Torture, Hunger and Anti-Semitism in the Falklands War
Argentine military officers brutalized their own troops and singled out Jewish soldiers for abuse
Argentine officers tortured scores of their own soldiers during the Falklands War, documents from the Argentine armed forces reveal.
Starving and freezing, men sworn to fight for their nation’s territory, as they believed it to be, were physically and psychologically abused by their own superiors when they left searching for food or because of their faith.
On Sept. 9, Minister of Defense Agustin Rossi met with members of the National Committee of Veterans of the Malvinas — or CECIM in Spanish — handing over more than 700 documents and statements detailing abuses during the war, including the then-military dictatorship’s attempt to cover up the crimes.
For nearly a decade, CECIM and veterans have called for investigations into the abuses and sued the alleged perpetrators with little legal success.
The documents, reviewed by the defense ministry’s human rights department, provide evidence to the claims of tortured veterans. Their release comes after Pres. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced in April that documents from the war would be declassified.
For 10 weeks in 1982, Argentina and the United Kingdom fought over a group of small islands in the South Atlantic, which the Argentines called las Malvinas and the British call the Falklands. Argentina’s military dictatorship invaded the islands on April 2, provoking Britain to mobilize a task force. The Argentine garrison capitulated in June.
However, for many Argentine soldiers, their worst experiences happened within their own units.
CECIM provided War Is Boring with two documents that detail some of what happened during the conflict and its aftermath. The group’s president, Ernesto Alonso, said CECIM could not release the rest of the documents because of ongoing legal cases. The first document lists several abuses soldiers endured.
One soldier was tied “face down on the wet sand of the beach from 0900 to 1700 hours,” the document stated. The same soldier accused an officer of kicking him on the testicles to the point in which he needed surgery. Among the documents released are hundreds of accounts from returning soldiers, detailing abuses later hidden by the military dictatorship.
Silvio Katz fought during the Falklands War and was one of the first veterans to come forward and reveal his abuse. On many occasions, he recounted having his legs and arms spread and staked to the ground while his commanding officer ordered the other men to urinate on him.
“On May 1 hostilities started and also started, for me, the worst part of the war,” Katz told War Is Boring. During this time, Second Lt. Eduardo Flores Ardoino singled Katz out because of his Jewish faith and tortured him, Katz recalled.
Katz was 19 years old when he arrived on the Falklands on April 11. Suddenly, he was in a war zone with inadequate supplies. Despite the freezing winds of the South Atlantic, soldiers wore uniforms better suited for warmer climates. The military only provided “an extra lightweight jacket and two pairs of socks to fight in a war where it was 20 degrees below freezing.”
Food was scarce, and Katz corroborated other soldiers’ tales of food shortages.
Only those in the town ate daily. “We were more than 10 kilometers [around six miles] away from the kitchens,” he explained. “Food rarely reached us and, if it did, we got cold soup with a few vegetables. Not enough to fight in such a hostile climate.”
Soldiers had two options — leave their posts and head to the nearest town for food or hunt nearby livestock. If caught, the troops risked their superiors’ punishment, being “staked” to the ground and having their food taken away.
However, officers tended to single out Jewish soldiers for some of the worst abuse. Katz recorded his religion on military registration forms after being drafted. On Sundays, while Catholic troops attended Mass, Jewish troops cleaned the unit’s toilets, Katz recounted.
He and Hernán Dobry, a journalist and author, explained that anti-Semitic officers distinguished Jewish troops because of the documents and their names.
In his book The Rabbis of the Malvinas: The Argentine Jewish Community, the War of the South Atlantic and anti-Semitism, Dobry details the history of anti-Semitism in the Argentine military dating back to 1937, when it started requesting officers to name their faith. Since then, officers espousing nationalist, right-wing Catholicism gained greater influence within the military.
“At the time military service was mandatory, it wasn’t something one chose, and those of Jewish faith were classified from the start,” Katz said.
He could not tell anyone of his torment, nor could others, since no one could call home, making “our otherness greater.” Dobry added that the military only permitted Catholic priests to accompany the troops. Jewish troops had no chaplains to turn to.
Soldiers were only allowed four letters home and they told little — if anything — of their torment. “It was believed the letters we wrote were read by the Argentine intelligence service, that’s what was said, so we didn’t talk about the government or our superiors,” Katz said. “We wrote in fear and said everything was fine, as if it were a vacation.”
However, the soldiers endured countless abuses at the hands of their officers. Katz has previously recalled having his arms and legs placed in freezing water and being forced to eat food with excrement. Other soldiers suffered similar treatment.
Dobry, in his book and in an article for Argentine newspaper Perfil, describes other abuses. Argentine soldier Sigrid Roberto Kogan, who is Jewish, and his friend Omar Morales were caught going to town to buy food. Their commanding officer, Lt. Ricardo Ferrer, called for his boxing gloves and proceed to beat Kogan. Morales, a Catholic, only received a slap on the wrist.
“Before he beat the shit out of me, he called the whole company to watch my abuse,” Kogan told Dobry. “He didn’t want to set an example to show what would happen to those who misbehaved or left their posts; he wanted to show what he was doing to the Jew.”
Lower- and middle-ranking officers committed many of the tortures. However, Katz labeled the higher-ups as accomplices, “because they knew what was happening and turned their heads from the abuse.”
“I tell you they were accomplices,” Katz continued. “Because they never stopped an incident of torture or ordered a starving kid to be fed. They never sided in favor [of an abused soldier], but covered for each other, making their common cause.”
The second document War Is Boring received supports the theory that senior military officers covered up what happened.
Dated Dec. 30, 1982, a document labeled “Secret” shows Lt. Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, then commander in chief of the Argentine army, instructing another general to conceal abuses during the war, after the Evaluation Committee of South Atlantic Conflict, also known as the Rattenbach Report, revealed abuses at the hands of officers.
“In the cases that it be shown that there are violations of the applicable resolution they will not surpass the disciplinary sphere, within the guidelines of moderation, bearing in mind caution, so as to avoid its knowledge on the external front and preserve the tranquility of the home front,” the instructions stated.
Other officers asked soldiers not to divulge what happened in the islands, documents released to Telam newspaper revealed.
In a document dated June 1982, Col. Mario Davico asked returning soldiers “to not be reckless in their judgements and assessments, not be swayed by rumors or alarming news,” and urged that “all must remember to perpetuate the heroic way in which our soldiers gave their lives for our national sovereignty.”
Now almost 30 year later, the documents have come to light and a case before an international court. “There will be many more cases that will have to be added to the cause” because of the newly released documents, Alonso said.
Since 2007, CECIM brought to light cases of soldiers’ torture at the hand of superiors. One such case, involving retired officer Jorge Eduardo Taranto, made it to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Taranto and more than 80 other retired officers are accused of committed human rights abuses during the war. Lower courts had ruled that what happened to the troops were human rights abuses and no statute of limitations applied as such.
However, Taranto argued otherwise and appealed to a court of cassation, which ruled in his favor in 2009. The court ruled human rights abuses were not committed and the statute of limitations had expired. The supreme court rejected an appeal, letting the previous court’s ruling stand.
Alonso explained that only Taranto’s case has been appealed to the IACHR, and the other cases remain in the Argentine legal system. However, the release of the documents has opened new doors for the soldiers and their advocates.
“A veil has been lifted that will greatly contribute to justice,” Alonso said in September, according to a press release.
For Katz, the release of the documents is a great relief, and means “we will be able to confront our oppressors,” which he described as healing.
“It is a unique experience for us to be heard by Argentine justice, which has truly been deaf to our cause, ruling our case expired because it wasn’t a crime against human rights even though when I was 19 they tortured me and made eat excrement,” Katz said.
Those tortured say they search for truth, justice and remembrance.
“It is time for justice to be made, to know the truth,” he said. “Until today, it has been 33 years of suffering and now it’s someone else’s turn … They now have to prove their innocence just like I had to prove they were guilty.”
Even though the IACHR does not follow a timetable, Katz remains hopeful justice will prevail. The father of two sons, his family has endured his bad temper the torture caused. “But, as this comes to light, I was able to free myself of the pain and be a better father and husband,” Katz said. He wants to leave a legacy to show “that justice exists.”
“The state is recognizing what occurred with genuine documentation open to all,” Defense Minister Rossi said. However, the IACHR could still rule against the veterans.
But Katz said “if justice sides with [Taranto],” he would return his medal and stop cashing his pension. “I can’t have the same benefits as the person who tortured me,” he said. “If I am a hero because I fought in the Malvinas, he isn’t. And if he is a hero, I am not. There has to be a difference.”