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THE WORLD

'82 Falklands Conflict Left a Legacy of Tragedy, Hope

S. America: Argentina's veterans struggle with stigma and poverty while islanders prosper.

April 01, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANLEY, Falkland Islands — The landing craft came ashore on a beach of white sand and turquoise water, a solitary spot where Patrick Watts and his friends chased away the penguins and raced motorcycles in their youth.

On that April morning, it was thousands of Argentine teenagers who spilled onto the beach. They were chicos from the pampas on the adventure of their lives, a tragicomic little war that would change Argentina forever and leave scars that linger, a generation later, on these remote islands in the South Atlantic.

The beach at Yorke Bay is closed today, as are many beaches, hillsides and meadows here. The treeless moonscape of the Falklands is dotted with more than 100 abandoned minefields, each a no man's land since the Argentines invaded the islands 20 years ago this Tuesday.

The scars also run deep in Buenos Aires, where thousands of veterans live as broken men. Some sell trinkets on buses and trains, hit hard by their nation's economic hard times. A powerful stigma haunts many of the 13,000 Argentine survivors of the war.

"Here it says I'm a hero," Raul Barrera, 39, said in the Argentine capital, holding his veteran's identification card, which he sometimes flashes at skeptical commuters. "But when you go to look for work, they find out you're a veteran and they think you're mentally ill."

Six out of 10 Argentine veterans are out of work or underemployed, according to an advocacy group. About 300 have killed themselves, including one spectacular 1999 case of a war survivor who threw himself from the top of a 250-foot-tall patriotic monument.

The emotional toll is not confined to the losing side. In Britain, the number of Falklands veterans who have committed suicide since the war--264--outnumbers the British deaths in the battle.

In Argentina, the loss of the 1982 war helped usher in the collapse of a military government and a return to democracy. But today that democracy is in peril as the unemployment rate soars to 25%. After a Southern Hemisphere summer of upheaval in which five men rotated through the presidency, there are wild rumors of a military coup--vehemently denied by the armed forces.

These troubles make people nervous in the Falklands, which are located about 250 miles off Argentina's southern coast. Disputed by Britain and Argentina since the latter's independence nearly two centuries ago, the Falklands--called the Malvinas by Argentines, the name they also gave to the war--have been occupied by Britons since 1833.

The war, started by Argentine President Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri in a desperate attempt to stay in power, cost the lives of 655 Argentines, 252 British soldiers and three civilians.

During the brief Argentine occupation, the same generals who "disappeared" tens of thousands of their citizens in a "dirty war" against dissent in the late 1970s and early '80s imposed a less violent, but still authoritarian, rule on the 2,000 British subjects who live here.

"My mother never recovered from the war," said Watts, 57, a third-generation Falklander. "She had her house broken into [by Argentine troops]. She had jewelry stolen, and she lost all her cattle--either they were killed by the Argentines or they stepped on mines."

Before the invasion, Watts was courting an Argentine woman. As a young man he used to travel to Buenos Aires to enjoy the vibrant life of that city.

His love affair with Argentina ended the morning of April 2, 1982. He was at the microphone of Falklands Radio, broadcasting news of the invasion when an Argentine soldier burst into the studio.

Listeners across the islands heard Watts utter these words shortly before going off the air: "One moment . . . Wait there. No, no, I won't do anything until you take that gun off my back."

Away from the battlefields, far from the rusting skeletons of downed helicopters and from the shelters Argentine soldiers built haphazardly out of rocks, the Falklands are islands of desolate beauty, a terrain reminiscent of the strange, barren landscapes in which dreams unfold.

"You go out there now and it's so peaceful," said Sheila McPhee, who owns a sheep farm that faces the beach on San Carlos Bay, where about 5,000 British troops began landing May 21, 1982, to take back the islands. "On a day like today, it's hard to believe the war ever happened."

Before the war, Falkland farmers like McPhee were leaving the islands in droves. A worldwide drop in wool prices had hit farmers hard, leading many to emigrate to New Zealand and Australia. The British empire had been divesting itself of colonies for decades and, in the face of international pressure, was nudging the islanders to accept the inevitability of Argentine sovereignty.

"Everything in the Falklands has changed since the conflict," said Terence McPhee, Sheila's husband. "We've never had it so good."

Sheep raising still doesn't make much money, but most of the islands' residents benefit from the Falklands' lucrative fishing licenses, a product of increased autonomy from London since the war.

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