Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada

By Malahat Zhobin, Kimberley Ng, and Claudia Ahumada

The largest detention center during the Dirty War in Argentina was “La Escuela de Suboficiales de Mecánica de la Armada” or “The Navy Mechanics School” (ESMA). About 340 detention centers were documented, but this specific detention center was located in the city of Buenos Aires, and is where many disappearances, torture sessions and illegal executions took place.

ESMA is also known for the appropriation of children, as well as identity forgery and illegal adoption. The identity forgery was done by the imprisoned themselves as they were forced to work while having to listen to people being tortured right next door. While the tortures occurred, loud music was used to hide the screams of the kidnapped. One technique used to get victims to speak was torturing children in front of their parents. Sometimes they tortured parents in front of their children. It was estimated that about 60 babies were born and passed through ESMA. They were given to couples who couldn’t have children of their own, who had ties to the military, and sometimes military officials took them into their own homes to be raised with similar political views.

A massive amount of bodies were never recovered. At ESMA, corpses were buried under the sports field, in cemeteries; registered as “NN” Name Unknown, and were disposed through aerial disposal at sea known as “Death Flights”. After the dictatorship ended, many lost hope for justice when, in 1990, a Law of National Reconciliation was issued that created an official pardon for all offenses committed by torturers. Since then, however, many have been convicted on charges that have carried a punishment of life in prison, while others are still awaiting trials and sentencings.

All the information we learned through text books and articles wasn’t enough to suffice our curiosity about visiting ESMA. With the help of Soka University, our Learning Cluster was fortunate enough to travel to Argentina and visit one of the many detention centers.

After making two attempts to visit the much anticipated ESMA, the third attempt was finally successful. Being able to see the infamous detention center, also known to some who lived through the atrocities as an extermination camp, was a very important moment for our group. We were well prepared with information from stories such as Victoria Donda’s and many others that took place in ESMA. We were ready to finally add a picture to all the texts that we had read about ESMA.

Stepping into ESMA with the mindset of entering an extermination camp or a detention center was a surreal experience for all of us in the group. Standing on the grounds where we knew that about 30 years ago hundreds of detainees were brought into to be tortured and eventually lead to their death was a spine chilling experience. As we into the torture chambers of ESMA, we couldn’t help but be affected by the negative energy that haunted the place.

By being in the setting of the many stories we had read about and watched movies of, our imaginations couldn’t help but run wild. With the aid of plaque cards that gave us testimonies and short anecdotes of the detainees, we were able to imagine how truly terrible it must have been to be detained at ESMA. It was difficult to believe the relationship of where ESMA was located, right in the middle of a city, to the public’s ignorance and neglect towards ESMA.

It put a heavy weight on our hearts and minds to be able to connect the happenings of ESMA and of the public. Being at ESMA made us realize that we were able to claim that we knew someone who was born there, Victoria Donda. We knew someone who had lost their life at ESMA, Donda’s parents. We were connected to ESMA. Being at ESMA helped validate everything we had learned about the dictatorship and gave us a solid ground to root the foundations of our Learning Cluster. 

Photo by Norito Hagino

Reading about Victoria Donda and learning about what ESMA did to her parents, many of us pondered upon the necessity of learning about it. After all, this Learning Cluster was designed to learn about Children’s Rights in Argentina. However, from the two weeks of our trip, we are now able to explain how our visit to ESMA plays a vital role in our Learning Cluster.

During the military dictatorship from the late 70s to the early 80s, there was political unrest as many were fighting against the overly controlling government. Many of the activists who were involved included high school and college students. Children and teenagers alike do not carry as heavy a social responsibility as full grown adults do. They are supposedly politically inactive for they are denied access to political involvement such as voting, and are usually neglected by government authorities. In the only way they knew how, the teens’ indirect political involvement in rebelling against the dictatorship had sparked much anger and within the government.

In an attempt to stop the revolt, these teenagers and young adults were given their very own taste of hell: ESMA. The way in which these young lives were treated was inhumane, ripping these youth of their rights as a people, the act of which is a big part of the focus of our learning cluster. On top of that, the military almost wiped out a whole generation of young political activists. Powerless and defenseless, they could only sit in their shackles and coffin sized cells while awaiting their destinies.

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