, 39, said in the Argentine capital, holding his veteran’s identification card, which he sometimes flashes at skeptical commuters. “But when you go to look for work, they find out you’re a veteran and they think you’re mentally ill.”
Six out of 10 Argentine veterans are out of work or underemployed, according to an advocacy group. About 300 have killed themselves, including one spectacular 1999 case of a war survivor who threw himself from the top of a 250-foot-tall patriotic monument.
The emotional toll is not confined to the losing side. In Britain, the number of Falklands veterans who have committed suicide since the war--264--outnumbers the British deaths in the battle.
In Argentina, the loss of the 1982 war helped usher in the collapse of a military government and a return to democracy. But today that democracy is in peril as the unemployment rate soars to 25%. After a Southern Hemisphere summer of upheaval in which five men rotated through the presidency, there are wild rumors of a military coup--vehemently denied by the armed forces.
These troubles make people nervous in the Falklands, which are located about 250 miles off Argentina’s southern coast. Disputed by Britain and Argentina since the latter’s independence nearly two centuries ago, the Falklands--called the Malvinas by Argentines, the name they also gave to the war--have been occupied by Britons since 1833.
The war, started by Argentine President Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri in a desperate attempt to stay in power, cost the lives of 655 Argentines, 252 British soldiers and three civilians.
During the brief Argentine occupation, the same generals who “disappeared” tens of thousands of their citizens in a “dirty war” against dissent in the late 1970s and early ‘80s imposed a less violent, but still authoritarian, rule on the 2,000 British subjects who live here.
“My mother never recovered from the war,” said Watts, 57, a third-generation Falklander. “She had her house broken into [by Argentine troops]. She had jewelry stolen, and she lost all her cattle--either they were killed by the Argentines or they stepped on mines.”
Before the invasion, Watts was courting an Argentine woman. As a young man he used to travel to Buenos Aires to enjoy the vibrant life of that city.
His love affair with Argentina ended the morning of April 2, 1982. He was at the microphone of Falklands Radio, broadcasting news of the invasion when an Argentine soldier burst into the studio.
Listeners across the islands heard Watts utter these words shortly before going off the air: “One moment . . . Wait there. No, no, I won’t do anything until you take that gun off my back.”
Away from the battlefields, far from the rusting skeletons of downed helicopters and from the shelters Argentine soldiers built haphazardly out of rocks, the Falklands are islands of desolate beauty, a terrain reminiscent of the strange, barren landscapes in which dreams unfold.
“You go out there now and it’s so peaceful,” said Sheila McPhee, who owns a sheep farm that faces the beach on San Carlos Bay, where about 5,000 British troops began landing May 21, 1982, to take back the islands. “On a day like today, it’s hard to believe the war ever happened.”
Before the war, Falkland farmers like McPhee were leaving the islands in droves. A worldwide drop in wool prices had hit farmers hard, leading many to emigrate to New Zealand and Australia. The British empire had been divesting itself of colonies for decades and, in the face of international pressure, was nudging the islanders to accept the inevitability of Argentine sovereignty.
“Everything in the Falklands has changed since the conflict,” said Terence McPhee, Sheila’s husband. “We’ve never had it so good.”
Sheep raising still doesn’t make much money, but most of the islands’ residents benefit from the Falklands’ lucrative fishing licenses, a product of increased autonomy from London since the war.
In addition, the British government has invested millions in the islands in the last two decades, building badly needed roads. The Falklands are now synonymous with British patriotism and any talk of Argentine sovereignty is a political poison pill in the United Kingdom. There is a new army base and airstrip on East Falkland island, manned by a large contingent of British soldiers.
Certain corners of the Falklands have the feel of a military operation in progress, as if the war never ended. Fighter jets routinely fly low over Stanley harbor. Strands of barbed wire mark tracts of land where ubiquitous red signs warn: “DANGER, MINES.”
The Argentines planted most of the mines. Nearly all are plastic, making them difficult to detect. When several British soldiers were injured in mine clearance work in the days after the war, the army decided to leave about 18,000 mines buried in the sand and soil.
The minefields are only the most menacing legacy of a conflict that remains seared in the memory of Falklanders. People here have always retained the outlook and disposition of an isolated British rural village. For them, the Argentine occupation was an unwanted encounter with an alien culture.
Terry Peck, a 64-year-old former police officer, remembers being stunned by the sight of Argentine armored vehicles heading toward Stanley, the capital. “I felt a numb, cold feeling.”
The Argentines imposed a chaotic and arbitrary form of rule. They tried to force Spanish instruction in the schools. They made people drive on the right-hand side of the road, which struck Gerald Cheek, a local aviation official, as absurd.
Cheek was at the wheel of his car with his family one morning in Stanley when he found himself in a standoff with an Argentine army truck--they were going in opposite directions, but on the same side of the road.
“I got very angry. I said, ‘I’m in my country! I’m on the left side of the road and I’m not moving!’ ”
Later, Cheek was interrogated by an Argentine intelligence officer who told him menacingly: “You’re not behaving yourself.”
Military police soon arrived at his home to take him away. “My family thought I was being disappeared to Argentina,” Cheek said. Instead, he was placed under house arrest in a remote corner of the islands.
Afraid he would be arrested too, Peck set off for the hills. “I felt safer sleeping under the stars,” he said. He became a one-man guerrilla army, sabotaging air strips and taking notes on Argentine positions. When British troops landed, he joined them as a guide.
In Stanley, meanwhile, the situation quickly deteriorated. In the curfew-darkened town, panicky Argentine troops often opened fire on each other or on wandering dogs and cats.
The war only served to strengthen the Falklanders’ sense that they had a unique cultural identity apart from Argentina, which continues to assert its claim.
Jan Cheek, a member of the Falklands’ Legislative Council and Gerald Cheek’s sister-in-law, is mystified as to why anyone would join the two. “You look at our way of life here, and what’s going on in Argentina, and you say, ‘What’s the point?’ ”
Many residents retain a sense of Argentina as a country in disarray, an image reinforced by their memories of the final hours of the occupation--groups of hungry soldiers roaming the streets of Stanley, begging for food.
Oscar Ismael Poltronieri is a slight, wiry man who was raised on a farm outside Buenos Aires. He can neither read nor write. But he is one of the most decorated Argentine heroes of the war.
Poltronieri is one of a handful of men, and the only private, to win the Cross of the Argentine People for Heroic Combat, the army’s highest battlefield honor. Standing alone on a mountaintop with a machine gun, he twice held off British soldiers and allowed his comrades to withdraw.
“What’s been my reward?” he said, repeating a reporter’s question. “Well, they say I owe $35,000 on the house [the city government] gave me.” Only the down payment was free, and now if he doesn’t make the payments, “they’re going to evict me in two months.”
Poltronieri recounts his story inside the Buenos Aires offices of the House of the War Veterans, an anachronism of patriotic fervor, where the glory of the war is preserved in a photograph that depicts an Argentine marine taking several British soldiers prisoner.
“It was a sad experience, because we went there to win,” said Juan B. Mendicino, president of the veterans’ house. “We gave our lives. And for what? To let them take something that was ours.”
The veterans earn a pension of about $125 a month. Laws passed after the war grant them priority for government jobs, medical services and subsidized housing, but are rarely followed.
There is widespread agreement that veterans suffer from high levels of mental illness and homelessness.
“The situation in which they are living is absolutely humiliating,” said Maria Alejandra Lopez, a volunteer psychologist at the veterans’ house. “They’re stigmatized as being aggressive and dangerous.”
“There are some veterans who are still living in a situation of permanent horror,” Lopez said. “And there are many more who feel guilty for not having won the war. What they feel, above all, is a break with their innocence.”
The overwhelming majority of Argentine soldiers were teenagers, most of them from towns in impoverished provinces. In 1982, they set off for the Falklands from an Argentina united behind the war.
But veterans recount stories of wartime privation, of rations that never arrived. Carlos Nunez, a 39-year-old veteran, recalls the desertion of two commanding officers.
“When we finally surrendered, I was happy for two reasons,” he said. “First, because we didn’t have a jefe. And second, because we didn’t have any food or ammunition.”
“The war we made wasn’t worth anything,” said Poltronieri, unemployed and a father of four. “If we had won it or lost it we would still be in the same position. But if I had to go, I would go again. I would go for all the things I left behind. I left my brothers there. And I would go back for them.”
Many of the Argentines’ war dead are buried in an austere cemetery near the Falklands settlement of Darwin. The Argentine and Falklands governments have bickered about the cemetery, with the islanders denying requests to build a large memorial at the site.
Finally, the two sides reached agreement last month on a more modest memorial.
In Buenos Aires there are many signs that suggest the war was never lost. Daily weather reports still list the forecast for Puerto Argentino, the name Argentina gave to Stanley. April 2 is a national holiday: Malvinas Day.
Each year veterans march by torchlight at midnight on Malvinas Day to a memorial in central Buenos Aires. They gather first at the veterans’ house, where a small wooden box holds a precious keepsake: a fistful of Falklands soil.
Janet Stobart in The Times’ London Bureau contributed to this report.