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For soldiers, a protest camp and a second home

Meet the forgotten veterans of the Falkland Islands War.

About 350 ex-soldiers have camped out in the Plaza de Mayo. They say they won’t leave until the government recognizes them as war veterans. (Julia Kumari Drapkin/GlobalPost)

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.