Our Disappeared

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is the World. What happened in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 was called The Dirty War. But that's a euphemism. Here's another one, The Disappeared. That's a mild way to describe the thirty thousand people who were killed in Argentina during The Dirty War. One of them was Patricia Dixon. She disappeared in 1977. That same year, her friend, Juan Mandelbaum, left Argentina for the U.S. Tonight, his documentary about Patricia and his friends from those years, will begin to air on the public television series, Independent Lens. The film is called �Nuestros Disaparecidos�, �Our Disappeared�. Juan Mandelbaum, first of all, when we talk about those who were �Disappeared� in this context, who are we actually talking about?

JUAN MANDELBAUM: Well, these are mostly young activists, workers, students, people from all walks of life who were mostly on the Left and were seen by the military regime as dangerous and therefore they had to be not just captured and imprisoned, perhaps tried, none of that. They had to be eliminated because this was a time when there was this fear of Communism that you know, there would be another Cuban Latin America so the military operated under this doctrine of national security where there were no limits to what they were capable of doing.

WERMAN: And it was fairly limited in what the Junta was trying to do. They basically rounded people up, they questioned them, they tried to get more names and then what happened?

MANDELBAUM: Well, they would basically torture them, you know. And most people could not withstand the torture, would give names of the people that they were supposed to meet next to then the military would go to that next meeting and capture those people. Some people you know, would die under torture. The ones who survived were usually in very bad shape and then they would be eliminated by either being killed and thrown in mass graves or they had these infamous death flights where they would load them onto planes, strip them of their clothes and any identification and they would be drugged and then these planes would take off and fly over the river outside you know, Buenos Aires, go into the sea and throw them into the sea.

WERMAN: So this is an especially dark period in Argentina's history, in any history for that matter and yet you decided to throw yourself back into that dark period and find out what happened to this old girlfriend of yours.

MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it wasn't something I was planning on doing. I mean it was something that was obviously in the back of my mind all these years, how terrible it was but it was kind of distant and then one night I was just doing a Google search of this old girlfriend that I had had, a girl from the university when I was studying sociology, Patricia, and I see her name on a list of people who disappeared. Just the name and a date. I thought maybe it's somebody else and so I went back to Argentina, first just to find out and from there on, this amazing series of coincidences happened where I found her sister and her sister was almost like waiting for me to show up. You know, she quotes this St. Augustine who says that the dead are you know, invisible, not absent and that's the sense that I had throughout this that Patricia and the other people whose stories I tell, who were you know, people that I knew or the children of people that I knew, they were very present in some way and what was very beautiful is how they trusted me with their stories.

WERMAN: Now Argentina has had a long history of military coups and paramilitary violence, but what happened on March 24, 1976 which kind of led to the �Disappeared� was different. Let's listen to this clip from your documentary:

MANDELBAUM: The very same night as the coup, the Junta put into effect a secret plan to destroy all Leftist opposition forever. Jorge Chinete, my colleague from the summer camp, was among the first to disappear. Dragged from the school where he worked. Was his work organizing the teachers where there was a sentence of death. There were no charges. There was no trial.

WERMAN: So Juan Mandelbaum, your friend, Jorge Chinete, was a gym teacher, he was a counselor at this disadvantaged youth camp where you also worked, why would someone like him be a threat to the Junta?

MANDELBAUM: He had been a union organizer, trying to organize the teachers and that was enough, you know, in their eyes. Somebody who would be subversive and had to be taken out. So you know, many people were in that category. People who had a sense that we lived in an unfair society that had to be changed. What we didn't know at the time was that the military had lists and from that first night, they already started taking people away.

WERNER: Including one extraordinary shocking episode in which this woman, Mini Vinas, actually runs from the secret police at a zoo and abandons her baby. Tell that story, that's just amazing.

MANDELBAUM: Well Mini was another one of my colleagues in the summer camp and she had been deeply involved with the Montenedos which was one of these radical groups and she was at the zoo with her baby and sort of commiserating with other people about you know, their loved ones who had already been taken or killed and she sees the military coming towards her and at that moment, she drops her baby in the grass, Ynez was eight months old and walks towards her captors and she was never seen again. The baby was picked up by a Swiss couple who saw this happening and they were just visiting Buenos Aires. So they go to the police station and anyhow, this incredible saga begins at that moment that ends with her coming actually to the States as a little baby and growing up �

WERNER: This is Ynez?

MANDELBAUM: Yeah and growing up in Washington D.C. and it's been one of the joys to meet he and to be able to share this story.

WERNER: You said earlier that people you spoke with in Buenos Aires were incredibly open, almost like they were expecting you and wanting to tell this story. Do you feel The Dirty War in Argentina has been adequately processed in a kind of national dialogue there?

MANDELBAUM: No, not at all, not at all. I mean there are still people who think that what the military did was right. There are still people �

WERNER: Many of them?

MANDELBAUM: It's very hard to tell the numbers. I would say yes, there are many people and then there are people that weren't affected personally who just say well, this was long ago, like let's just move on because Argentina has one crisis after another. There's always some present crisis so people think that this, you can actually disregard it and move on and I don't think you can do that.

WERNER: Well how much do you think of all these crises that pop up in Argentina? How much do you think progress is being impaired by the lack of a proper discussion and dissection of The Dirty War and all these Disappeared?

MANDELBAUM: I think that it's going to haunt Argentina always. As it still haunts places like Spain today. They're still fighting about whether they should honor the mass graves from the civil war which ended in 1939 or you know, what happened in Armenia. I mean these things don't go away, the same way that the conflicts were involved with today in Iraq, in Afghanistan, you know, those are not going to go away. There are so many people who are suffering from that whose memories are still going to be present many years from now and so I think that it is really imperative that Argentina address this in a comprehensive way and unfortunately, they're still a very long ways to go you know, to get the people to justice and so there still is a deep division within the country and I think there's a legacy of violence that still affects Argentina today.

WERNER: Filmmaker Juan Mandelbaum. The document is �Our Disappeared.� It airs tonight on PBS. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

MANDELBAUM: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

WERNER: For more information about �Our Disappeared,� come to our website, THEWORLD.ORG.