By Sheli DeNola
For Argentina, the Oct. 9 court decision convicting Christian von Wernich of kidnapping and torturing civilians marked the symbolic end to a dirty war.
The trial heralded a victory for human rights organizations that have campaigned vigorously the past two decades to bring justice to those responsible for the state-initiated violence that lasted from 1976 to 1983. Included is — a priest serving under the former Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo — who was convicted of collaborating with police to kidnap 42 people and torture 31 others.
But for Nurit Ben Shlomo, the court’s decision also brought her own traumatic history to a close.
Schlomo and her husband were arrested following the bombing of a government official’s house on the grounds that Ben Shlomo was a community activist.
“They had nothing against us, they searched our whole house in hopes of finding something incriminating. They found some socialist books; it wasn’t illegal but they didn’t want to let us go,” Ben Shlomo said. “In the beginning I was scared. They blind-folded and handcuffed us. From there they took us to the torture center and we could hear the screams of those who were being tortured.”
Ben Shlomo and her husband were among the lucky ones. They were eventually taken to prison.
It is estimated that 10,000-30,000 people “disappeared” at the hands of the dictatorship during the Dirty War, which emerged after the death of Argentinean President Juan Peron in 1974.
Peron’s wife Isabel assumed power after his death, but she was easily swayed by her advisers, and in 1976 a military coup took-over the country. In an effort to retain absolute rule, the coup launched a campaign to eliminate all opposition.
This eventually ended in 1983, but the Dirty War left a very bitter legacy.
Ben Shlomo was separated from her husband in prison, and only allowed to meet with him once a week under supervision.
“It was hardest for those with children,” she said. “When they arrested us, my daughter was only two years old and my son two weeks old. Luckily, my mother took care of them, but it wasn’t until four months later that I was able to see my son again.”
After a year of imprisonment, Ben Shlomo was given the choice to leave her country of birth or stay in prison. Along with her husband and children, Ben Shlomo left Argentina.
She has now been living in Israel since 1978, and insists that conditions in Argentina are much better now than they were before she left the country — especially now that Wernich has been tried and convicted.
For a country that has experienced such violent turmoil, hope is a welcome relief. But according to Margarita Lacabe, executive director of human rights organization Derechos, there is still a lot to be done.
“At least 1,000 people need to go to trial,” Lacabe said. But she’s optimistic for the future: “Now that the trials have finally started we’re making progress.”
In 2005 the Argentinean Supreme Court repealed amnesty laws that had protected former government members. In addition government authorities are beginning to use DNA samples to identify those “disappeared.”
“The families of the disappeared want to know what happened, but most importantly they want to be able to bury their children,” Lacabe said. “They want to have a place to be with their children.”
Andrew Hudson, head of the Latin American division of Human Rights First, also sees hope in Wernich’s conviction. “In a society rebuilding after mass atrocity, it is of vital importance that those human rights violations be adequately addressed,” he said. “In this way a society can genuinely deal with its past and achieve real peace and reconciliation.”
Ben Shlomo continued, “People are opening things up again; it doesn’t matter that Wernich is 70 and won’t spend a day in prison.”
To Ben Shlomo and many others, the significance of Wernich’s conviction is not a matter of payback, it’s a matter of communicating justice to future generations.