ICRC: DNA Identification of Argentine War Dead: Continuing Progress
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continues to make further progress in identifying the remains of unknown Argentine soldiers buried in the Argentine cemetery near Darwin. So far, 110 bodies have been firmly identified through DNA testing, prompting the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) to offer a further visit of relatives in March this year. Discussions are also being held on the possibility of exhuming more graves at the Darwin cemetery for clarification purposes and also on Pebble Island.
The ICRC has now confirmed the identity of 110 Argentine soldiers from the 122 graves marked as ‘Known only to God’ in the Argentine cemetery near Darwin. This has prompted FIG to announce that it is prepared to facilitate another group visit by the Argentine families in March this year, similar to the initial group visit in March 2018 when the relatives of 88 previously unidentified Argentine soldiers were able to visit their loved ones.
The visit last year was widely acknowledged to have been a success, not only on organisational grounds but also as a humanitarian gesture of compassion for the bereaved – see following background note.
Since then, the slow, meticulous process of identifying the remaining bodies has continued as more Argentinian relatives have provided DNA samples – not everyone had done so initially for personal and political reasons – and consideration is being given to further work on the Argentine cemetery (where some issues connected with the 2004 reconfiguration of the cemetery may need to be clarified) with a possible extension to Pebble Island (where 5 crewmen of an Argentine military plane, shot down by a surface to air missile by HMS Exeter on 7 June 1982, were buried in a common grave).
The UK and Falkland Islands Governments have taken a positive, sympathetic stance towards the wishes of the Argentine relatives. It was agreed in May, for example, that the remains of Captain Luis Castagnari should be repatriated to Argentina: his body was reburied in Cordoba Province on 5 December 2018 – the first such repatriation from the Argentine cemetery since the conflict. The UK Ambassador in Buenos Aires also offered in July to facilitate a visit by relatives of Petty Officer Felix Arturo of the Argentine submarine Santa Fe to his grave in Grytviken, South Georgia.
Much has been made possible by the generosity of a wealthy Argentine benefactor, Eduardo Eurnekian (see below), who travelled to the Falklands in December 2018 to visit the cemetery which he helped to restore in 2004. He was accompanied by the UK Ambassador to Argentina (Mark Kent) as well as the UK Ambassador at the time, Sir Robin Christopher (2000-04).
Ironically, the Argentine Ambassador in London was heavily criticised by politicians in Argentina for his article reporting that Eurnekian had been "welcomed by the Islands’ top authorities”. He had to recant his words, apologise for any offence caused and reaffirm that the "legitimate authorities of the Malvinas” were (in Argentine eyes) the national government of Argentina and the Argentine Governor of the Province of Tierra del Fuego! President Macri has long been criticised by Argentine diehards for what they perceive as his policy of de-emphasising Argentina’s sovereignty claim; they are therefore quick to pick up on possible slips that suggest an acceptance of the British presence in the Falkland Islands.
ICRC DNA Identification Process
The ICRC had begun in 2012 to approach families of Argentine soldiers who had been buried in the Falkland Islands in unnamed graves to see whether there would be support for a DNA identification process that would allow their final resting places to be properly marked. This was a sensitive enough issue for the relatives but, at the political level, there was no possibility of agreement because of the confrontational policies of the Argentine Government under President Cristina de Kirchner.
The election of President Macri in December 2015, who sought improved relations with the UK Government, allowed progress to be made. Following wider bilateral discussions in Argentina between the FCO Minister of State, Sir Alan Duncan, and Argentine Deputy Foreign Minister, Carlos Foradori, the joint communique on 13 September 2016 expressed their ‘full support’ for the DNA identification proposal. A project plan, with the UK and Argentine Governments sharing the costs, was agreed between the relevant parties at a meeting hosted by the ICRC in Geneva on 9 December 2016. The plan was subsequently signed by UK and Argentine Ministers in London on 20 December 2016. Work at the Argentine cemetery in the Falklands was carried out between June and August 2017. The results were released that December, showing that 88 individuals had been identified from the 122 graves recorded.
Argentine Relatives Visit: 26 March 2018
Talks between FIG and the Argentine Families Commission were held in February 2018 to discuss the possibility of a group visit, which was subsequently confirmed for 26 March 2018. Meetings were then held to agree the logistical arrangements and to ensure that the sensitivities of all sides were taken into account.
On the day, over 200 relatives accompanied by the Argentine Minister for Human Rights, Claudio Avruj, and others arrived on privately chartered aircraft in the early morning from Buenos Aires, their departure having been advanced because of weather conditions at Mount Pleasant airport (although it turned out to be a sunny day). Passports having been presented, the group was transported directly to the Argentine cemetery near Darwin where local Spanish-speakers met them to act as guides and interpreters. A religious service was conducted by the Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires with local clergy in support. A military guard of honour was supplied by the 4th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (the Highlanders); pipers from 4 Scots played a lament; no flags were flown. There was good time for private reflection for the families before their return to the airport and departure in the afternoon. The chair of the Argentine Families Commission separately laid wreaths at the British cemetery in San Carlos. The FIG press notice afterwards said: "This visit by the relatives…shows what can be achieved with goodwill on both sides”.
After the families’ return, the Argentine Government paid tribute to various people who had helped to generate support for the ICRC project. A key person in this was a retired British Colonel, Geoffrey Cardozo MBE, who, as a Captain in the Royal Dragoon Guards, had been tasked immediately after the 1982 conflict to recover the bodies of Argentine soldiers and arrange for their burial. His scrupulous work, recorded with accuracy, was of major assistance to the ICRC in their work and to the Argentine veteran organisations in tracking down relatives in Argentina. Another, Roger Waters (of ‘Pink Floyd’ fame) who was on a tour in Argentina in 2012 had been persuaded to raise the issue with President Cristina de Kirchner and got her support. Both were presented with a special award – the Rose of Peace – at a ceremony in the Argentine Embassy in London. The Argentine Senate also honoured Geoffrey Cardozo and others involved in a ceremony on 14 August 2018. Geoffrey Cardozo, now living in France, has been heavily involved since his retirement, in various international organisations helping veterans of conflict.
Visit by Argentine Benefactor: December 2018
Eduardo Eurnekian, now in his late 80s of Armenian descent, is a prominent Argentine businessman, widely regarded as one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in South America.
In 2003, he had responded positively to an approach by the UK Ambassador to Argentina, Robin Christopher, to convert the original Argentine military cemetery near Darwin into a more impressive and lasting memorial to the Argentine soldiers killed during the 1982 conflict. The original cemetery, laid out by Geoffrey Cordozo in 1983 with help from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, needed renovation. Eurnekian made funds available to the Argentine Families Commission for the improvements and for its longer term maintenance; work started in 2004.
Subsequently, Eurnekian has helped to finance various visits by Argentine relatives to the cemetery over the years (often by providing the charter aircraft for group visits). He also financed the repatriation of Captain Luis Castagnari’s remains on 5 December 2018 in compliance with Castagnari’s wish, if killed during the conflict, to be buried next to his son, who had died of cancer aged 3 years old, in Rio Cuarto in Cordoba Province. This was the first such repatriation since the establishment of the Argentine cemetery; previously Argentine Governments had turned down British offers of repatriation on the grounds that the Argentine soldiers lay in Argentine soil.
For his own one day visit in mid-December 2018, Eurnekian was accompanied by senior Argentine business representatives and by the British Ambassador to Argentina, Mark Kent, and Sir Robin Christopher who had initially sought his help in 2003. Eurnekian’s party was met by the Governor, CBFSAI, the Chief Executive, and MLA Roger Spink (who had attended the original talks at the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva) plus other locals who were involved with the cemetery.
Ironically, shortly after his return Eurnekian’s home and businesses in Argentina were raided by the Argentine police investigating charges of corruption.