Copyright © 1999 by Michael
Segers, All Rights Reserved
"Do comment on his blue jeans," my companion said with the lilting British accent with which Argentines speak English, as the waiter turned away. "His cousin sends them to him from Italy, and he is so proud of them." Sometimes, I felt that everyone in Buenos Aires, a city about the size of New York City, knew everyone else, their families, their secrets, their tortures. "Do you notice how he holds the plates?" she asked later.
I noticed the waiter at another table, rather clumsily balancing the plates on his palms. "He’s done that," she said, in the same almost cheery tone, "ever since they tore out his fingernails." Later, another Argentine told me, "In some countries, every family had someone murdered. Here, every family just had someone tortured." There was a rumor that in basements along La Florida, the trendiest street for shopping in very trendy Buenos Aires, the military government had maintained torture chambers, during its guerra sucia (dirty war) against the Argentine people, from 1976 until 1983.
Some groups estimate that as many as thirty thousand Argentines, students and teachers, working people, old people, young people, almost a cross section of a whole nation, disappeared. The civilian government that came to power afterwards admitted the disappearance of nine thousand.
Those bloody times are documented by Jacobo Timerman, author of the 1981 bestseller Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number', who died recently at the age of seventy-six. As a leading Argentine journalist, Timerman lent his voice to protest against the military dictatorship of the 1970’s and 1980’s. His newspaper was shut down, as the government lashed out in all directions at its real or imagined enemies.
In April 1977, Timerman was arrested. For thirty months, with no charges brought against him, with no trial, he was interrogated, tortured, and confined in isolation. As a symbol of the violations of human rights in Argentina, he became the focus of an international campaign, in which then-President Jimmy Carter participated, which led to his release in 1979, when he was stripped of his citizenship and banished.
With his family, he lived in Israel until, following the restoration of democracy in Argentina, he returned in 1984. In 1988, he had more legal problems as Argentine President Carlos Menem brought libel charges against him, charges which were renewed in 1996. His book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number is one of the great documents of human suffering under a totalitarian regime that has been written in our sad century. Timerman wrote several other books and at the time of his death was reported to have been working on a book about growing up Jewish in Argentina.
It surprises people when I talk about the Jews of Buenos Aires, but there is a very large Jewish community there, as there is in Mexico City. I never got to the distinctly Jewish neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to have bagels for breakfast, but I did visit the Jewish Museum, which documents a long, proud history of a large, thriving community. Jews have never been especially singled out for persecution in Argentina, at least not any moreso than in any other Latin American countries, but as a Jew and as a journalist, Timerman had double opportunity to bear witness to persecution. Menem, by the way, is part of the varied Middle Eastern communities of Latin America, having to convert from Islam to Roman Catholicism to serve as president under the Argentine constitution.
In the United States, there is distrust of, even hostility toward the press. In the emerging democracies of Latin America however, investigative journalism has earned the confidence that so many traditional institutions have lost. And so, journalism has become a very dangerous field. As Latin America has entered its phase of democratic transition, journalists have been beaten, kidnapped, even murdered, especially when their topics are individual politicians, drug dealing, or abuses under previous dictatorships, and many of these crimes have gone unsolved.
Ironically, Jacobo Timerman was not murdered in the street or tortured to death in a cell. He lived a full life, outlived his wife in fact, and his sons and grandchildren attended his funeral. I knew a man who was tortured for the crime of translating Shakespeare in his native Iran (under the Shah). I have marched with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, mourning their disappeared children. Now, I hope that more such witnesses of our time will have such deaths as Jacobo Timerman, a prisoner who reclaimed his own name.
During the months that I have been rovin’ and ravin’ with you, a number of famous people have died, people who have been eulogized in many places, but not here. In fact, I have chosen to write about the deaths of only three people. Just as I prefer to write about films which you might not have heard so much about, so do I prefer to write about people of whom you may not be aware. First, there was Stanley Kubrick, who shaped how we saw our lives. Then, there was Frank Turner, who shaped our environment and lives. Now, there is Jacobo Timerman, who, perhaps, has had little effect on your life or on mine but stands as a symbol of the times in which we live.
The Internet is a dangerous place for those who would limit freedom of expression. It is a nightmare for repressive regimes. Here are three great Internet sites that continue to bear witness for us all, sites very much worth your time:
The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Clearinghouse—
The Committee to Protect Journalists—
The American Center of P.E.N.
(Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, Novelists)—
Keep your feet dry and your heart full of noble thoughts, even gratitude that we live in a country where we can rove and rave as freely as we do and that we have not only the Internet but also such a wonderful point of entry to it as Peanut.org where we can break out of our numberless cells and make our own names.
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