The Disappeared

Eduardo Rabossi

It was 30 December 1983, and the National Commission on the Disappeared had been set up by Presidential decree a few days earlier. Ernesto Sábato, Ricardo Colombres, Magdalena Ruíz Guiñazú and I were sitting at an unusually large table in an office in downtown Buenos Aires. All the adjoining offices were deserted, with the exception of one in which four young civil servants from the Ministry of the Interior, sent ‘to give us a hand at the start’, were talking nervously. They were frightened; democracy in Argentina was only twenty days old, following the removal of Galtieri.

‘We have to start right away,’ said Sábato, as if to reassure himself. We agreed, but after a short and nervous exchange of ideas we entered on a long silence. For years, we had been demanding a review of human rights violations. The fate of Argentinian democracy, we argued, depended on knowing the truth and on justice being done. One of the civil servants came into the room: ‘Sir, a couple wants to make a statement. I think it’s about their son.’ I volunteered to hear them. The couple were in their late forties, well-dressed, well-mannered, typical of the aspiring middle class of Buenos Aires. The woman made the deposition:

My son was educated in Catholic schools and is a young lawyer. He opened a small office in a suburb of Buenos Aires. Some of his schoolfellows were involved in social work in the villas-miseria. They wanted to help the poor, you know. Two of them were taken in by a group of policemen, or by people claiming to be policemen. When their relatives failed to locate them, they asked my son for help. How could he turn them down? Days later, three more schoolfellows were taken in, and again my son helped their relatives. He’s such a good-natured person. He asked for habeas corpus, made inquiries in police stations and at the Ministry of the Interior. One day ‘they’ came to his office, took over files and documents and bundled him into a Ford Falcon without licence plates – so the neighbours told me. We haven’t heard from him again.

‘Which court dealt with the habeas corpus and which human rights group has recorded your son’s disappearance?’ I asked. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘we never made a claim. We haven’t been in touch with human rights groups, not even with the Interamerican Commission. This is the first time we’ve made a public deposition. We’ve made a terrible mistake, I know. I’ll never forgive myself for that. Had we done something, our son would still be with us.’ The man spoke for the first time. ‘You may want to know why I haven’t complained about my son’s disappearance.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s not our business to dig into such personal matters.’ ‘I’ll tell you, though. I’m a colonel in the Argentinian army ... I will appreciate your help. Thank you, all of you.’

The National Commission on the Disappeared comprised ten citizens chosen by President Raúl Alfonsín, ‘enjoying national and international prestige and known for their commitment to human rights’ (later, three more members were nominated by the Congress). The Commission was to clarify all the events relating to the disappearances and to inquire into the fate and whereabouts of the desaparecidos themselves. It was not a judicial body: it had no power to decide on criminal responsibility. It was authorised to receive depositions, to gather evidence, to obtain information from state officials, to inspect public buildings and to present cases to the courts. By the end of its term (initially six months, later extended to nine), it was to hand the President a report of its findings. It was an independent body without political ties and it was up to the members of the Commission to appoint a Chairperson; we unanimously chose Sábato, whose moral standing as Argentina’s greatest living writer was without equal.

The first two weeks were difficult. The human rights groups had favoured a different form of inquiry: a parliamentary commission endowed with special jurisdictional powers. This alternative was supported by various political groups, who saw our Commission as a stratagem by which to circumvent any real investigation into the fate of the desaparecidos. They refused, at first, to collaborate with us. Their help was essential: they had been collecting data for years, had received thousands of reports, had recorded the writs of habeas corpus and the legal cases that had been brought, had trained people in such tasks, and had brought together relatives of the desaparecidos. We visited the human rights groups one by one, making clear to them that we intended to fulfil our mission and present our findings to the courts. After some discussion, they decided to collaborate, sent us trained personnel, and submitted their files.

By the end of January 1984, five secretariats had been set up and we had a staff of almost a hundred. The flow of relatives was constant, and testimonies on the disappearances piled quickly up. The accounts of almost fifteen hundred people who had been held in secret detention centres enabled us to locate each one of them. Step by step the workings of the illegal repression network became apparent. A list of names, recording age and the date and place of disappearance, was produced: it ran to almost nine thousand cases.

On 20 September 1984, the Commission handed its Report to President Alfonsín. Outside Government House, in the Plaza de Mayo, almost sixty thousand people followed the ceremony in tense silence. The President decided that the Report should be made public, and within two months the University of Buenos Aires Press had produced a first edition of Nunca Más (Never Again). Forty thousand copies were sold on the first day. As Ronald Dworkin put it in his introduction to the English translation: ‘Nunca Más is a report from Hell ... its story has two themes: ultimate brutality and absolute caprice ... the perverse exhilaration of absolute, uncontrolled dominion over others, which became an end in itself, a way of life.’

Along with most of my colleagues on the Commission, I had assumed that Sábato would play a leading role in writing the Report, but we were wrong. For him it was not to be a literary work. ‘Let the testimonies speak for themselves,’ he told us, ‘avoid using adjectives.’ Looking back, it was this restraint that helped to make Nunca Más the powerful document it is. Sábato’s only contribution to it is the Prologue, which is the product of his ratiocinative side. It takes up the relevant topics one by one and gives a clear and, I think, basically correct picture, of an Argentina torn apart by terror from both the extreme Right and the far Left. Sábato urges that a country must not abandon the principle of law in its fight against terrorism – that basic individual rights can never be suspended, even in the most catastrophic state of emergency. Violations and repressions carried out by members of the Argentinian armed forces were not individual excesses but the diabolical actions of men carrying out orders. In the name of national security, thousands of human beings fell into the sinister, ghostly category of desaparecidos, who lost all human rights, from the moment of their abduction. Such catastrophes are always instructive, Sábato ends by saying: only democracy can safeguard human rights.

Sábato’s chairmanship remained low-profile when technical matters were being discussed, but became outspoken when political or moral decisions were involved. He paid little attention to administrative or protocol matters, but focused his attention on the people who wanted to tell their tragic stories to him in particular and to get a word of hope. Sábato listened carefully and managed to convey a sort of fatherly protection, in which his gestures were more important than words.

Daily exposure to all this horror meant we all needed to break off now and again. This was an opportunity to learn about Sábato’s early life: about his marriage, against the emphatic opposition of his wife’s family; his doctorate in physics and the scientific research he did in Germany; his drastic decision to abandon science and become a writer (‘I even gave away my scientific library, kept only a couple of books and a philosophical work by Carnap’); his retreat to Córdoba (seven hundred kilometres from Buenos Aires) with his wife and children, to write his first books; his throwing away piles of discarded pages that his wife recovered silently at night, until he took to burning them.

The Angel of Darkness consists mainly of ‘confessions, dialogues and a few dreams’, as a group of people, including Sábato himself, are caught up in a series of events. The events take place in the course of the year 1972, a time when the idealistic views and climate of the late Sixties had spread among Argentinian youth. A military government was fading away (once again) and the coming elections promised (once again) a return to constitutional rule – this time with the almost certain triumph of Peronism and the return of Perón himself from exile. In 1972 it was fashionable to speak derisively of democracy as ‘only a formal’ political arrangement. Very few foresaw the inevitability of a major tragedy. Left-wing terrorism had already established itself in Argentina and we had also had the first brutal reactions from the extreme Right. Sábato was one of the few to see the writing on the wall. His prescience is manifested in the opening pages of The Angel of Darkness, when a drunken character sees ‘a fiery monster spread out across the sky’. He is the only one of the group to see it, however. When he looks again, ‘the monster was now spewing fire from the mouth of its seven heads.’

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the book is some sort of chronicle or description of Argentina in 1972. This is not Sábato’s aim. ‘Only mediocre writers,’ he writes, ‘can give a simple chronicle, describe faithfully ... the external reality of a time or a nation. The power of great writers is so overwhelming that they can’t do this, couldn’t even if they wanted to.’ For Sábato this ‘power’ is maieutic, as it were: great writers (or great artists, to use his own word) are instrumental in bringing into the world an obscure, tragic reality. Their characters ‘are hypostases which both figure forth the creator and betray him, because they can surpass him in both kindness and iniquity, in both generosity and miserliness’.

Sábato’s personal presence in The Angel of Darkness is ubiquitous. The book is, in a funny way, an autobiographical sketch in which some of Sábato’s views and many of his everyday problems in living are recorded. But it goes much further than that. The book opens with a peculiar quotation from Lermontov: ‘It is possible that I will die tomorrow, and no one on earth have understood me. Some will think me better than I am. And others will think me worse. Some will say that I was a good person; others that I was a cur. But both opinions will be equally wrong.’ It closes with a visit paid by one character to the small home town of another. He passes by the family house, sits down in the plaza and finally visits the cemetery. The names on the tombstones bring back memories of individuals and families. Suddenly, he is shocked to see a tombstone that says: ‘ERNESTO SÁBATO. Who wished to be buried in this ground with a single word above his grave – Peace.’