Argentina: restoring family links during armed conflict and violence

15-05-2008 Feature

For almost thirty years, Irene Quaglia has been responsible for tracing activities at the ICRC’s Buenos Aires delegation. This has involved her in two dramatic periods of Argentine history: the violence of the 1970s and the Falklands/Malvinas. In this article, she shares her memories with us.

© ICRC / cl-n-00001-33 
1973, Chile. ICRC delegates deliver letters with family news to a group of prisoners. 
©ICRC/Luc Chessex/V-P-FK-D-00001-08  
1982, on board the British hospital ship HMS Hecla. An ICRC delegate records the details of Argentine prisoners of war. 
1991, military cemetery on the Falkland Islands. Tomb of two unknown Argentine airmen. In 1991, families of Argentine soldiers who died during the conflict visited the military cemetery under the auspices of the ICRC.

Read also the interview of Edmond Corthésy, an ICRC delegate 
Irene Quaglia    
    My first job with the tracing agency was to draw up lists of people who disappeared between 1977 and 1979. After noting down all the details, we compiled the lists on our desks. When we ran out of space, we used the floor. We didn’t have computers back then.

We received several missing persons reports per day, but I wasn’t really aware of what the names on the lists represented. No-one in the country seemed very interested in what was happening, and people still cel ebrated Argentina’s World Cup victory in 1978.

A few days after starting work, I looked out of my office window and saw a very humble-looking man, short, bald, turning his woollen cap over and over in his hands. He finished talking to one of my colleagues and then crossed the road, back and forth, as if he had forgotten to ask something and didn’t dare come back in again. He had come to ask for news of his daughter, who had disappeared. The image of that father is permanently etched in my memory.

At that time, Chile was going through a similar situation. People who could do so fled the country and came to Buenos Aires to get a travel document so they could move on to another country, generally Canada or a European country such as Belgium or France. They often lost contact with their families because they didn’t dare send news of where they were.

Not long after, an armed conflict affected us very directly: the Falklands war. ICRC medical delegates deployed to the field, where they delivered tents, blood bags and other essential items. In addition, they compiled lists of the soldiers they visited. Back here in Buenos Aires, almost all the local personnel were busy helping the families who turned up daily, wanting news of soldiers out on the islands.

Generally, it was fathers who visited us. Many of their sons were safe and sound. Let me tell you, there’s no smile like that of a father who’s just been told his son is alive! In general, they don’t even bother to ask if he’s in good health at first. Only one thing counts: I’ve found him! I’ve got him back!

But the news we had wasn’t always good. Among the people I helped during this period was a couple whose son was serving on the Belgrano, the Argentine ship sunk by the British navy. After the sinking, the family began visiting us to find out what had happened to their son. We quickly received the list of the few who had survived. Their son wasn’t on it.

Vital documents 
Through its delegation in Buenos Aires, the ICRC is currently providing travel documents for people from countries where conflicts are taking place who have sought refuge in Argentina or other countries. The delegation also issues certificates to veterans of the Falklands war. 

At the time there was a rumour, which later turned out to be false, that British forces had picked up a number of survivors. Not knowing where their sons were was the hardest thing for the parents. The mother, who was relatively young, turned into an old woman in the space of a month, with no strength to go on fighting. She just sat in front of me and cried. I think the worst thing was the fruitless search, the fact that she couldn’t find her son – alive or dead.

Not knowing the whereabouts of a relative is one of the worst things a person can go through. Even though it’s painful and sad to know that your father, son or brother is imprisoned or dead, it’s much more painful not to know what’s happened to him. The uncertainty and the grief are the same, whether contact has been lost on account of war, violence or emigration.

It’s often difficult for people searching for a missing relative when you have to tell them that it’s not possible. Of course, I’ve received recognition and gratitude from many people, but I’ve sometimes had to put up with criticism from people who didn’t understand that I couldn’t help them. But what makes up for that is that there’s nothing more wonderful than being able to help people suffering under such circumstances and to re-establish contact between families.