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Esma, the hell of the Argentine dictatorship which has become a “healing” place of memory

The Naval Mechanics School (Esma) in Buenos Aires, listed on Tuesday as a UNESCO world heritage site, is the most infamous detention and torture center of the Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983).

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Esma, the hell of the Argentine dictatorship which has become a “healing” place of memory

The Naval Mechanics School (Esma) in Buenos Aires, listed on Tuesday as a UNESCO world heritage site, is the most infamous detention and torture center of the Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983). This hell transformed into a place of memory has become a poignant witness prohibiting forgetting or denial.

The “Esma”. Four letters that everyone immediately identifies in Argentina, and which refer to the darkest period of the country, the military dictatorship which left in its bloody wake 30,000 killed or missing, according to the estimate of human rights organizations. Around 5,000 of them passed through this “CCD”, another famous acronym, an abbreviation of “clandestine detention center” as Argentina had hundreds of them, of various sizes and “yield”. Most often integrated -hidden- in a base, a military or police site, but also in civilian buildings, factories, houses...

Esma was the most “active”, is the best known. Here we tortured, beat, raped, we kept detainees handcuffed for many months, their heads covered with a hood. In the hope of seeing them denounce other “subversives”. Young pregnant inmates were given birth, whose babies were given to “friendly” families. And every week – generally on Wednesdays – detainees were taken out and told they would be “transferred” to another camp. In reality, it was a drop at sea from an airplane off the coast of the Rio de La Plata, called the “Flights of Death”. The inmates, anesthetized but alive, disappeared forever.

The horror of Esma is matched only by the sweetness of its setting, a vast park planted with cypresses, cedars and ash trees, in a 16-hectare complex in Nunez, a peaceful suburb of Buenos Aires. A complex where hundreds of soldiers came and went every day, including civilians, a stone's throw from the "Officers' Mess", an elegant three-story "U" pavilion dating from 1928, slightly aside, where the 'hell. Only the bare rooms remain, but nothing is missing from the emotion that grips the visitor. In the vast hall, hundreds of photos of the deceased, whose youth stares into your eyes, are displayed on the wall.

Walking through the basement, the place of torture, is the tiny “birthing” room, the third floor and the attic, called “Capucha” and “Capuchita” (small hood), where the detainees were cloistered, each in a storage room with mattress. “I came back 32 years later. I asked the museum guides to leave me alone in “Capuchita”, where I stayed from 1978 to 1980,” Eduardo Giardino, one of those who escaped from Esma, told AFP. “I felt the need to lie down on the ground again, to relive that, but from another space. Since freedom.

Also readArgentina: 10 officers sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed under the dictatorship

Cruel too, the thought of the environment of Esma, an island of terror in the middle of the city, where the detainees could hear the noises of the street, the horns, the school bells, the clamors at the Monumental Stadium - including in the middle of World Cup in 1978 -, 2 km. “Telling myself “I am here, but everything continues outside” was a great lesson in politics...,” muses Eduardo Giardino, 68 years old.

To UNESCO, Argentina pleaded the “universal” value of Esma, a place where “a crime against humanity was committed”, and “indisputable proof of state terrorism which inflicted violent criminal to society as a whole.

Because oblivion, at least erasure, threatened Esma. Carlos Menem, the president (Peronist, liberal) who in 1989-90 had decreed highly controversial amnesties for crimes under the dictatorship, wanted in 1998 to demolish the “Mess” to build “a monument to reconciliation and national unity ". An outcry and legal appeals from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo as well as the families of the disappeared prevented him from doing so.

In 2004, his successor Nestor Kirchner (Peronist, left) under whom the amnesties had just been repealed, announced the transformation of Esma into a Museum of Memory. Soon the dictatorship's trials would reopen, with 1,159 convicted to date and 366 proceedings still underway. Every year some 150,000 people visit the museum, including schoolchildren, Argentinians and tourists. Once a month, an ex-inmate intervenes during the guided tour, a calm and precise witness, without anger.

In the audience, we hold our breath. “To have survived Esma is to be lucky and to bear witness is essential,” said Ricardo Coquet, 70, an ex-inmate who underlines to AFP the importance of heritage registration. Because “the building is also a witness, which speaks. Going through it hurts, but also heals because it makes it impossible to distort history.”

Also read: A torture center of the Argentine dictatorship listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO's decision "gives goosebumps, for the history of the country, of each family", Paloma Martinez, a 21-year-old student who was visiting Esma, was moved by AFP on Tuesday. “It’s a part of our identity. I am what I am because of what my parents, my grandmother, taught me, because of history.”

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