While The World Watched
At the same time Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup, the nation's dictators were waging their "Dirty War" of repression, kidnappings and torture. As the tournament again draws near, ghastly memories are flooding back.
INSIDE A BUENOS AIRES restaurant named El Cuartito, sky-blue paint covers the walls, along with photographs and banners from important athletes and teams. In the center of the largest wall is a shrine to Diego Maradona, the star of the 1986 World Cup. That title is so important that Maradona, a recovering drug addict, still basks comfortably in a nation's warming love and goodwill. People celebrate the '86 title with vivid street art murals, and with photos and signed jerseys and posters in nearly every place of business, including El Cuartito. The restaurant celebrates civic heroes, which is why one particular omission is jarring. Argentina has won two World Cups, the famous one in 1986 and the other just eight years before, in 1978, when Argentina played host. That team is barely honored at all inside El Cuartito. In the back corner of the main room, as far away from the door as you can get, hang two team photos. That's it. Combined, they're smaller than the Michael Jordan poster on a nearby wall. This is not an isolated oversight. During a 30th anniversary celebration of the '78 team, an event that also served as a memorial for victims of the former military dictatorship's violence, the triple-decked Estadio Monumental looked barren, wide swaths of empty seats swallowing groups of people. Spinetta, one of the most famous Argentine rock stars, played for free after the ceremony and they still couldn't draw a crowd. Nineteen of the 22 players didn't show. It seems odd to an outsider, a soccer-mad nation trying to erase one of its greatest teams, but in Argentina, the scrubbing makes sense. The nation has the highest number of psychologists per capita in the world: This is a country drowning in toxic secrets, including the one about a World Cup it needs to forget.
THE GUARDS SWITCHED the radio to the 1978 World Cup final, tinny speakers blasting full volume: Argentina vs. Netherlands. Political prisoners twisted and fidgeted in the shadows. Norberto Liwski, one of them, struggled to get comfortable. The cells measured 6 feet by 5 feet, each of them holding a half dozen thin, sick people, many of whom wouldn't live through the week. The air stank. Men and women slumped, shoulder to shoulder, stewing in their own urine and feces. Infection ravaged their wounds. They ate rotten meat. The prisoners in the cells were Argentine citizens, tortured by Argentine guards, kidnapped and hidden in secret Argentine jails, imprisoned by a powerful and cruel dictatorship, which managed every detail of this soccer tournament. History would reveal the World Cup to be the apogee of both its power and cruelty.
The national team presented a deep moral conflict. The prisoners argued among themselves, whispering, since guards punished any communication with savage beatings. Some prisoners wanted Argentina to win. They'd cheered for the blue-and-white all their lives. Others, like Liwski, felt rage and sorrow hearing the dictators use the team as another weapon in the war on their own people.
A strong bond had united the prisoners, all of them kidnapped for their political views, held secretly without trial. But now the World Cup divided them. Tension filled Liwski's tiny cell. The game ended, Argentina the winner by a score of 3-1. The guards switched off the radio. For hours, Norberto Liwski heard the laughter and singing of the fans on the street outside. The walls of his cell transformed their joy into his horror. It was June 25, 1978.
IN THE SHADOW of another World Cup, a faint uneasiness settles on the city streets. Nothing about the trip to Norberto Liwski's bland office prepares someone for his story about torture and how, even three decades after his release from prison, it leaves a society troubled and raw. He talks about death in a city so defined by its life. The wide boulevards of Buenos Aires open up like the avenues of Paris, and the architecture evokes the grandeur of a forgotten century. On every corner, glowing cafes swirl with urban life. Fancy cocktail drinkers crowd underground speakeasy bars, hidden beneath flower shops and behind bodega phone booths, the newest trend in a city obsessed with secrets. Soccer plays on nearly every television: It's that time again in Argentina. Four years have passed and the country vibrates with World Cup madness. Maybe this is the year for that elusive third title. In his office, where he runs a human rights foundation, Liwski shudders. The excitement over the coming tournament, the first in South America since 1978, makes him remember being strapped to a metal table with an electrified metal rod stuck up his ass.
Military officers sodomized him in a torture chamber, the hot current burning his insides, raping him with electricity. He remembers the sharp but manageable pain of something forcing its way inside you, followed by the fear of what might come next, then the panic, then the explosion of fire. The right-wing military dictatorship had arrested him in April 1978 for wanting to help poor people get health care, and for being a vocal leftist. Officers broke into his house, shot him in the legs and drove him to the hidden concentration camp in Buenos Aires. They dragged him from the car straight to the torture room, where sometimes the soldiers played loud recordings of Hitler. The guards stripped Liwski naked. They wanted names. For the next few days, they shocked him with a cattle prod, on his gums, on his nipples, on his genitals, on his stomach and ears.
Everyone got shocked, usually in the first hour of captivity, not as a punishment but as a sadistic welcome. Men took the cattle prod in the anus. Women took it in the vagina. The young soldiers seemed fascinated with the female anatomy and delighted in painful exploration. On at least one occasion, a baby was shocked to pressure the parents into talking.
In Liwski's first week of imprisonment, his torturers beat him with wooden sticks on his back, on the backs of his thighs, on his calves and on the soles of his feet. His skin burst open and he bled, and the soldiers ripped off his shirt to apply fresh shocks, tearing open the scabbed-over wounds. During breaks, he hung from hooks in a cell. They showed him a bloody rag and told him it was his wife's underwear. She'd been kidnapped too. They showed him a bloody rag and told him it was his daughter's underwear. They burned him with what he thinks was a hot nail. They took a razor or a scalpel and stripped the skin off his feet. He screamed like an animal. Men tortured his testicles, and it felt like his insides were being pulled out. They jammed the metal rod into his ass and turned on the electricity.
He is incredibly lucky. He lived.
All of this happened to Norberto in the months before the World Cup began in Argentina, and he lost track of time and space, broken. On the day of the opening match, the guards moved him to a new camp, and he knows the date only because of the excitement in the streets. The World Cup started on June 1, 1978, and for the next month, the military dictatorship hosted the soccer world. The rulers made the tournament slogan a pun of the phrase "human rights" -- roughly, We are human and we are right -- mocking the international community fighting the kidnapping and torture of political enemies. The World Cup gave a measure of psychic relief to a population that had created the dictatorship with its fear.
The military didn't simply seize power. It was asked to seize it. Two years before, the nation suffered through a conflict that on its worst days looked like civil war: right-wing paramilitary groups, engaged in battle with communist guerrillas, both trying to fill the power vacuum left by the death of President Juan Peron, who defined postwar Argentine politics. The violence spread to the streets, bombs exploding, both sides kidnapping their enemies, or anyone who might bring a ransom. The right-wing assassins killed students, and the left-wing militants murdered a former president. People wanted the military to step in, and on March 24, 1976, it did. Tanks rolled through the streets. The conservative military crippled the guerrilla groups, using a torture and targeting machine, breaking the left-wing resistance in just a few months. The dictators won, but the torture continued, driven by fear and hatred, killing union leaders, advocates for the poor, students and teachers, and finally, anyone who supported liberal political positions. The wrong book meant a death sentence.
The military managed the World Cup with the precision and intent of its torture machine. By the start of the tournament, the military had never felt stronger, emboldened by the extermination of political enemies and not yet battered by the rising inflation and lost public faith that would follow. The generals would use violence and cruelty to maintain the authority originally given to them; they would rule for five more years before collapsing after a failed invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands in 1982. But the peak of their power, and of their violence and cruelty, coincided with the World Cup, which ended in an Argentina victory, although in many ways it hasn't ever really ended at all. Those 25 days remain hidden in the national shadows, and with the games starting in Brazil, those days are forcing themselves back into the light.
"I think the 1978 World Cup is one of the deep wounds of Argentine society," Liwski says. "Every four years, a new World Cup reactivates those wounds."
TIME DOESN'T EXIST in the courthouse lobby.
That's not some existential statement about the legal proceedings in the basement. The art deco clock on the wall no longer has hands. It's a few months before the 2014 World Cup, and downstairs a judge waits to hear evidence about crimes from the 1970s. Several times a week, continuing the process that began with democracy's return in 1983, another hearing in the trial of the guards at ESMA convenes.
The Escuela Superior de Mecanica de la Armada, a naval school, served as the largest and most infamous dictatorship concentration camp. It occupies a lush, sprawling campus a few blocks from Estadio Monumental, where the 1978 World Cup final was played. That distance links the torture and the sporting event in the minds of many Argentines. The former camp now serves as a "memory space," as the government calls it -- a physical expression of a deep civic dream, much like the odd relationship to the World Cup, and, of course, these ongoing trials. For 31 years now, Argentina has been trapped in a search for justice and meaning that won't end, punctuated by verdicts and pardons and new trials, as the political mood changes from administration to administration.
Lawyers yawn and open the sports pages. Monitors from human rights organizations fire up laptops and prepare to take notes, the whole thing cloaked in the thin veneer of civilization, as if the men facing prosecution raided pension funds instead of torturing their neighbors.
A well-dressed older woman takes the stand.
A court reporter announces her name: Consuelo Orellano. In 1979, the dictatorship kidnapped her husband, Nestor Ardetti. He remains disappeared, one of 30,000 who vanished during what historians call the Dirty War. Today, the cases of dozens of the men responsible for the death of her husband, and so many more, continue. Her friends watch quietly from the gallery, full of nervous tics. One rubs endless circles on her index finger with her thumb. Another slides her ring on and off. The two women providing moral support have known each other for years; they watched and celebrated the '78 World Cup final together. In the back row, young men and women tap away on computers, recording the details.
"My memory is failing," Orellano says.
Her friends lean in. She has testified many times before, but with her slowly vanishing mind, there's one story in particular she wants to get right. In 1988, during democracy, she rode bus No. 273. A young policeman got off, and she recognized his face: one of the oppressors who years earlier had come to her house to steal her property after they'd already taken her husband. She chased him down a street and saw him enter a police station. When she got inside, he'd vanished into the back. She told the duty officer she wanted to see a friend, and when the young officer came out, she screamed at him. The cop never said a word, and she suddenly became very afraid and ran away. One of her friends in the gallery pulls her sweater close and nods at every correct detail.
"To this day," Orellano says, "my son has trouble entering a police station. ... I hope they are brought to justice. I have a lot in my heart."
She walks slowly from the room.
A man imprisoned with Orellano's husband embraces her with tears in his eyes. Survivor's guilt comes off him in waves. Her friends wrap her up in their arms and help her into the foyer. Everyone gathers in a circle, old women now. These cases will send more people to jail. Currently, 2,450 stand accused of crimes against humanity. Three hundred and ninety-seven are in progress. In a different courtroom, preparations continue for a trial to punish those who knew and didn't intervene. The circle of culpability expands year by year.
At Nuremburg, only 207 Nazis stood trial, and Argentina will surpass that number by a factor of almost 12. As long as Argentina keeps identifying and punishing monsters, then a nation of people -- every citizen alive between 1976 and 1983 -- can continue to believe in the myth of civilization, in the myth of themselves as civilized. If barbarity can be countered by the rule of law, and if evil can be identified as the root cause of that barbarity, then the orderly mechanism of a courtroom also absolves a nation of its collective guilt. The trials, with lawyers asking specific questions about mundane details, keep the focus on the monsters and not the lurking self-knowledge embedded in the national soul: We are all monsters. The next witness takes the stand, a survivor of ESMA, and he testifies about kidnappings and mock executions.
"I am gonna tell something I never said before," he says.
Facing the room, he holds his hands up in the air, very close together, his wrists nearly touching, as if they were still bound. The gallery falls silent.
"I was a year sleeping with my hands like that," he says.
IT WAS JUNE 25, 1978.
Mario Villani looked at the soccer game playing on the small black-and-white television at the end of the hall. The guards had opened the cells and allowed prisoners to sit in their doorway and watch. Anyone who happened upon the weird scene would never forget it.
Pale and skinny ghosts, maybe 20 in total, with blindfolds pushed up on their foreheads, peering at a flickering screen. Some would be killed in the next transfer, just three days away. Around the corner, blood dried on the light blue walls of the torture chamber. Mario thought for sure he'd die here.
Guards pressured the prisoners to scream "Gooooooal!" during the game. No one dared turn away, or close his eyes. Not cheering loud enough could get a prisoner listed for the next transfer. Mario thought about Juanita. She'd been transferred two months ago. He had liked her, and one night a guard brought her to his cell with a leering grin, a sexual present. In bed, over two evenings, they whispered all night, like humans. Juanita told about her husband, and Mario told about his wife. They held each other. Nothing else happened. In the morning, the guards took her away. Two days later, a guard brought him outside and told him to tell Juanita goodbye. Mario gave her a kiss, confused.
"It's not getting to you too much?" the guard asked.
"What do you mean?"
"We're transferring her," the guard said.
He never saw her again and tried not to linger on her terrifying final moments: Juanita, naked, human cargo on what prisoners would come to call a death flight. Her fate weighed on him the night of the World Cup final. The guards put Mario in charge of making sure the television worked. In his previous life, he'd been a physicist. He stared into the 18-inch screen and imagined it as a window into a world going on without him. A packed stadium didn't know he'd been kidnapped. He would live and die, and nobody would ever acknowledge his existence, much less his death, and at the end, his family wouldn't get a body to put in the ground.
He sat under the harsh glow of fluorescent lights, looking into a world he'd never touch again. The television showed the ruling junta celebrating, a triumphant General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera handing the trophy to the national team. Mario felt haunted. He fought the tears. If a guard saw him cry, he might go out on the next death flight. They'd strip him of his clothes, give him an injection of sodium pentothal to keep him woozy and pliable, fly him up in a loud airplane over the waters where River Plate meets the Atlantic Ocean. Alive and confused, he would be pushed out of an open door into the infinite blackness, the howling engines and the howling wind. The water would break his bones, and the fish would eat his flesh.
MARIO VILLANI is 75 now.
His wife, Rosa Lerner, holds his hand when he says the word "haunted," reliving a soccer match. They live in Miami Beach, having left Argentina a decade ago to be close to their grandchildren. She watches closely, swallowing hard and biting her thumb when he describes his torture.
"When he talks," she says, "he hears the screaming of the prisoners."
Nobody has ever found Juanita's body, nearly 40 years after Mario saw her taken away to die.
Twenty or so prisoners watched the game, and maybe two or three of them survived. He says he doesn't have nightmares about it anymore.
Rosa rolls her eyes, saying, "Now, now."
"Listen," she says, and then tells about how he still goes back to prison in his dreams. Mario punches the air in his sleep. If she wakes him suddenly, he cowers and covers his face.
"He talks," she says. "He screams."
Sitting in their apartment, he holds a list of everyone who disappeared during the 1978 World Cup, going down it name by name, trying to remember. Four of the people were his friends. One of the four he knew, a woman, is still disappeared. He can almost see her face.
"Maybe a bit tall," he says. "Short hair. Brown or black or ... I don't recall now."
That woman's husband disappeared too, and Mario closes his eyes, taking himself back to the screams, fighting hard for a face. When he cannot remember, he looks stricken, full of guilt, as if his failing memory killed this man again.
"If you knew him before ..." Rosa says, mournfully.
He struggles with the details now. Years after his 1981 release, Mario happened upon Turco Julian, one of the most brutal torturers, outside a pharmacy in central Buenos Aires, and now he's fumbling with the story. Rosa guides him, a little correction here, a shade of detail there.
"No, mi amor," she says gently.
She turns to their guest.
"He has memory problems," she says. "Really. Reallyreallyreally. He has big problems."
"Not so big," Mario says, a little wounded. "Not that big. I remember your name. I remember the names of my grandkids."
"You have to understand you have a memory problem," she says, a little more firmly.
"Of course, of course," he says, changing the subject. Later, Rosa puts on Beethoven, a sonata, No. 18 in E Flat. He hums. She closes her eyes. The arpeggio hits, and he taps along to the explosion, slaps his hand on his leg, playing the air with his fingers.
A memory returns.
"Turco Julian liked the opera ..." he starts to say.
"Shhh," Rosa says, and music fills the room.
THERE'S ANOTHER REASON the memory of the '78 World Cup brings shame in Argentina. Although as a crime, match fixing doesn't compare to the torture and murder committed by the ruling junta, Argentina may have rigged a crucial victory over Peru, according to the testimony of a former Peruvian senator before an Argentine court in 2012. His assertions were deemed so credible that FIFA opened an investigation, which is ongoing.
The dictators didn't care about sports -- General Videla, the thin, mustachioed leader nicknamed the Pink Panther for his build and gait, was said to have never attended a football match in his life until the World Cup, when he attended seven -- but they cared about projecting an image of power to their enemies at home and abroad. Argentina needed to beat Peru, a tough opponent, by four goals to advance to the final. Before the match, Videla and the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had openly supported the dictatorial regime, visited the Peru locker room. The Peruvian keeper Ramon Quiroga was born in Argentina, and although he steadfastly denies rumors of corruption, Argentina scored against him over and over, winning 6-0. At the exact moment the fourth goal went into the net, a bomb exploded in the home of a government minister who'd criticized the expenditures of the general in charge of the tournament. Journalists would eventually uncover more than $50 million in aid given to Peru. Many think the dictators bought the World Cup in the same manner, and with the same intent, that they'd buy a tank.
IT WAS JUNE 25, 1978.
Taty Almeida sat in her bedroom alone and turned on the television. The images brought immediate pain, which is why she wanted to watch. She wanted to feel the pain, to suffer, to look at the dictators. Her son Alejandro had been missing for three years and eight days. On a Tuesday, he'd left to take an exam and had never come home. Every Thursday, she went downtown to the Plaza de Mayo, the center of Buenos Aires, which sits outside the presidential palace.
She joined other mothers whose children had disappeared, all wearing white scarves on their heads in solidarity. A law of the dictatorship forbade groups larger than three from standing still in public, lest they be plotting, so the mothers walked in circles around the obelisk in the center of the plaza. The government called them crazy and then kidnapped and tortured some of them, and the mothers kept walking, asking what had happened to their sons and daughters. Madres de Plaza de Mayo, they called themselves, and in the month of the World Cup, they'd given dozens of interviews to foreign correspondents covering the tournament, telling the world for the first time that they wanted to be reunited with the children. They found strength in each other, but now Taty wanted to be alone.
The final match began. In the other room, in a photo, Alejandro wore aviator sunglasses. Out in the fading afternoon, his brother Jorge waited to celebrate, still loving the national team despite the disappearance of Alejandro. The cheers and joy rose from the street, through the walls. She cursed and screamed at the dictators on her television. The game ended. The noise outside grew louder, filling up her small apartment like a physical thing, like water or sand, and one thought lodged in her mind: Why isn't my son with them?
Across town, another mother named Mabel Gutierrez heard the noise too.
Her son, also named Alejandro, would disappear the following month.
THIRTY YEARS AND four days later, having never found their children, Almeida and Gutierrez met for an exorcism. It was 2008. To mark the anniversary of the World Cup, they'd march from the concentration camp at ESMA to the nearby stadium where the final had been held. They'd do it together, with hundreds of other Madres de Plaza de Mayo. They'd become best friends looking for the children they never found. The cheering they had heard in the streets never really left their ears, an aural prison wall. A sound like that lurks, malignant and patient, destroying everything around it. Their march to the stadium might break down that wall.
They left the camp, headed down Libertador Avenue.
All of them held pictures of their children. Thousands joined them. They carried a blue banner, a block and a half long, filled with the faces and names of the disappeared. The column bent left toward the stadium, the streets alive with noise. Almeida sensed Alejandro beside her. She felt herself carrying him away from the darkness of the prison to the light of the stadium. In her mind, she'd explain later, Alejandro was finally celebrating the 1978 World Cup.
Almeida and Gutierrez carried the banner into the open stadium bowl. They turned to face the box where the dictators had cheered, and it sat empty. A sign spread over those empty seats, put there by event organizers, and it read: 30,000 disappeared ... present! They let out 30 years of anger and pain, screaming at the empty seats. She returned home, but when she woke the next morning, nothing had been exorcised at all.
Now six more years have passed, and Almeida is at home again, surrounded by the same red-and-white concrete walls that closed in on her during the final; another World Cup is approaching, and her son still hasn't come home.
"When you hear the words 'World Cup,'" she says, "it reminds you what happened. It reminds you of the disappeared, of the kidnappings, of the murders. Everything comes together."
A fist-sized button hangs from her blouse, with Alejandro wearing his aviator shades.
"Look at his smile," she says softly, touching his face.
In her living room, she looks at her son's bed, where he left it 39 years ago, neatly made with an orange-and-turquoise blanket. His hi-fi stands against the wall, and in a small box upstairs she keeps the remains of a life: the poems he wrote, his grade school report cards. That box glows in her imagination. It's the only coffin she has.
"The only thing that I ask at this point is to touch my son's corpse," she says.
The mothers' ambitions shrink with time, from wanting their sons back alive to simply wanting a body. Her friend Gutierrez had put a marker in a park near the river, to give her grief a home, close to the water where a death flight likely killed her son. Gutierrez died five years ago, and her friends held her funeral at Alejandro's memorial, spreading her ashes into the same brown water that swallowed her son. They cried happy tears. Gutierrez had finally been reunited with Alejandro.
Almeida longs for the day she will be reunited with her son. A few months ago, on his birthday, she awoke at 4 a.m. She screamed, cursing at the dictators. Alone, she cried and wailed, the pain fresh and untamed, letting everything out until she felt empty. She drank a cup of tea and went back to sleep, slowly filling back up again. The World Cup final remains one of her most painful nights. She doesn't know whether her son was alive to hear the cheers through a prison wall.
"I hope he was dead," she says. "I really hope he was dead so he wouldn't have to go through all that pain."
IT WAS JUNE 25, 1978, and bodies had washed up on shore, and citizens had seen pretty young girls snatched off busy streets and pulled, screaming, from city buses. People stared straight ahead and tried not to get involved. A whispered phrase passed from person to person, an act of private confession: "They must have done something ..."
In the stadium, the dictators leaped into the air when the game ended. Millions leaped with them -- We are human and we are right! -- because winning the World Cup felt like victory over their own fears about what they'd created. After the final whistle, in the quiet hours before dawn, a baby boy was born to a woman in handcuffs. A government doctor cut the cord and newborn wails echoed off the concrete floors. Laura Carlotto named her son Guido, after her father. The guards took the baby. Two months later, Laura's mother, Estela, received a call instructing her and her husband to come to a nearby police station. The man there told them coldly that their daughter Laura had been shot after disobeying an order to stop at a roadblock, a lie. They gave the parents back a body with its face and stomach mutilated beyond recognition. Guido is 36 now and, if he's alive, he doesn't know that he was born to a prisoner and the people he thinks are his parents actually stole him from his mother. He doesn't know his real name is Guido. His grandmother has never stopped looking for him. Estela is 83 now. With the time she has left, she will search for her stolen grandson, who was born in the hours after Argentina won its first World Cup.
THE OPPRESSORS ARE dead or dying. Gen. Jorge Videla died 13 months ago, alone, in a civilian prison. Fellow inmates found his body slumped on a toilet. His family buried him in secret, in a private cemetery on the outskirts of the city. His son posted a note on Facebook thanking the loyal group of citizens who still support his ideals; some of the Argentine populace believe that communist terrorists would have taken control if Videla and his fellow soldiers hadn't stepped in and made the hard decisions necessary to save Argentina. In his final years, Videla wrote a memoir, his own history of his military rule. His family won't publish it until a new political wave sweeps democracy from the country, says Videla's lawyer, Adolfo Casabal Elia.
Elia wanted to meet in a strip mall in the bland, soulless suburbs of Buenos Aires. His eyes are cobalt blue. Gone are the well-tailored suit and tie he wore in news photographs, replaced by the plain clothes of someone who is no longer part of the ruling class. The waitress eavesdrops, although he's talking so loud, she's really just listening. He doesn't think it was morally right to make people disappear. His idea, he announces with a sneer, would be to line all the enemies of the state up before a firing squad instead.
"I would shoot the terrorists in public places," he says, "and then give the bodies to the family."
Videla won a war his nation asked him to fight. That's what Elia believes. Guerrilla armies wanted to take over Argentina. This isn't simply right-wing fear mongering. The communist guerrilla literature did explain their desire to topple democracy, and the corporations it protected, and the guerrillas did launch attacks and kidnappings, which were stopped after the coup. "It was something that was needed," Elia says. "Most of the people agreed with the coup."
During the 1970s, the military killed and tortured, and the guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped wealthy citizens for ransom, among other violent actions. Not a single former guerrilla is in jail. Currently 440 former military personnel are. Elia hopes that someday his friend's legacy will be redeemed. He's blind to Videla's flaws. Just as the left cannot accept that some of those killed weren't political prisoners but combatants captured by a more powerful army, the supporters of the coup refuse to acknowledge that the military killed a generation of innocent men and women. They believe redemption, or even vindication, is possible. Perhaps Videla can be reburied in the famous cemetery in the center of town, with a state funeral and a marble angel on his tomb. "Not today," Elia says. "Maybe with the next government things will change. It's not justice. It's revenge."
Elia says Videla didn't have a sense of humor. He was a serious man, and yet perhaps the most famous photograph of him shows him with a grin, in the clinching moments of the World Cup final, on June 25, 1978. Elia looks at the picture and doesn't recognize his friend. Videla never smiled like that in front of him. Videla never once mentioned the World Cup, or football. The smile wasn't a fan celebrating a win but a general celebrating a victory.
"The World Cup united all the people," Elia says, and then he walks to his small Volkswagen hatchback in the parking lot. The waitress' eyes judge him all the way out of the door. His opinions are not shared by people she knows.
"Nobody," she says.
IT WAS JUNE 25, 1978.
In the halls of ESMA, the noises of victory filled the cells and the torture rooms. From the stadium about a mile away, the hysteria funneled into the air, the three tiers of seats acting as an amplifier. The cheering and singing of the fans traveled through the thick walls. Fans danced down the street outside. Inside, the prisoners heard it all, a prisoner now even of joy, because the nation celebrating had forgotten they existed.
Then a guard stepped into the cell block with a list.
"Get ready," he said.
He called out names. Miriam Lewin and Graciela Daleo heard theirs, along with a dozen or so other prisoners.
The guards forced prisoners into a convoy of waiting cars. The gate slid up and they drove into the madness. Fans packed the avenue, waving blue-and-white flags, chanting, "Argen-tina! Argen-tina!" The guards demanded the prisoners look out the windows.
"Who remembers you?" one of them taunted.
Daleo asked permission to stand up through the car's sunroof. The cold wind hit her gaunt face and shivered her thin frame. The people looked right through her. Nobody knew she was disappeared, the single most important detail of her life, which meant that she didn't exist to them. The guards demanded that Daleo and Lewin celebrate. Miriam felt the stares. "If you weren't happy," she'd say decades later, "you were heading straight to the death flight."
She sat in the middle of the back seat, trying to look happy. The cars parked at a local restaurant, and the guards took the prisoners inside. Waiters pushed tables together. The torturers ordered beer and pizza and shared them with young women they'd raped with a cattle prod. Lewin looked around, feeling pale and skinny, like an alien, as the place exploded with joy and noise. People danced next to her, right in her face.
Daleo asked to use the bathroom. She stood in the stall and tried to breathe. The place smelled terrible. She took out the tube of lipstick a guard had given her -- to make her pretty for him -- and for a few minutes, she scribbled feverish messages on the walls, calling the dictators murderers, messages of support for the guerrillas still free and fighting.
"Military murderers," she wrote, emptying her anger until the lipstick ran out. She returned to the table, fear rising hot in her throat. If a guard asked for the lipstick back, or went to check the women's room, she'd die tonight.
An hour later, the guards put her and Miriam back in their cells. For hours, they heard the celebration raging outside the walls.
"I HATE THE WORLD CUP," Miriam Lewin says today, still able to hear those cheers, and the screams of hard torture, which sounded roughly the same. "It makes me feel depressed. When I see everyone all excited about a new World Cup, it brings me back to that time. I can't help it."
Her friend Graciela Daleo, now a university professor, walked into the restaurant El Cuartito once, saw the two small photos of the 1978 team and left. She's never been back. Taty Almeida, one of the mothers, feels a shiver whenever she passes Estadio Monumental. Lewin looks up from her after-work coffee, at a cafe on a busy avenue, and punctuates a story about one of the concentration camps with a gesture over her shoulder.
"Actually, about 10 blocks down there," she says. "They tortured me and kept me alone for like 10 months in there." They live in a country inside a country, its landmarks and monuments invisible to everyone else. An otherwise normal day can derail with the sudden realization that this particular intersection is where the Ford Falcon screeched to a stop and, in front of dozens of mute witnesses, soldiers yanked them off the street. Literally 30 minutes later, prisoners would writhe, naked and screaming.
Survivors govern the geography of their lives based on circumventing ghosts, sometimes constructing winding routes, designed not for efficiency but to avoid the triggers. They see ghosts everywhere. Surviving left them leaden with guilt and shame. Lewin hates to think about her old boyfriend. Chasing that memory leads to her darkest place. He wanted to quit their clandestine group, and she threatened to break up with him if he did. She survived. He is disappeared, because he liked a girl. Lewin helped to kill him. Survivors live in a city of scars.
Lewin cannot wear, or stand to see other people wear, the masks designed for sleeping on a plane. They remind her of the prison's blindfold. A woman imprisoned with her has ridges worn into her bones from the leg cuffs, visible in X-rays. Ana Maria Careaga, a survivor who planned the 2008 march from ESMA to the stadium, remembers the prison when she hears elevator chains moving through the gears: The sound mimics a prisoner dragging shackles along a hard prison floor. During Careaga's recent visit to the dermatologist to have a growth removed, the doctor's machine hummed with the same ambient electric buzz as the cattle prod. Anxiety and fear roiled her insides as she tried to act like a normal person.
They live in a civilized world but can't ever believe in civilization. Evil cannot be unseen. Retelling is a responsibility. They testify in trials, and speak at conferences, and write books. They decide, on a daily basis, whether to share the pain or keep it for themselves.
Sitting in a cafe, Lewin flips through a book she wrote with four friends and fellow prisoners about their experience as ESMA survivors. One passage explains how she feels perfectly.
"It is possible to live a seemingly normal life," she reads. "You work, take the kids to school, travel, shop, go to the movies, and then sometimes forcibly, destructively, searing like a lightning bolt or else softly, stealthily, enveloping like a fog, the concentration camp resurfaces."
The images lurk. She sees them all. Guards waving their penises in her face, threatening to gang-rape her. Women having newborns torn from their arms. She saw condemned mothers with swollen breasts and no child to nurse. Those women went up in the death flights and their children got new last names. The memories come back all the time.
"For example," she says, "yesterday ..."
Her husband drove her to a restaurant to meet a friend for dinner. They arrived and found the restaurant closed, and Lewin got out to walk to her friend's house. Wanting to drive, her husband reached out to catch her before she left. He grabbed her hand. Lewin lost control. Frantic, she exploded, hitting him, desperate to escape. Every other desire receded.
"Nobody understands me," she says. "Not even my friends."
Lewin never watches soccer, and every four years during the World Cup she works hard to avoid televisions and the rabid citizens crowded around them, full of tension and joy. Their reaction reminds her that nothing has been exorcised at all. The look on their faces is familiar, a bolt of lightning and a wave of fog, taking her back to June 25, 1978, to a crowded restaurant, surrounded by a celebrating mob, alone.
"It makes me feel it could happen again," she says.
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