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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 08:29 GMT
Argentina: Coming to terms with the past
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. File photo
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo now say they are being heard

No-one seems quite sure why this anniversary is different.

But somehow the days leading up to 24 March 2006 - 30 years since the military came to power in Argentina - have captured the public attention like no other.

Books have been written, plays performed and debates conducted. There are art exhibitions all over the country, plaques are being unveiled to commemorate the victims.

Thousands will run in ten and three kilometre races on Sunday in memory of Miguel Sanchez, himself a runner and just one of the 30,000 killed during military rule between 1976 and 1983.

Daniel Acosta was a young art student in the city of La Plata when in 1977 agents working for the state abducted him, a hood over his head. He spent the next five years in prison and was often tortured. He was labelled a subversive.

He drew while in prison to help come to terms with a situation that made no sense. Some of those works are on display at the Recoleta Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires as part of an exhibition to mark the anniversary.

Newspaper cuttings, telling stories of bomb attacks, dead bodies found on the street and political turmoil, line the walls. One painting is of the waters of the River Plate where bodies, some still alive, were dumped from military planes.

Daniel Acosta
People are leaving behind the fear
Artist Daniel Acosta

Another is a study of the Ford Falcon, an Argentine-made car that has become a symbol of the repression since it was these vehicles, with darkened windows and licence plates removed, that were used to abduct victims in the middle of the night.

One of Daniel Acosta's works - of two shoes left behind when agents came to collect him in the night - has the word "Censored" stamped in one corner.

He says that this anniversary feels different from previous ones because the victims and Argentine society have put some distance between themselves and the horror of the military rule.

"People are leaving behind the fear," he says. "We can have a calmer look at the subject. That doesn't mean forgetting or pardoning but more justice and more truth."

'Hard to believe'

The book, Nunca Mas - Never Again, a report by Argentina's National Commission on Disappeared People, was first published in 1984, just a year after the return to democracy.

It is a study of repression, detailing who was kidnapped, how they were taken and the torture they suffered.

Sculpture of the Ford Falcon at the Recoleta Culture Centre in Buenos Aires
The Ford Falcon is seen by many as a symbol of the repression

It begins with the words: "Many of the events described in this report will be hard to believe. This is because the men and women of our nation have only heard of such horror in reports from distant places."

That book is being re-published to mark the anniversary with new testimonies and new information that has come to light as investigators and victims' families continue trying to understand the nightmare that befell what they thought was a modern, civilised country.

The report focuses on more than 9,000 victims - the disappeared - people who were taken in the night and their bodies never found. Human rights investigators say the true figure is closer to 30,000.

Alongside, not against

The most prominent of those who refused to give up the search for justice are the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

When no-one would listen to them, they marched, silently outside the government palace in Buenos Aires every Thursday afternoon, demanding to know what happened to their sons and daughters.

They march to this day. They have in the past suffered death threats and constant abuse.

Exhibition on Argentina's military coup at the Recoleta Culture Centre in Buenos Aires
Daniel Acosta's art has helped him come to terms with his abduction

While their work continues, they find themselves now operating in a very different environment, alongside the government of President Nestor Kirchner, rather than against it.

They recently stopped their annual 24-hour march of resistance, designed to get the authorities to listen to their demands, because they said they were being heard.

The Mothers were the catalyst for other groups such as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They search for the children who were taken as babies from prisoners and given for adoption to military or police couples. Those babies' mothers were usually killed.

The Grandmothers have found more than 80 such children so far and their work also continues.

After the return to democracy in 1983, some of the perpetrators of some of those crimes were tried and sentenced.

But subsequently the governments of, firstly, Raul Alfonsin and then Carlos Menem pardoned the military leaders responsible for the terror. They talked about moving on, putting the past behind them.

But the Argentine people have not done that. A recent campaign in the continued fight for justice is the "escrache" - a popular denunciation of alleged human rights violators.

Last week, several thousand people turned up outside the apartment block where the former military leader, Jorge Rafael Videla, lives. They shouted "murderer" and threw red paint at the building.

He may never be brought to justice but the protesters are determined that his retirement, at the very least, will not be a comfortable one.

National holiday

As well as the continuing search for justice, this has also been a time to remember the dead.

It is only democracy which can save a people from horror on this scale
Writer Ernesto Sabato

A plaque has been unveiled in the Plaza San Martin, in the centre of Buenos Aires, naming the victims from Argentina's religious communities. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims joined together to sing the national anthem and then heard the names of the victims read out.

The Argentine military are firmly back in their barracks and some, humbled by the shame of the repression, have apologised for their actions in those dark years.

After a debate in Congress last week, 24 March was declared a national holiday.

It will not be a celebration but a day of reflection.

In his prologue to the report Nunca Mas, the Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato said: "It is only democracy which can save a people from horror on this scale."

"Only with democracy, will we be certain that Never Again will events such as these, which have made Argentina so sadly infamous throughout the world, be repeated in our nation."

Argentina is still a nation coming to terms with its past. But with each anniversary of the military coming to power, the confidence that it will not return to that nightmare is growing.

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