Joint operation to identify remains is testament to thawed relations between former foes
Darwin Cemetery, Falkland Islands
There were howls of grief as the families arrived at the Darwin Cemetery to mourn at the graves of their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers for the first time since they died in the Falklands war 36 years ago.
“Oh god! My son, where are you?” cried the first mother to enter the windswept graveyard, in which neat rows of 230 white crosses line the barren hills of the archipelago in the south Atlantic known as the Malvinas in Spanish. More than 200 relatives of victims of the 1982 conflict flew from Argentina on Monday to pay their respects at graves until recently marked simply: “An Argentine soldier known only to God.”
The UK and Argentine governments worked with the Red Cross to identify 90 bodies over the past year with the help of DNA samples from their families — a sign that the relationship between the two former foes has thawed since President Mauricio Macri took power in Buenos Aires two years ago.
“Although we did not agree at first, today was an exemplary day of union. Just as our brothers were one in battle, today it is our turn to unite,” said Maria Fernanda Araujo, the president of the commission representing the families of the dead, referring to the deep-rooted mistrust that had at first hindered the operation.
Most agree that the event could not have happened without the UK and Argentina putting aside past differences in the wake of Mr Macri’s election. It was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who requested the help of the Red Cross in 2012 after the issue was brought to her attention in a private meeting with rock star Roger Waters. But the former president maintained a belligerent stance over the Falklands right to the end of her presidency, hindering any reconciliation. She had sought Argentine sovereignty over the islands.
It was not until 2016 that an agreement was signed in Geneva to enable the identification of the dead, an operation complicated by the fact that many of the woefully ill-equipped Argentine soldiers were not even given identification tags. Some of the families also feared that the bodies of their loved ones might be exhumed and sent back to Argentina.
“They are not coming back to Argentina because they are already in Argentina . . . you can’t repatriate what is already at home,” Ms Araujo said after an emotionally charged ceremony on the islands some 300 miles off the coast of Patagonia.
Her point was driven home when some of the family members exclaimed during a group photograph at the end of the ceremony: “Long live the fatherland!” “This is about the application of international humanitarian law. It’s a very good example of what can be achieved when it is possible to isolate specific humanitarian tasks from all other aspects,” said Diego Rojas Coronel, who runs the Red Cross in Argentina. It was the first time two states have come to an agreement of this kind with the Red Cross, which has carried out extensive forensic work in recent years in the Balkans and the Middle East, he added.
“My boys are at last resting in peace,” said Geoffrey Cardozo, a colonel in the British army who was responsible for burying the Argentine dead after the war and was crucial to the operation to identify the corpses. “They are no longer orphans because they are in the hearts of their parents and brothers and sisters. It is a great relief.” “We’ve waited far too long for this moment,” said John Fowler, an editor at the local newspaper, Penguin News, as the Lament was played on the bagpipes. “I defy anyone not to feel pity for these families. We all have parents and brothers and sisters.”