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Last Updated: Friday, 1 April 2005, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Argentina's forgotten war vets

By Elliott Gotkine
BBC South America Correspondent, Buenos Aires

An ambulance speeds through the streets of Buenos Aires in the dead of night. It is carrying a comatose man to hospital.

He is not a victim of violence or an accident. He is a Falklands war veteran who tried to commit suicide.

Argentine war veterans marking the 20th anniversary of the Falklands conflict on 2 April 2, 2002, in Ushuaia, 2,100 miles south of Buenos Aires
Falklands veterans say their needs have been ignored
These are scenes from the new film called Enlightened by Fire. It is a work of fiction, but in Argentina, it is a sadly familiar story.

The film's creator, Edgardo Esteban, was just 19 when he was sent to war.

He was part of a 12,000-strong force sent to recapture the Falklands.

Argentina has claimed these islands - which it calls The Malvinas - ever since Britain established a presence there in 1833.

But Argentina had not fought in a war for over a century.

Ill-equipped and inexperienced, its invasion on 2 April 1982 was doomed from the start. Within 10 weeks, Argentina surrendered.

For ex-combatants like Mr Esteban, this was when many of their problems began.

Stunned nation

Like the characters in his film, when he came home he suffered from depression.

Others experienced post-traumatic stress, including flashbacks, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. Few received any treatment.

Nestor Kruzich
I tried to kill myself in whatever way I could. Luckily, my family managed to stop me
Nestor Kruzich
Falklands veteran
British veterans suffered too. But at least they had won the war.

In Argentina, there was no victory homecoming for the troops and, with the economy in ruins, there was no money to help them.

They were expected to win, and their failure had left a nation stunned.

"People didn't want to be a part of that defeat," says Mr Esteban. "They wanted to forget the political failure of invading the Malvinas, so they didn't want to talk about it.

"The dictatorship fell. And the first democratic government that followed had other priorities. So the issue was swept under the carpet."

Around 650 Argentines were killed in the Falklands war.

Their names are all etched into a black, marble memorial in downtown Buenos Aires. An orange flame burns alongside it, and two guards stand to attention in honour of the country's fallen soldiers.

Argentina's Falklands veterans wish that they had been treated with similar respect.

Hundreds of suicides

Dozens of them meet every week in a village hall just outside the capital.

Some are professional, middle-class types. Others are unemployed and unqualified.

Not only have we increased their pensions by 130%, we've provided them with healthcare and help in getting loans and solving mortgage problems
Anibal Fernandez
Interior Minister

One man in a purple polo shirt is partly-paralysed down his right side, a victim of post-traumatic stress.

All of these ex-combatants feel they have been neglected by society and state. Yet these are the lucky ones.

Many of their former comrades found it impossible to cope with life after the war. And since the end of the conflict, more than 300 of them have committed suicide.

Nestor Kruzich nearly became one of them on three occasions. "I tried to kill myself in whatever way I could," he says, his voice so despondent that I had to strain to understand him.

"Luckily, my family managed to stop me. But there are friends of mine who couldn't be stopped and they killed themselves. The sad thing is that it didn't do any good: no one took any notice, no one learned a lesson, and it's still happening today."

Angered at being ignored for so long, dozens of veterans spent weeks last year camped opposite the presidential palace.

They are demanding better pensions, healthcare and compensation for two decades of neglect.

The government has since agreed to nearly everything.

Changing status

"Not only have we increased their pensions by 130%," Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez told the BBC, "We've provided them with healthcare and help in getting loans and solving mortgage problems. What's more, we guarantee that soon, 100% of all veterans will have their own home."

More money and guaranteed housing should make life easier for Argentina's ex-combatants.

Port Stanley skyline
War veterans on both sides suffered following the conflict

But psychiatrist Enrique de Rosa, a leading expert on post-traumatic stress, says that for the veterans suffering psychological problems it may be too late.

"Twenty-three years have passed," he says. "You have to work during the first one or two years. And then if things don't change... every time, every day that passes things get more and more difficult. You get people with more drugs, alcohol, suicide, and that you cannot change."

But the veterans' predicament was never just about the demons in their heads.

It was about the way they were stigmatised and marginalised by society.

Thanks to the government's measures and films like Enlightened by Fire, this is finally beginning to change.


SEE ALSO
Regions and territories: Falkland Islands
30 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Argentina
11 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
The battle over the Falklands
23 Dec 98 |  UK News

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