For soldiers, a protest camp and a second home

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Ruben Dario Gonzales wears a red beret and a giddy grin as he reaches into the refrigerator. He unwraps a homemade chocolate cake, but this isn’t his home — it’s a protest camp. There are beds, a small dining mess, a kitchen and even electricity, all in the middle of the Plaza de Mayo, the historic plaza and political nerve of Buenos Aires.

The cake reads “Happy Birthday to the Veterans Camp of the Plaza de Mayo.” It has two candles. One for each year that Gonzales and about 350 former soldiers have been camped out in the plaza. Together, in shifts, they’ve kept a constant vigil, not far from the president’s office in the Casa Rosada.

The men say they won’t leave until the government recognizes them as war veterans. “They can’t say we didn’t do anything,” said Gonzales. What they did was defend Argentina’s coast and airbases during the war for the Falkland Islands — or the Islas Malvinas as they’re called here. What they didn’t do was actually fight the British.

According to Argentine law, only combatants in the theater of operations count as war veterans, not the support soldiers stationed on the coast. "I am a veteran, ” said Tulio Fraboschi, president of the camp. “It’s not necessary to have a mark on the body.”

Fraboschi and many of the soldiers here say they are scarred, but not from battles. They say their superior officers starved, humiliated and even tortured them during their service. One common form of torture involved staking a man to the ground and leaving him at the mercy of the Patagonian cold, sometimes naked for days.

But what’s worse says Fraboschi was coming home and being treated as if they had never served at all. “They never give us honors. They never received us like veterans or people who go for war.”

The Falklands/Malvinas War was a short, violent and humiliating defeat. When the conscripted soldiers came home, the military junta made many sign confidentiality agreements: they were not supposed to talk about the war.

Just in front of the protest camp, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo read out the names of thousands who were "disappeared" during the dictatorship. The military dictatorship was an era of secrets and the Plaza de Mayo is where Argentines come to demand the truth.

Soldiers like Nestor Hugo Berterreix have tremendous respect for the mothers, who still march here every week. “Their history is written in blood,” says Berterreix as he fixes another Argentine flag next to their camp.

A crowd gathers taking pictures of the women in their white kerchiefs, but nobody notices the line of veterans behind them. I ask Berterreix if it bothers him that people only take pictures of the mothers in the plaza and not them. “They're emblematic, we're not,” Berterreix shrugged. “We've never counted in society.”

But in Argentina, the Malvinas count a lot — perhaps too much. Although British settlers have lived there since 1833, most people here believe the islands belong to Argentina. The sovereignty dispute arouses passionate patriotism, of which politicians are known to take advantage.

Before the war with Britain began in 1982, the military junta was unraveling. There were mass demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo for the junta to step down. The military government needed a distraction, so they decided to invade the Falklands.

Overnight the government's detractors became its supporters, said Berterreix. “Everybody came cheering here in the plaza — the same who were screaming days before for the government to get out.”

Many see reflections of the past in the current diplomatic row with Britain over oil drilling. Argentina’s economy has been flagging and so has President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner’s popularity. The controversy has given her a much-needed political boost.

In the camp's dining mess, Sergio Freire read out the newspaper headlines.

“The British are stealing our land,” said Freire. He, like most of the soldiers, believes the islands and surrounding seas are an extension of Argentina’s coastline.

Last year Argentina submitted a claim to the United Nations declaring the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands as Argentine territory according to international law. The Law of the Sea, signed by both Argentina and Britain, defines a country’s territory extending 200 miles from the end of its continental shelf.

But the irony of the president's position is not lost on Freire. “The president wants to respect international treaties, but first she has to respect them by recognizing the former drafted soldiers. It's the first thing she has to do and then she can complain.”

Yet with official veteran status comes benefits, and the men who already have veteran status are fighting for back pay. They even have a camp of their own on the other side of the plaza. Making any additions to the government payroll is difficult for lawmakers to justify in cash-strapped Argentina.

“It's not just about the money like most people think,” said Ruben Dario Gonzalez. “Many of the soldiers need psychological attention.”

Gonzalez talks about two men he knew who committed suicide after the war. Veterans groups across Argentina say soldier suicides now outnumber war casualties. “Everyone here has a story — some sad,” said Dario.

But it doesn’t feel sad right now. Outside the soldiers hang flags and signs to celebrate their anniversary. Old friends are catching up — most of them were barely 18 when they were drafted by the junta.

The camp provides a place for the soldiers to honor each other when the government won’t.

“What’s most important is that in some way they feel our presence,” said Dario.

As the sun starts to set against the Casa Rosada, the men stand in formation and sing the national anthem. Friends and family take pictures. People en route to the subway pause. Their presence is felt. At least for a moment.