BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Nelida Montoya is tormented by the image of a faraway tomb on a lonely hillside in the South Atlantic, where instead of the name of her son, a gravestone reads “Argentine soldier known only to God.”
Horacio Echave was only 19 when he died in the Falkland Islands on the last day of fighting against British forces, a war that ended the Argentines’ 74-day occupation of the archipelago they claim as their “Islas Malvinas.” His body is one of 123 that couldn’t be identified before they were reburied in the Argentine military cemetery near Darwin, a settlement hours from the capital of Stanley where many soldiers on both sides fell in close combat 30 years ago.
“They went there with a name and now they’re just so many unknowns. Why?” said Montoya, 69. “I want my son to have his name.”
Montoya is part of a group of families who want desperately to send Argentine scientists to the islands to identify their war dead, even as other families resist the idea. Montoya’s group reached out to British musician Roger Waters, who delivered their appeal to President Cristina Fernandez in March between concerts in Buenos Aires. She quickly took on their cause, describing it as a matter of universal human rights, and asked for help from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been studying whether to intervene.
The trouble is, some relatives of the fallen are appalled at any plan to unearth the bodies for their DNA and seek matches among survivors.
“I don’t agree with this appeal. I have already mourned,” said Delmira Hasenclever de Cao, president of a commission of families of dead soldiers. “The wound was closed 30 years ago.”
“We want each and every family to be consulted to see what their opinion is,” de Cao added. “One family’s opinion cannot be imposed upon another’s. Everyone has the same right to decide what they will do.”
Montoya’s group wants the work done by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, an independent group of scientists who developed their expertise identifying victims of the 1976-1983 military junta and have since helped unravel human rights atrocities on four continents.
The Red Cross has begun interviewing families of “unknown” soldiers to better understand their concerns. Some want their loved ones’ bodies back home. Others fear that once identified, they’ll be removed from the land they gave their lives to recover for Argentina. Still others worry that the process will be awful to see or even think about, causing them more grief and pain.
The governments in Buenos Aires and Stanley will have to deal with each other if the effort goes any farther, bridging a political gulf as wide as the frigid Argentine Sea that separates the islands from the South American mainland. The Argentines consider the islands an illegal British colony, refusing to recognize the self-governing democracy islanders established after the war.
Falkland Islands Government spokesman Darren Christie said the Red Cross has not formally approached officials there about identifying the buried soldiers.
“The official line is that if and when we receive some sort of formal contact, we will consider it very carefully,” Christie said.
The war ended on June 14, 1982, but most Argentine bodies were left untouched on the battlefield or in temporary graves through the long southern winter. Britain tried for months to send them to Buenos Aires, but the military junta said they were already in their homeland. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher finally agreed to build an Argentine cemetery, and Geoffrey Cardozo, a young British Army captain, was ordered to recover and rebury the dead in January 1983.
Cardozo assembled a team of British funeral directors that rappelled into minefields from helicopters and dug up mass graves to recover the Argentine corpses, carefully preparing each one for reburial in individual coffins. It was gruesome but important work, and Cardozo, who retired recently as a colonel, remains proud of it. In all, 649 Argentines and 255 British soldiers died in the war. All but 14 of the British war dead whose bodies could be recovered were taken home.
“These poor Argentines were to be gathered together and given a proper burial in exactly the same way as we would give our people a proper burial,” Cardozo recalled. “I personally examined every single body. I was the ultimate authority in saying `this man is identified, or unidentified.'”
“All the British were easily identified and were buried immediately, or in effect buried at sea, within their ships,” he added. “We were left with the awful problem of Argentine bodies spread all over, either a few inches under the ground, or in the snow, up in the rocks or crevasses where they died, literally just out in the elements.”
In most cases, identifications were impossible.
The Argentines had been ill-prepared for the war, and weren’t given durable identification tags. Captured Argentines who might have identified comrades months earlier had been quickly sent home. The British had no Argentine military records to compare the bodies to, let alone dental records or other forensic information.
“Quite often we found communal graves and we had to very carefully get the bodies out one by one,” Cardozo said. “And every single body that was taken out was laid on a plastic sheet, undressed with great care in case they had grenades or ammunition that might explode on them, and sometimes there were grenades there. That was a constant concern.”
Still, Cardozo said he did everything he could to keep them from being buried anonymously.
“If I found a letter in a pocket which had a name on it, which I believed could very well have been addressed to them, because it was open, then maybe, I might have decided to say that must be the guy,” he said.
“I had foremost in my mind their mothers, their sisters, their brothers or fathers. How can you put a guy away having not made the maximum effort?”
Two more years passed before the Argentine military sent Montoya an official letter informing her that Horacio had been killed in the hours before British forces declared victory on June 14, 1982.
Years after that, she was able to visit the cemetery.
“I was hoping I would be able to find his name, but no,” she said, sobbing as she recalled how she finally settled on one of the unknown soldier’s graves, and tried to mourn there.
Televised images of British soldiers being lowered into a temporary battlefield grave during the fighting were so upsetting to viewers back home that for the first time in British military history, most of the dead soldiers were brought back immediately after the war and reburied at home, Cardozo said. All the soldiers in the small British military cemetery in the islands were identified.
Surviving Argentine soldiers also were horrified at having to hastily bury their dead in common graves before they were shipped home in defeat. Some veterans worry that the remains of their comrades are still jumbled together today, and that the neat rows of white crosses and dark gray tombstones in the Darwin cemetery are just there for show.
That nightmarish fear is one reason why some Argentine families oppose the identification effort. Meticulous British records show that no one was left in a common grave, and Cardozo insists that he personally made sure every soldier was reburied with dignity.
“There are so many myths. It’s horrific that someone thinks there’s nothing under the crosses. It’s horrendous. For me, who spent months looking after these soldiers, it hurts. And it must hurt these poor Argentine families even more.”
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