The conflict in the Falklands led to the collapse of Argentina's military government

In the final part of its special series on Veterans, Al Jazeera visited Argentina and found that for both politicians and former soldiers alike the Falklands, or the Malvinas as they are known, remain an obsession.

During a three-week strike by soy farmers and the first real crisis of her presidency, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the Argentinian president, reacted as many of her predecessors have when faced with trouble – she staked her country's claims to the Falklands islands

"The sovereign claim to the Malvinas Islands [as they are known to Argentineans] is inalienable," de Kirchner said on April 2, during a speech to mark the 26th anniversary of a war that lasted 74 days and cost 649 Argentinean lives.

Although the conflict ended in a humiliating defeat for Argentina more than a quarter of a century ago, the Malvinas have never left the public consciousness and sovereignty remains an article of faith for every president, whether they are from the left or right.

One prominent Argentinean writer once said the conflict on the windswept islands, 500km from the Argentinean mainland and home to 3,000 British citizens, was akin to "two bald men fighting over a comb".

However the war was anything but pointless to the men who fought in it. For many Argentinean veterans the Malvinas remains an obsession.

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"I think this is the reality for all the veterans," Miguel Garcia, a veteran from Corrientes, a northern town, says.

"We will live and die with the Malvinas in our hearts. It will never leave us."

Whereas politicians have kept Argentina's claims on the islands alive it is the veterans, who were mostly young conscripts at the time, that cannot and will not let the memory of the conflict fade.

Many are angry at how they were treated during and after the war.

"We weren't the same people having lived through that," Guillermo Diaz, a war veteran, says. "I don't think anyone can be the same as they were before the Malvinas war. It marked us."

Conscript force

In 1982, Argentina was in crisis. Civil and political unrest had led to a military coup six years earlier and the junta who took power had undertaken a "Dirty War" against their own people – the legacy of which still affects the country today.

Isolated both domestically and internationally, General Leopold Galtieri, Argentina's military leader, understood that in one move he could make Argentineans forget their problems by capturing the Malvinas.

On April 2 a massive Argentinean force captured the Falklands but rather than sending better trained troops from the country's south, the military used conscripts of the third and tenth brigades from north and central Argentina to reinforce the islands.

Alejandro Rey had finished his national service and just found a job. He was at work when he heard the news.

"I felt ill. I said 'this is madness, they are going to send us all,'" he says. "And a work mate said 'No way, don't worry they won't send us. We are from La Plata - its too far away, we aren't properly trained, the weather is different. They will take regiments from the south.'"

Miguel said that when the force arrived and the conscripts saw who had been sent they did not believe a war was possible but they all had a sense of pride.

"We were excited; there was a feeling that we wanted to defend the motherland at all costs. We felt proud to be going to the Malvinas," he says.

Welcome capture

However the UK at the time was also going through economic woes and Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister, also saw the Falklands as an opportunity to restore national pride.

Argentinean conscripts who were told by their generals that the British would not come were soon overwhelmed by a superior force.

Many Falklands combatants
were untrained conscripts
Some soldiers who were forced to endure the cold with little food, provisions and equipment actually found conditions were better when they were captured by the British.

"They received us with a cream of tomato soup, and round bread that looked like a croissant," Alejandro says.

"At that point I was still scared and told an Argentine officer that we were done for but he said that I shouldn't worry, everything was going to be fine with the British."

In fact, veterans are more indignant at how they were then treated by their own government rather than the British.

The swift defeat brought an equally swift end to the military dictatorship who had initially tried to silence soldiers returning from the islands in order to reduce the political fallout.

"When we were in the barracks [back in Argentina] they made us sign an agreement so that we wouldn't speak," Edgardo Esteban, one of the survivors, says.

"So with society silencing us and the silence we had in our hearts, it was very distressing."

The attitude towards combatants from the Malvinas did not improve under the new Democratic government with many veterans struggling to find work and return to civilian life.

"When the democratic government came, they still hid us away," Norberto Santos says. "Malvinas was a censored word. We weren't allowed to speak about it. So if you ask why society reacted like this, it was probably a defence mechanism."

Compensation

The extent of the despair felt by many veterans is shown in the fact that although less than 250 Argentinean soldiers lost their lives on the islands, perhaps as many as 400 have killed themselves since.

The numbers of the dead are hard to extract from the lives ended by alcoholism, drug addiction and poverty.

Miguel is bringing a case
against the military
In 2004, the government of Nestor Kirchner, then president, tried to rectify some earlier wrongs by substantially increasing the modest pensions paid to veterans - the first step in recognising their suffering.

However, many former Falklands veterans believe the action was too little too late.

Miguel is part of a group now bringing a case against the military for alleged abuse they suffered while stationed on the island.

"We came forward to testify so that what really happened will be known," he says. "The justice system can then decide what to do. But at least there should be an investigation into what happened."

But just as in 1982, there are elements in Argentinean society that believe the veterans have exaggerated their suffering and should move on, especially given that many of the soldiers are entitled to two pensions.

As successive governments have kept the Falklands in the public conscience, veterans are equally resolute they will not let the memories of their fallen comrades fade.

Both Norberto and Guillermo made emotional returns to the islands last year on the 25th anniversary of the war. Norberto brought back earth and sand from the islands which he bottled and sent to comrades unable to make the trip.

"The point is how to manage your ghosts.  I always say the ghosts are present, I am not cured, but I try to live with them at a distance but without them hurting me. I try and live with them and I think I have managed to do that," Edgardo says.

"After everything we lived through, and those who died, those who were ignored, those who killed themselves, we still have this dream that one day the islands will be ours again."

Watch Part 1 of Veterans: The Falklands
Watch part 2


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Source: Al Jazeera