By Lucila Sigal
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentine army veteran Luis Poncetta has traveled twice to the Falkland Islands to pay tribute to comrades who fell in a 74-day conflict with British forces 40 years ago. The divisions, he has found, still linger.
Argentina and Britain have long disputed the sovereignty of the British-run group of islands in the South Atlantic that Argentina knows as the Malvinas. In 1982, that erupted into a short war that claimed the lives of 650 Argentine soldiers and 255 British troops.
The two countries now have cordial relations, although the islands remain a constant source of tension. For the veterans, that is expressed in who is allowed to grieve and how.
During visits to the islands, Argentine veterans have been placing flags and commemorative objects, as well as posting and sharing pictures online.
That angers the islanders. Island authorities prohibit the placing of objects or flags, or taking away stones and soil as mementos. Commemorative acts are permitted only in the Darwin cemetery, where 237 Argentine soldiers are buried.
“The battle for memory goes on,” said Carlos Landa, an archaeologist at the University of Buenos Aires. “It’s a fight for that disputed heritage continuing in the virtual sphere.”
The conflict began on April 2, 1982, when Argentine troops landed on the islands, located some 400 miles (644 km) from the Argentine coast. Britain, then led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sent a naval task force to retake them. The poorly equipped and trained Argentine troops stood little chance and by June Argentina had surrendered.
The war is widely seen as a mistake by a discredited military dictatorship ruling Argentina at the time, but the islands remain a potent national symbol and most Argentines support the South American country’s claims over them.
Poncetta, 60, a retired attorney, laid a plaque on the islands in 2006 at the place he had fought as a young man in 1982. When he returned years later it was gone. He said it was painful to mourn in secret.
“When they honor their dead, I understand because we honor our own. They can do it there because the islands are still theirs, we pay homage but in a very underhand way,” he said.
What the veterans were doing was “an act of recovery, an act of memory,” said Landa. “It’s an ephemeral, clandestine act, seen by few people.”
Many Falklanders, who commemorate the end of the war on June 14 as a day of liberation, still view Argentina with mistrust and demand self-determination for the archipelago. In a 2013 referendum almost all islanders voted to remain British. Many Argentines views the islanders as colonists illegally occupying the land.
Gavin Short, a member of the Falklands Legislative Assembly, told Reuters via Zoom the anniversary of the war was still “very sensitive” and that placing commemorative plaques, rosaries or flags was “out of order” and brought back unwanted memories.
“We do ask that they are respectful of our fields, it is our country, we were invaded and you know leaving stuff like that around is in your face almost,” he said.
“It brings everything back and it is in your face and really it is disrespectful to the people of the Falklands.”
Some of the commemorations emphasize unity rather than conflict. Last month, former combatants from both Britain and Argentina attended a mass together in Buenos Aires.
“There is something very deep between a veteran and another veteran. A British veteran sometimes is closer to an Argentine veteran and vice versa than… to a civilian,” said former British colonel Geoffrey Cardozo.
“What we are doing today is marvelous. It should have happened years ago, but we have to be patient.”
(Reporting by Lucila Sigal; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)