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Life In Argentina's 'Little School' Prison Camp


On Friday, the man who oversaw Argentina's Dirty War died. Jorge Rafael Videla was 87 and in prison for his role in thousands of brutal killings and kidnappings in the 1970s. Many were sent to concentration camps and never heard from again. Others survived. Alicia Partnoy is an Argentine poet and one of the women imprisoned at a place called The Little School. She was eventually released and has written about her experiences in a memoir, an account submitted as evidence to Argentina's Truth Commission. So after all these years, how will the death of Videla impact those how were wronged by him?

If you've lived under an oppressive power, how did you react when they died? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address: talk@ npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining me now from NPR West in Culver City is Alicia Partnoy. She's an Argentine poet and author of the memoir, "The Little School." Welcome to the program.

ALICIA PARTNOY: Thank you. Thanks for having me here.

LUDDEN: Can you start off by sharing your thoughts and emotions when you heard this news of Videla's death on Friday?

PARTNOY: I heard - I first read an email from a friend who was with me in jail, a survivor, and she said Videla died. He did not repent. I - people ask me if I have - I feel joy. I think joy is too much of an emotion for someone who was such a destructive entity. We feel relief. Sometimes when other genocide perpetrators, other people who are involved in killings of my friends or the torture at the Little School died, we felt outrage, because they died without justice. But with Videla, at least the worst - he was in jail. He had been condemned. So there is a feeling of relief, if you wish, and justice was on its way on several causes, also in several other trials, aside from him.

LUDDEN: But he didn't go through nearly what you did. I mean, you said justice was on its way, but could anything make you feel redeemed?

PARTNOY: It's been my struggle all these years, first, to remember, first, to bring the disappeared - the memory of the disappeared ones back into the history of our country, and second, justice. I mean, it's not - I had a book that is called, "Revenge of the Apple," but our revenge is to see the - our power as a sweetness, as something that overcomes the destruction that they wanted to establish. So that is - and especially in the cases of the children, the disappeared children, and those came to haunt him at the very end.

LUDDEN: And we should remind the listeners, there were hundreds of babies, right, babies and small children taken and...

PARTNOY: Taken or born in the concentration camps, about 500, and maybe more. And so the grandmothers (unintelligible) mothers of those children had organized for all these decades since 1976. He ruled from '76 to '78. But then there were other juntas, and he facilitated that happening. And so the recent trials and last year where he was condemned for the disappearance, what's we call the systematic plan to rob, to disappear, to kidnap babies from the distance.

LUDDEN: Now, can you take us back to your experience? You were a student activist in 1977. Taken from your home, what happened?

PARTNOY: I was taken to this concentration camp, the (unintelligible) camp, the little school in Bahia Blanca, my city, and I was kept there for three and a half months, disappeared. That's what they did. And Videla said disappearances - the disappeared is an entity. She is not dead or she is not dead if she's not alive. It's a commodity.

That figure, he - because he was interviewed while he was in jail. And he would say those things like, oh, the mothers? They were using the babies as shields to, you know, to fight against us, and the babies were their shields. So he doesn't feel bad about killing or disappearing or taking these babies.

LUDDEN: Well, you were taken from your 18-month-old child.

PARTNOY: Yeah. But I was very, very lucky that my girl survived. She was with relatives of my - with relatives, because my parents went to rescue her. I was in my hometown. But in many cases the relatives didn't find out of what had happened to their - to the parents of their, you know, grandchildren, and so they could never recover them.

In the place where I was held, a baby was born. Actually, two babies were born, we're still looking for them. And that's what I write about, being, you know, try to find these children and get them back.

LUDDEN: You and those mothers, you're still in touch with the mothers.

PARTNOY: Yeah, yeah. Well, the mother of the baby was killed and the father too. But I'm in touch with the sister, Adriana (unintelligible) she's looking for the baby. And that's what I've been writing and, you know, and trying to concentrate on that. And I leave the justice in the hands of the people in the country who are really very good at that in Argentina these days.

LUDDEN: Listeners, if you are from Argentina or Chile or Cambodia or have lived under other oppressive regimes, call us with your experiences at the death of a dictator: 800-989-8255. Our email is at talk@npr.org. Alicia Partnoy, I came across a quote from the former dictator Videla. He told journalists many years later, disappearing people was pragmatic, that, quote, Argentinean society would not have tolerated firing squads.

PARTNOY: Yeah. Yeah, he said that. And he also said that the church provided him with good services (unintelligible) because they consulted with the Catholic Church because that's their religion, the official religion in the country. And they said, what do we do with the disappeared? What do we do? And they found out - and this is what - so he implicated the church in these interviews. I mean he implicated a bunch of people because he didn't - he felt he was conducting a duty by eliminating the dissidents.

So he says, oh, it's, you know, let's find a solution so the population doesn't get too upset about these disappearing - disappeared people being, you know, killed, like you said. So they throw people from planes into the ocean. And they said that was, you know, that was the best in terms of religion that they could have done.

LUDDEN: You yourself have written of being blindfolded for three and a half months and badly, badly mistreated. I mean you have written a lot about this. Has that helped you? Is it - is there such a thing as getting over this or getting beyond it?

PARTNOY: I think that healing is highly overrated. But I survived, thanks to the solidarity of people and thanks to things like what we are doing today. I mean we were silenced. We - they tried to disappear us. And so now he's no longer on the world and we can still talk about his crimes and denounce him and make sure that they are not repeated. Yeah, I wrote a story in the little school about Senor - a form of address, about this senor.

LUDDEN: Can you read a little bit of that for us?

PARTNOY: Yeah. Senor, the muffled voice of Maria Elena came from under a blanket. It was one of the summer's hottest afternoons, and Bruja had decided that we should lie on our stomachs and cover our heads with blankets. The guards had been shifted without our noticing it. Peine, surprised at the order, allowed us to breathe after three hours of suffocation. Senor, a newly arrived prisoner called out in despair.

He wanted to have his blindfold replaced before the guard discovered himself that it was loose and accuse him of not telling. Senor came to pick him up. And he was, after all, during this period that the most senior of the senors was senor president of the republic, Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla.

LUDDEN: Do you feel differently now that he is dead?

PARTNOY: I learned not to leave space in my mind for them. So - I mean it's just a sense of duty. Let's do justice. Let's try to build the safest world for - and the safest - safer country for us, or for the people in the Argentina, and a safer world.

PARTNOY: And no, I mean he - I knew he was going to die. The thing is, well, will justice reach him before he dies? And in a sense he died in a jail, in a jail for common prisoners, for criminals, as he should have been. And he was sentenced for, you know, 50 years in jail and he was in his 80s. Of course he lived the life of privilege before but, well, we learned not to expect too much and this is huge for us as survivors.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We have Brendan on the line from Little Rock, Arkansas. Hi there, Brendan. Welcome to the program.

BRENDAN: Hello. Thanks for taking my call. And I appreciate the attention that NPR is paying to this very significant part of history that most Americans - United States Americans don't appreciate.

I was down in Argentina living from '83 to '85. It was a real tough time down there, hyper-inflation. It was after the Malvinas conflict. And in my associations down there, I heard a lot about los desaparecidos, which is how they're called in Spanish.

And in fact, unbeknownst to me, while I was living in one of the cities in Northern Argentina - Resistencia, Chaco - I walked by on a daily basis to pick up my mail by one of the purported tortured chambers that was involved in these crimes that were done against the Argentine people.

The Argentine people are wonderful. It's a sad chapter in their history. And hopefully nothing like that ever gets repeated. And I think it's important for the whole world to know about that. And I congratulate this author in being very bold and sharing her experiences, which have to be very difficult for her to relive. And I think she has expressed very elegantly how with nobility she can move on and she is a better person as a result of this. And we can all learn from this.

LUDDEN: So Brendan, what did you think when you read of former dictator Jorge Videla's death?

BRENDAN: Well, I didn't have any particular tie to him but I thought about Argentino(ph), and I thought about when I arrived down 1983 and they were still under a military junta, and how for a 19-year-old coming from United States that was an alien experience. And it was just a different way that those poor people were subjected to for decades.

LUDDEN: All right. Thank you so very much. Alicia Partnoy, what was the conversation like with other Argentineans after the news of his death came out?

PARTNOY: Well, people were saying things like, oh, well, Satan will have somebody to chat with. You know, they were talking about how, you know, in hell they were going to be rejoicing with his arrival.

In one of the things - well, we are still trying, you know, discussing and then try to find out exactly what he was charged for and when, because (unintelligible) amnesty at several times. Whether I was thinking - at first I was looking for information on the death of Rios - I mean the death - the trial for Rios Montt, who was recently the dictator from Guatemala who was recently condemned for genocide, and is the first case that is being condemned for genocide. And I said that cannot be.

I'm sure Videla was condemned for genocide. And it's not competition, but it's like, well - but he was condemned for crimes against humanity and those crimes don't prescribe(ph). So we were discussing the details and just go on, go on with the trials, go on with the justice.

LUDDEN: Will you continue to write about this - now, is that part of your process of making this a small place in your mind as you said earlier?

PARTNOY: I have been writing. Yes, I do write - and poetry too, but I wasn't thinking of bringing those things to share with you today.


PARTNOY: But our main struggle now is to find the children, to find the children, to find those - and he died with that secret. So that was one of our biggest grievances with these people when they die, they die in silence and they never tell us what they did to these children, what they did to those bodies. He does not repent but he does not give information, and many of them - and most of them are not in these trials that they called trials for the truth. We, the survivors, are the ones telling the truth, but he never opened their mouth and tell us what they did. So, yeah.

LUDDEN: Well, thank you so very much. Alicia Partnoy is an Argentinean poet and activist. She was imprisoned at the little school during Argentina's Dirty War. She's now an associate professor at the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Loyola Marymount University, and she joined us from NPR West. Thank you so much.

PARTNOY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, we'll talk about motivation. How do we get people to change? This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.