Parque de la Memoria, Buenos Aires

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Memorial Park 08 - torture and disappearingA memorial on the edge of Buenos Aires that commemorates the "disappeared" in particular and the whole topic of Argentina's "Dirty War" during the military junta of 1976 to 1983 in general. 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: As many as 30,000 people fell victim to the brutal purges of the junta in that darkest of periods in 20th century Argentinean history. And that's "just" the death toll. Torture was rife too. And even abductions of babies born in prisons – taken from their mothers and given away to new "parents" in the military. Still today, only a small proportion of those "adopted" children, now grown up and in their 30s, have found out about their fate. One can only imagine the terrible shock it must be to find out that what you thought were your parents were actually the murderers of your real parents …
But those made to "disappear" completely, don't even have that option. In fact, the disappearing was typically done in a particularly cruel way of "disposal": the victims were drugged and tied up and flown by plane or helicopter over the estuary of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) and dropped into the waters, so that they'd be washed out into the ocean never to be found. (And only in a few cases did remains get washed up on the shores again – and a couple of them could even be identified – but the majority remain simply disappeared). The flights were usually announced as "transfers", as if to another prison or something, but now that their real purpose is known the macabre term "death flights" has become common.
It is a great irony that this strategy of making the tortured prisoners "disappear" was in part linked to the fact that human rights organizations like Amnesty International had gained so much influence – so that it was decided that it was more convenient for the junta not to "have" any political prisoners … i.e. simply to get rid of them altogether.
Torture frequently incorporated electric shocks, as well as standard practices still in use today (such as waterboarding) – all acquired through the good offices of the School of the Americas in the USA.
Almost cynically, the torture centres also had supervision by medical staff, doctors who would oversee the extent of the torture (it must have been apparent to the superiors that otherwise the torturers would routinely tend towards going "too far") and nurse the victims during recuperation periods – i.e. getting them ready and "fit" for the next round …
The similarities to Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile are obvious. Also in the economic sell-out that the regime undertook (so it meant good returns for the assistance from the US were achieved in terms of market shares and power for American corporations).
The war of the Falkland Islands, which was started by General Galtieri basically to divert attention from economic difficulties within Argentina, ended in defeat and humiliation of the military – which was thus eventually forced to step down. Since then, Argentina has been more or less democratic.
But the coming to terms with its "Dirty War" past, has been a slow and controversial process.
Exhumations in the 1980s brought to light the indisputable murder of many of the disappeared, but a full-scale investigation into the horrors remained more or less an opposition demand. Nearly 30 years after the end of the dictatorship, many perpetrators have still not been challenged, let alone been brought to justice. Many of the disappeared remain just that – unaccounted for and their identities erased.
The half-hearted admissions of guilt by the government, the continued campaigns of the Mothers of the Disappeared (Madres de Plaza de Mayo – see Buenos Aires) and human rights NGOs … it's all been a long drawn-out process full of controversy. But finally, this memorial was established in the capital city Buenos Aires, though the fact that it is in such a far-out location, well away from any tourism, still says a lot …
(cf. also the work-in-progress" ESMA).
What there is to see: The memorial park is a largely abstract affair. There is no informational commodification in the form of the customary memorial museum material – no information panels with texts and/or photos, no artefacts, no explanations of any sort. Instead, there are various sculptures and as the core of the whole complex a zigzagging Wall of Names, arranged by year of the victims' deaths. Here and there flowers poke out next to specific names. This is as concrete as it gets.
However, one type of installation is different in that it is quite telling, as long as you understand the symbolism. From the eastern end of the complex a string of signs – looking uncannily like traffic signs at a casual glance – follow the path that curves along the shoreline up to the northern apex of the wall-of-names-zigzag.
Some of the signs are explicit enough for anyone to understand what they mean (e.g. soldiers pointing guns at blindfolded prisoners), others require some understanding of the background details, e.g. abbreviations like AAA (for Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) or NN (used on unmarked graves of victims, whose names were deliberately withheld). Similarly, the sign giving distances to ESMA (2 km) and Olimpo (13 km) presuppose that you know that these were clandestine torture centres – just like the depiction of the high voltage sign is an allusion to torture methods employed there that you have to know about in order to get the significance of the sign.
One sign simply shows a soldier's steel helmet lying upside down and under it the year 1982 is given – clearly an allusion to the Falklands War. The involvement of the USA is also indicated through signs involving the Dollar symbol or the name of the School of the Americas in Spanish (Escuela de las Americas) set into a US highway sign.
The economic elements of the Dirty War and its outcome are represented by charts showing the enormous growth of foreign debt, or outlining the disproportionate rise of poverty since the 1970s (from once merely 10% below the poverty line in 1975 to over half the population in 2004). Subtly telling is also a sign which has icons for a telephone, a letter, a drop of water, and an electric light bulb with a banner saying "se vende" over it – indicating the selling out of public services to privatization (namely into foreign corporations' hands).
Particularly poignant is the sign for a plane, inside of which a smaller icon of a man with arms spread out to fit into the wings, which obviously is an allusion to the "death flights" from which sedated victims were dropped into the river to drown and be made to disappear.
The stylized image of a pregnant woman behind bars is a similarly grim allusion to the practice of not only detaining (and torturing) even pregnant women, but also of taking their babies away from them.
The aspect of public propaganda is picked up by a couple of signs too, including one involving the symbol of the 1978 football World Cup – which took place during one of the worst periods of the regime's reign of terror (see also under ESMA).
Simple as all this is as a strategy, I found that this row of symbolic signs worked to stunning effect. Very thought-provoking without being didactically explicit. You're just left to silently work it all out for yourself.
That said, unless your previous knowledge of the subject matter is already advanced and profound, you'd probably benefit greatly from having someone help you with the interpretation of the place, i.e. a guide – see under Buenos Aires!
There is supposed to be a kind of information centre at the park too – but I could only make out a small mobile container office, which was closed at the time of my visit (January 2012). And the centre under the memorial, so my guide informed me, does not contain any museum-like exhibition or so either, but the space is only occasionally used for memorial events.
In sum, then, the Parque de la Memoria is something for specialists, requiring either good previous knowledge of the issues or a good guide to bring it to life, as it were. Still, it is an unusual memorial site with some very well-designed elements, that make the long trek out here worth it.
Location: at Av. Costanera Norte Rafael Obligado 6745, next to the Ciudad Universitaria by the shores of the Rio de la Plata beyond the regional airport, a good six miles north-west of the Plaza de Mayo in the centre of Buenos Aires.
Google maps locator: [-34.542,-58.436]
Access and costs: far out and a bit tricky to get to, but free.
Details: The location is way off the usual tourist trails and far from the city centre, out of reach, too, of the metropolis's metro system. So unless you want to brave the adventure of trying to make it there by public bus, the best way of getting there as a foreigner will have to be a taxi; or, better still, as part of a longer organized tour – see under Buenos Aires.
Opening times: daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (+/- one hour at certain periods)
Admission free.
Time required: roughly between 30 and 45 minutes (plus travel time there and back!)
Combinations with other dark destinations: The ESMA, about a mile away to the north-west, would make for the most natural combination, both geographically and thematically – as this was the biggest and most significant of the detention/torture centres during the junta years, and has for a number of years now been undergoing massive development into a memorial complex.
For more see under Buenos Aires.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: none really, apart from the views over the endless waters of the Rio de la Plata estuary, or the nearby Parque Norte (a kind of theme-park-cum swimming-pool-complex). But this is not a touristy part of Buenos Aires by any stretch of the imagination. It's better to head straight back to the city centre.
  • Memorial Park 01 - it is expansive but emptyMemorial Park 01 - it is expansive but empty
  • Memorial Park 02 - not much information availableMemorial Park 02 - not much information available
  • Memorial Park 03 - focus on art insteadMemorial Park 03 - focus on art instead
  • Memorial Park 04 - more abstract artworkMemorial Park 04 - more abstract artwork
  • Memorial Park 05 - avenue of signsMemorial Park 05 - avenue of signs
  • Memorial Park 06 - US involvementMemorial Park 06 - US involvement
  • Memorial Park 07 - distancesMemorial Park 07 - distances
  • Memorial Park 08 - torture and disappearingMemorial Park 08 - torture and disappearing
  • Memorial Park 09 - poignant juxtapositionMemorial Park 09 - poignant juxtaposition
  • Memorial Park 10 - football is a good distractionMemorial Park 10 - football is a good distraction
  • Memorial Park 11 - subtle hint at the Falklands WarMemorial Park 11 - subtle hint at the Falklands War
  • Memorial Park 12 - the economic effectsMemorial Park 12 - the economic effects
  • Memorial Park 13 - sell-outMemorial Park 13 - sell-out
  • Memorial Park 14 - wall of namesMemorial Park 14 - wall of names
  • Memorial Park 15 - flowers of commemorationMemorial Park 15 - flowers of commemoration
  • Memorial Park 16 - from the topMemorial Park 16 - from the top
  • Memorial Park 17 - lone sculpture out in the Rio de la PlataMemorial Park 17 - lone sculpture out in the Rio de la Plata

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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