Shame On Us
This year, I was lucky enough to witness the huge marches that are part of the Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice) in Cordoba, Argentina. Hundreds of people with painted faces were dancing to booming drumbeats, and fireworks went off erratically in the middle of the street. But when I saw a woman about 30 years my senior, masked and graffitiing the walls of banks and bus stops with political messages, I realised this march wasn’t just a celebration. There was a much deeper meaning.
These are marches of awareness and memory in Argentina. Held on the 24th of March, Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia is a national holiday that commemorates the 30,000 victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship that began in 1976, and the state terrorism known as the ‘Guerra Sucia’ (Dirty War).
This year was the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the dictatorship and the atrocities that followed, and many in Argentina still bear emotional and physical scars from that time. In 1976, Argentina’s military staged a coup, seized power and began a violent process of eliminating ideological and political opposition. Across the country, there were 505 clandestine detention centres set up to imprison and dehumanise those who were believed to not agree with the new military government. The victims of these detention centres were tortured and killed. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves, the locations of which are still unknown to all but the people who worked there. The trials of these captors that committed such crimes against humanity only began recently.
Argentinians march for those who suffered, and for themselves. They march to show that they will never let human rights be violated again.
A few days after the marches, I visited La Perla, the biggest detention centre in the Córdoba province. Here around 2,500 prisoners were tortured and killed. Now the centre has been turned into a place for remembrance, a place to learn about what happened in this time and to build the same solidarity and memory that is shared at the marches. From the outside, it looked surprisingly like a school. I had imagined the place would have a sinister vibe, but to my surprise, the surroundings were actually quite tranquil and beautiful. But this all changed as I walked through the buildings and saw pictures of the victims who spent their last days in agony there, profiles of the military people who operated the centre and their statuses in the continuing trials, as well as photos of the women who fought tirelessly in Córdoba for any opportunity to see their loved ones again, piecing together the story of those who had “disappeared”.
At the end of the tour, I was asked if we had anything like it at home in Australia, after which I could not help but think of the offshore detention centres set up for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. I didn’t think of these places in order to compare them to La Perla – they were of course not set up by a cruel dictatorship – but I could not ignore the way basic human rights are violated by the state in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Reports from the UNHCR, Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights Commission and many other organisations, including government inquiries, outline and condemn the human rights abuses that go on in these centres. Alleged physical and sexual abuses of adults and children by staff and locals, the shocking number of detainees that self-harm, not to mention the long-lasting impact that detention and poor conditions will have on those held in these centres for the rest of their lives. It may not be the intention of those who run these centres and the governments that let the practice continue, but there is no doubt these institutions torture and dehumanise the individuals sent there in the name of national security, just like those sent to La Perla.
Recently, around 196 asylum seekers have been granted community detention in Australia and will not have to return to these horrible offshore centres after their medical treatment on the mainland. That said, there are still asylum seekers being held at Nauru and Manus Island and the horror stories continue to flow. Their human rights are still being violated.
We have a choice to make in Australia. Will we visit our detention centres in the future to mourn their victims and remember a time of immense cruelty? Will we be marching for justice 40 years from now? Or will we march now, to respect those who have passed already and to bring justice for all those people who would rather set themselves alight than live in purgatory? We do not have to wait to realise and regret our mistakes – we can grant the needy asylum now and return these people their rights.
One day, Australians will regret their silence and will be forced to apologise for the human rights abuses happening now in offshore detention centres with bi-partisan support. One day, we’ll be marching and mourning the victims, promising we’ll never do this again. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.
Cover via HuffPost