I write about cities because they are the only constant. I have existed in these places. This is a generous guarantee. I look back and realize that all I am certain of is having been there. What I thought then about myself, about life, about all those fallacious variables has now assuredly changed. In youth, it is impossible to anticipate what it will feel like to realize you were wrong. We learn early that hindsight is 20/20. We toss that phrase around bawdily, as if to assure each other and ourselves that we are aware of lunar phases, of eclipses, of waning stars we never even saw glow. We know that there will be a moment where what we thought we knew will change and we will be irrevocably altered. But there is no way to anticipate the quake. This is the record of the shifting.
We visited a detention center one sunny afternoon. One of those last sunny afternoons in Argentina when I could feel the end approaching and couldn’t quite tell if I wanted it to come. The subway lines didn’t reach the part of the city where the detention center was, we took a bus instead. A bus full of people toeing the boundary between adolescence and adulthood, and so unsure of which part to play. We made easy jokes to distract ourselves of our own uncertainty.
Garage Olimpo was a bus garage and then it was a torture facility. Intention is permeable. Before we were given a tour of the structure we were sat down and talked to by the keeper of this makeshift crypt. The afternoon was hot and Spanish was easy to ignore if you tried hard enough. The walls were white and unmarked except for the banner that covered the far right wall. It was a collage of black and white photos of the victims, of the disappeared. There is a chance, an astronomically large possibility in fact, that education has made me a lifelong cynic. Those photos of all those missing people, crooked smiles and teased hair, stared back blankly. What I felt in the pit of my stomach (is that below where the food goes?) was the sterile blanket pity that black and white photos of genocide victims call forth. They say we once were people who sat for photographs. But they all say it. And they all say it so loudly that I had to tune them out like I did the Spanish that afternoon. I listened to my stomach instead, the place where the food goes.
Above the entrance, a sign said, “Welcome to the Olympus of the Gods. The Centurions.” The center was open for six months, from August 1978 to January 1979. Seven hundred prisoners walked under that sign once. Fifty walked under it twice. The building was a warehouse that was used as a bus terminal. In early 1978 cells were built to house the detainees. They were built by prisoners who were transferred from other detention centers. The sun held high overhead. It was a late spring Argentine and the fronds of the palm tree in the courtyard didn’t dare sway. I don’t remember the guide’s name today. He led us around pointing out where the cells used to be, where feet used to drag. When Garage Olimpo was abandoned as a detention center, the proof of its purpose was hidden. The cells that had been hastily constructed where the buses used to sit were taken down and everything was covered with a fresh layer of concrete. Underneath the concrete the foundations remained. In the kitchen, in the showers, the guide had us read poems written by detainees that had lived there. In heavily accented Spanish, tongues struggling to replicate the Argentine lilts, we held a literary séance.
In Argentina, the terror the government inflicted upon its people was not simply a cataclysmic aberration of law and expectation but rather the all too foreseeable result of a series of discretely executed parts. This is the least reassuring of all the facts. We expect aberrations, are taught that nothing will ever be the way we expected. But forget that chance is never chance but the retroactive result of consciences maligned. In Argentina there was bad governance to blame and a military that grew in strength and the discrete wishes of flesh and bone. And as is often the case, that history is interesting only in what it begot. I tell you this because of the difficulty in untangling the series of events that led to all that silence. It was a war of acronyms that slip away before you can remember the difference between the FAR or ERP or PEN. Acronyms proliferate in Argentine society greedily and I never understood how anyone kept track of them all. I bet the truth is somewhere behind all those letters but acronyms hide the truth like foundations cemented over. What you need to know is this: that Isabel Perón was an unqualified leader, that the military grew much too strong for its own good and that there were people who opposed them and, in doing so, opposed the ticks and tocks of their prescribed chronology.
Three hundred and forty detention centers were built with corresponding mass graves. The military called one torture facility on the outskirts of Buenos Aires El Vesubio, Vesuvius, for the black plumes of smoke that rose from the flesh volcano and swirled into the sky. The inky fog was caused by the burning of tires and corpses and could be seen from a distance. Rubber burns with a stench more odorous than that of incinerated skin. At least the victims of the center’s namesake were fossilized, found in the fetal position, an odd coincidence in birth and death. El Vesubio was also called “The Sheraton.” Vacations at Uruguay’s luxurious Punta del Este beach were ruined for many with the sudden appearance of ‘floaters,’ the bodies of victims that had been dumped into the River Plate and drifted like discarded bottles onto distant shores.
Imagine Auschwitz in your backyard or Dacchau down the block. Imagine torture so close that you could hear the clipped shrieks. The Dirty War made Buenos Aires complicit in the pain. This was a city made dangerous; where suspicion was bred with the finesse of pedigreed dogs.
Nunca Más was the name of the report issued by the perhaps grandiosely named “Truth Commission,” established to investigate the disappearances. They came to a number of conclusions. Nearly 9,000 disappearances were found to have occurred between 1976 and 1983. That is the official number. The real number is somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000. Families feared coming forward because the government was in charge of the disappearances. They didn’t know whom to trust so they trusted no one. It was also found that all the disappeared were killed and the impossibility of tracing their whereabouts was intentional. The government had all incriminating documentation destroyed. Memory is faulty in the hands of a government who has both the power to forget and to remember.
Description of El Olimpo from Nunca Más:
Steel entrance gate, possibly red. A corrugated tin roof some 10 meters high covered most of the buildings. These were new, about three meters high, with flat concrete roofs, where there were two or three guards. The entrance was through the guards’ post. Prisoners were transferred through a double door. On the left there was a picture of the Virgin Mary. An isolation wing with large pointed windows, blocked with masonry, so that only their tops were left uncovered. Small torture room, latrines. On the other side another torture room, a cell, a photographic and fingerprint laboratory, a special operations office. A kitchen and dining-room opposite. One infirmary for treatment and another for internment. Files and documentation office, another for X-rays. Three corridors of cells, each row of cells with a toilet with a curtain for a door, in the third row a wash-basin and showers. A guard room with a window on to the car park. A larger room was used for the repair of household, electrical and electronic goods stolen during the raids.
We had been told of the ranch and I awaited it restlessly. Late November was approaching and the heat promised arrived ungracefully. We left behind the concrete apartment blocks and mega shopping centers that encircle the city proper. Lines unmarked by man or machine, we saw the endless plains that they call pampas and soon entered a demarcated land of country estates. The dirt road that led to his home was well tread and a double row of trees flanked each side. There were those slat fences that don’t keep anything but large animals out and behind them horses, 20 or 30 coffee-colored horses that clung to each other like children in a schoolyard, moving in jagged negotiation when disturbed by the rumble of our jeep.
The uniformed women set the dinner table for us outside amongst the trees and under the thunder whose claps I tried to measure for distance, hoping the rain would hold off at least until dessert. Livestock raised on the ranch was grilled and vegetables from the garden made into a salad and everyone tried to act as if a dinner lit by candles and flashes of approaching lightening were a thing done casually. The heat had to break. Why do we say that heat breaks? As if heat were a glass cup that could fall from a shaky hand. Heat collapses under the weight of its own being like a tent after a storm or a person after a beating. Two bites in, it broke. We grabbed our plates and wine glasses and fled into the dining room. And it was as we finished our meals and the conversation turned to singer Sade—or maybe it was that night, after the bath I took in the tub with the faucets that said chaud and froid (I was in Argentina and that house was built only 17 years before I sat there and they choose the French words for hot and cold because they were rich and they were cultured and their own language didn’t translate money with the verisimilitude of French)—or it was on the patio reading the next morning, that I wondered whether this wealthy family had anything to do with the disappearances.