BUENOS AIRES // The Falklands War continues to claim lives more than one quarter of a century after the battle for the islands ended as the suicide rate among Argentine veterans continues to rise. The war, which began on April 2 1982, lasted 74 days, with 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed. Three civilians also died in the conflict over the Falklands, which are known as the Malvinas in Argentina.
But at least 400 Argentine veterans have taken their own lives, according to a veterans' organisation, highlighting the torment of those who came back defeated to a country that wanted to forget. "When we returned we were ignored," said Peniel Villarreal 47, who was seriously injured and is a member of the Federation of War Veterans of Argentina. "We were nobodies. Nobody wanted to talk to us, give us health care or jobs. We came back from a campaign where our friends were killed to a country that viewed us as letting them down. That's why more than 400 of our colleagues have taken their own lives."
The veterans call it a "forgotten war" because no one wants to remember the battle. The military junta ordered them not to speak about their experiences and the veterans went quietly back to their homes and struggled to rebuild their lives. "Make no mistake, at first we were proud and even happy to be called on to serve," said Enrique Lenton, 46, who saw action on Mount Tumbledown. "The Malvinas are Argentine land and we believed we were fighting colonialism. But as soon as we landed we knew we were unprepared. It was freezing; we did not have adequate clothing: some even wore sandals. The equipment was not up to standard. We shivered in the trenches. Originally we believed that all we had to do was land and then the diplomats and politicians would sort it out. But we soon realised we had to fight."
Argentina's military regime mistakenly counted on the United States to support its 149-year-old claim to the British territory. The defeat marked the beginning of the end for the junta and a democratic government was elected in 1983. The veterans federation has 12,000 members and is now fighting on another front, for social benefits. The federation has had some success, Mr Villarreal said, but it has few resources.
"We managed to increase the pension from 550 pesos (Dh495) to 3,000 pesos monthly. But we also need adequate health care. "We are trying to get in touch and bring in more members as the suicide rate shows many veterans still have great difficulty coming to terms with the trauma. This is a huge country and it can be logistically difficult to meet with people, but they need our support and someone to talk to."
Reports come in every month to the federation of suicides. Many have been recorded in the remote provinces of Chacos and Corrientes in the north of the country, where conscripts had never seen the sea or snow before being sent to the Falklands. In 1982, Argentina had conscription, with compulsory military service of one year for the army and two for the navy. Despite their experiences the veterans harbour no ill feeling towards the British. They realise they were used in a catastrophic gamble by a despised military junta but they all passionately believe the islands are Argentinian. All are also unanimous on the professionalism of the British army especially in their treatment of prisoners.
"We were treated well by the British," Mr Villarreal said as others nod their heads in agreement. "I was injured when a mortar landed on my foot in the battle for Goose Green. It blew away the legs of my companion and I thought I was dead. I was taken to a hospital ship, the Uganda, where I begged them not to kill me." Smiling, Mr Villareal remembers the doctor's words exactly: "I am here to cure you, not to kill you. He did. He saved the foot."
Years later, a friend of Mr Villarreal met the doctor who treated him at a trauma medical course in the United States. The doctor came to Argentina to meet his former patient. "It was an emotional moment. His name was Michael Jones and he asked me how the leg was. I said 'fine'. I owe him my life." The veterans hold regular meetings at a small building located in a rundown part of Buenos Aires. Across town, on a patch of prime real estate, stands the memorial to those killed in the campaign. An eternal flame burns above names etched in marble. If the names of those who committed suicide were added, another memorial of almost the same size would be needed.