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Andrew Graham-Yooll obituary

Andrew Graham-Yooll obituary

Journalist who reported on Argentina’s ‘Missing’ during the brutal military dictatorship

As a small white Fiat tailed Andrew Graham-Yooll in the streets of Buenos Aires in Argentina he would yell into the night: “One bullet will do, gentlemen!”

While news editor in the 1970s of the Buenos Aires Herald, Graham-Yooll received frequent death threats for his bold front-page reports on the “Missing” —the 30,000 Argentinians kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured during the country’s military dictatorship.

Their “Process of National Re-Organisation” targeted any Argentinian known or suspected of being a communist. Attending university was sometimes sufficient grounds to be categorised as “a subversive element”. “These people are dirt, best forgotten,” a police officer once told the inquisitive, bearded Graham-Yooll as he tried to investigate.

Daily he added names to the newspaper’s list of “desaparecidos”, whose desperate families streamed into the first-floor office of the English-language Herald. Founded in 1876, and known as “El Diarito”, or “the little daily”, under the editorship of Bob Cox, a Londoner, the Herald was the only newspaper in Argentina to report on the Missing. Upon receiving an official ban on publishing their names, the Herald splashed the note on its front page.

As defence lawyers also began to “vanish”, Cox and Graham-Yooll penned writs for habeas corpus, keen to help however possible. This was not always feasible. Graham-Yooll once returned to an endangered woman with the money for her escape, only to discover that in his absence she had been murdered.

Yet some of the Missing were liberated, as Reuters, among other big news agencies, followed up the Herald’s reports. The less fortunate were drugged after torture, their bodies thrown out of helicopters into the River Plate. “Of course we were afraid,” Graham-Yooll would later say. “But it’s one thing to be afraid and another thing to be a coward.” The Herald news desk supped for Dutch courage a local brandy, supplemented with a pâté that Graham-Yooll made of goose livers lashed with gin. A chain-smoker, he would construct tiny houses from matchsticks.

He had reason to be nervous. Long after his interrogation by the police —in a station where the screams of tortured prisoners were audible beneath a radio on full-blast —Graham-Yooll learnt he had narrowly escaped death. “The order was to give you a one-way ticket [to the mortuary],” a policeman disclosed.

Even his friends were dangerous. Sharing a whisky with Graham-Yooll, a “political” friend mentioned that he had once ordered the placing of a bomb in the journalist’s desk drawer —between his spare tie and dictionaries. Another “acquaintance” casually asked: “How would you like to be kidnapped?” Terrified yet intrigued, Graham-Yooll agreed: his subsequent report told of meeting the head of the People’s Revolutionary Army, a qualified accountant.

Some adventures were too risky to print. Only in exile would Graham-Yooll reveal that he had agreed, during a guerrilla press conference, to a request for two journalists to volunteer to escort the kidnapped businessman Jorge Born to freedom.

Once liberated, Graham-Yooll found himself unable to quiz Born —for whom a ransom of $60 million had been demanded —about his captivity. Instead, as he later recorded: “We chatted like three men stuck in a prolonged bus queue.” This account of Born’s release was translated into Spanish by an Argentine magazine. When Mario Firmenich, the leader of the Montonero guerrillas who had kidnapped Born, was arrested, Graham-Yooll was summoned to Firmenich’s trial as a star witness.

By then, he had settled in Britain, having fled Argentina with his family in September 1976 on an Air France flight paid for by Amnesty International.

In London Graham-Yooll was initially disorientated. He once leapt to the ground on hearing a noise like gunshots. It was a car backfiring. Adjusting, he began to jot down his memories.A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare(1986) was the acclaimed result. One chapter recorded taking tea with a torturer.

Andrew Michael Graham-Yooll was born in 1944 to an English mother, Ines (née Tovar), who died when he was six, and Douglas, a Scot and farmer, who once shot at Andrew between the legs with a revolver to teach the ten-year-old boy a lesson for mishandling a pistol.

As a child Andrew attended an English school in Buenos Aires. Later he was briefly in a young offenders institute, until rescued by an uncle and then educated in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which he adored. Andrew grew up bilingual, speaking English with a light Scots lilt, and Spanish in the accent of Buenos Aires.

At 22, after a stint as a meatpacker and teaching English, he joined the Buenos Aires Herald, mustard-keen to be a reporter. Already he had a sprawling social network, observing in alarm that school chums were being recruited “in equal numbers” by right-wing gangs and guerrilla movements. “To my further shock, I could not disown them.” Tantalising titbits, heard over drinks or dinner, were catnip to his derring-do.

Eventually he was put on trial for reporting on guerrilla press conferences. The judge, acquitting him, advised Graham-Yooll to leave Argentina with his wife, Micaela (née Meyer), an architect whose Jewish parents had fled Nazi Germany, and their children. Inès is a French and Spanish teacher, Luis is a photojournalist for CNN, while Isabel is a specialist on whisky. To a teenage Luis, Graham-Yooll’s advice was “never get a tattoo in case you are wanted by the police”.

They decided to settle in London after an Argentine friend revealed he had been asked under torture about both Graham-Yoolls. Micaela, who had contracted polio as a child, was suspected of orchestrating a bank raid.

To Micaela’s misgiving, Andrew returned to Buenos Aires in 1982 to report on the Falklands conflict for The Guardian. One night a Falcon van —the vehicle of choice for the Argentine security forces —approached him in the street. One of the occupants yelled: “We know who you are, son of a bitch.” The subsequent kicking was so severe that Graham-Yooll’s kidneys were permanently impaired. He owed his survival to a wealthy couple from a neighbouring hotel who came to his aid.

In Britain, after sub-editing for The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, he edited the Third World periodical South. In 1989 he became the editor of the magazine Index on Censorship. The self-deprecating Graham-Yooll never mentioned his valour in Argentina. The focus was always the task at hand, whether publishing transcripts in English of KGB interrogations, or the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s future hit play Death and the Maiden.

A prolific writer, Graham-Yooll produced some 30 books in English and Spanish, including poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and The Forgotten Colony,a history of the Anglo-Argentine community. He enjoyed “a good ole yarn”, preferably spun over a glass of Argentine malbec, and seasoned with his Santaesque “ho-ho” chuckle. Speaking Spanish, he displayed emotion contrasting with his English restraint and wept at the tango anthems of Carlos Gardel.Missing Buenos Aires, he returned in 1994 to become editor of the Herald and the president of the newspaper’s board. Eight years later he was appointed OBE. By then he had divorced Micaela, who would predecease him, and with his partner, Gladys, had adopted a baby boy, Matias.

In 2007 he resigned from the Herald, which closed in 2017. Graham-Yooll then became a columnist for its successor, the Buenos Aires Times. This devoted its 100th issue to Graham-Yooll, who died in London soon after arriving for his granddaughter’s wedding. A fortnight earlier he had married Maria Niero.

While in London last July he was due to give the annual Jorge Luis Borges lecture at the residence of the Argentine ambassador. Instead, his daughter Inès delivered the talk: a potted history ofthe Buenos Aires Herald titled “Pâté, brandy and bomb threats”.

Andrew Graham-Yooll, writer and journalist, was born on January 5, 1944. He died of a heart attack on July 6, 2019, aged 75.

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