A woman taps me on the shoulder and asks me to help her find a chair. “I want to be in front of him until they take me back to the plane.”
For a few timeless minutes, silence is the main protagonist of a frozen scene on a sunny morning. Even the wind – that ancestral force whose sovereignty over these islands has never been disputed – dies down for a while in respect for the 214 relatives who, after all this time, are finally standing in Darwin Cemetery, in front of a tombstone bearing the names of their loved ones.
It’s 9.10am on Monday, 26 March, 2018. We’ve arrived from the mainland without any luggage, except our hopes and fears for a visit that will last only a few hours.
Everything is at a standstill. Time has stopped. A hush descends. Mothers begin to converse in barely audible murmurs with their lost sons. Brothers touch, for the very first time, the tombstone of their hero slain in combat 36 years ago; an elderly man on his knees stares, the infinite remembering of his own infinite grief; a mother and her daughter, with their hands intertwined, caress a cross standing over a grave; another woman, wrinkled by the years and her pain, stands in front of the black granite plaque engraved with the name of her son. She bows her head and shuts her eyes. She is bringing him back.
Suddenly, the 248 people (apart from the families of Argentina’s South Atlantic war dead, there are journalists, officials and other accompanying persons present) who flew out to the islands from Ezeiza Airport in the early hours of the day, start jerking into motion. You hear a sob here, a prayer there, someone crying out for somebody who is no longer with us.
Then comes a prolonged lament from a woman. I don’t know who she is or from where that cutting, sharp sound comes from but it shakes us all back to the reality of that lonely cemetery at the world’s end. After those minutes of reverential silence, the grief is now in motion and starts to kick in.
Various islanders, those who have prepared everything for this historic reconciliation with loving detail, hover around the fringes of the cemetery. Reverend Mercer and Father John Wisdom, who respectively tend the Anglican and Catholic parishes on the islands, arrive. A little behind them comes Abbot Hugh, sent by the Vatican from those other isles, the British. They meet up with the suffragan bishop of Buenos Aires archdiocese, Monsignor Enrique Eguía. In a few minutes, the religious ceremony will begin.
A tiny dark-skinned woman taps me on the shoulder and asks me to help her find a chair. “I want to be in front of him (her fallen hero) until they take me back to the plane,” she tells me. I help her to place a bench in the back row overlooking the grave. She sits now in front of the tomb of her brother, and there she remains in silence until 11.30am, when it is time to return to Mount Pleasant military base. She is Norma Gómez di Moto, the sister of the fallen Celso Alegre of the Qom indigenous community. She left her native Chaco for the first time in her life to board the flight that carried her here.
Norma has come “to honour a pledge to my father,” she tells me. Never having been officially notified of his son’s death, Héctor, the father of Celso and Norma who only spoke in his native Qom, waited 35 years for his son’s return. Celso, a conscript, fell on May 28, 1982, in the battle of Goose Green near Darwin. Norma says that every Sunday his father Hector raised an Argentine flag, calling her brother home.
I don’t tell Norma that Goose Green battlefield is very close to where we are. Nor that if you climb the hill overhanging the rear of the cemetery, you will see the cottages of Goose Green set against the backdrop of the windswept landscape of the bay, fringed by a brilliantly blue sea. A bucolic picture, yes, but 47 Argentines perished in that postcard scenery back in 1982.
A few rows ahead Hugo Pascual and Rafael Cornejo, pilots of the Andes airline planes chartered to carry the 248-strong contingent to the islands, stop in front of the tombstones of two 1982 wartime comrades: naval lieutenants Carlos Benítez and Daniel Miguel. After 36 years these South Atlantic war veterans have met up again with their friends fallen in combat.
Retired colonel Geoffrey Cardozo approaches, and they all greet each other with emotion and respect. He is the “adopted father” of all the dead buried in Darwin. It was Cardozo, then a British Army captain, who gathered the bodies of the 231 combatants that had not been buried (“my kids” as he calls them) from the various battlefields, giving each one a place in Darwin Cemetery. That was in February, 1983.
None of us in Darwin today are there to recall the sounds of combat and the fury of war. We have come for a reunion. Carrying the memory of our heroes with the reconciliation of the future.
Circling the cemetery to the right, a Scottish Guards bagpiper arrives and stands by the huge white cross that presides over the cemetery. He inspires deeply. He inspires the air of 36 years. And there, in the midst of the heath of these islands that strain their irregular fiord borders towards the Antarctic, the bagpiper plays a “Lament,” followed by “Going Home.” Our souls shrink another twist with those tunes.
Minutes later, six soldiers of the Scottish Guards take up their positions by the black granite plaques engraved with the names of all the 649 Argentines who died during the South Atlantic war, paying them military honours. Then comes a religious ceremony. The win, jealous and almost anti-clerical, begins to roar through the microphones.
Geoffrey Cardozo and María Fernanda Araujo, the president of the Comisión de Familiares de Caídos en Malvinas, approach the giant white cross and place at its foot a floral wreath and a metal rose, made out of bullets and artillery shells from the war.
“We admired the courage of the Argentine soldiers during the conflict,” Brigadier Baz Bennett, the military commander on the islands, says afterwards as speaks to reporters. He is speaking just outside the cemetery, respecting the hallowed Argentine turf. “The families will always be welcome to visit their loved ones,” he adds.
We are already being advised that the countdown to our 11.30am departure has begun. From Darwin to Mount Pleasant base, a 40-minute bus ride awaits. It is a period used by each and every one of us to absorb and replay the overpowering and indelible memories left with us from the almost three hours we spent at Darwin Cemetery.
We leave behind its white crosses, its dark granite cenotaph and its gravel, the grass paths, the heather fence behind the big cross. We leave behind those touches of greenery that add a bit of life to that enclave of death.
We leave behind 90 tombs, which now bear a name. The mothers, the relatives, will no longer have to choose a gravestone at random where they can weep and remember their loved ones. The task, however, is not over. We also leave behind 31 bodies still awaiting identification, whose tombstones continue to read: “Argentine soldier known only to God.”
Most of all, as we depart Darwin Cemetery, we leave behind what was, until March 26, a non-place, a place lost in time, left in limbo. Today has been an overcoming of the past. The clumsy obstinacy of successive governments and the political exploitation of grief confined 231 of Argentines killed in the 1982 war buried in that cemetery, geographically isolated amid a lengthy period of denial. Thirty-six years on, it was about time we started the reconciliation.