Malvinas and the unknown soldiers

“Putting a name on their gravestones — it means something.”

It was thirty years after the 1982 Malvinas war that, after receiving a petition signed by several families, then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner requested that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) act as an intermediary between Argentina and the United Kingdom to identify the unknown soldiers buried in the Malvinas Islands. 

“Everyone deserves to have their names written on their gravestone,” she said that day on April 2, 2012, as she delivered her speech on the day of the war’s anniversary. 

This would become the cornerstone of the Malvinas Humanitarian Project, proposed by the Argentine government and implemented in collaboration with the ICRC and the British government.

Eleven years later, 120 families know the truth about their son’s fate. Their gravestones in the Darwin Cemetery in Malvinas, which previously read “Argentine soldier known only to God,” now bear their names. 

649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers died in the Malvinas war, which lasted 74 days. It was fought on the islands — over 350 kilometers away from the closest point on the Argentine coast — and in the South Atlantic Ocean. While many soldiers were killed during land warfare, others died in plane and boat attacks. Their bodies remain untraceable to this day. 

After the war, the British buried 237 Argentine soldiers’ bodies in the Darwin cemetery, a military graveyard. 

It was not until 2012 that talks began to identify those bodies. 

“The work to identify the fallen Argentines in the Malvinas war was intense because it meant both a diplomatic effort and joint work with the families,” said Science and Technology Minister Daniel Filmus, who was the head of the Malvinas, Antarctica, and South Atlantic Secretariat intermittently between 2014 and 2021. 

The Antropologic Forensics Argentine Team (EAAF) started work on the identification process in 2013, interviewing and taking DNA samples from families that had long demanded that the government identify their loved ones. 

“We had to find a certain amount of families to proceed with the ICRC as a negotiator: by 2014, we had 90 families, so the ICRC summoned Argentina and the UK,” Filmus said.

In 2015, the ICRC opened negotiations as an intermediary between both countries, which lead to a bilateral agreement to start the work in the islands. The EAAF would work on Argentina’s behalf, recruited by the government to carry out the work. Finally, in 2017, they exhumed the bodies in Malvinas.

“But they had to wait for 35 years after the end of the war to know where their children were – it should have happened right after the war ended,” he added. 

A first report with the outcomes of the first joint investigation was filed by the ICRC to both countries on December 1, 2017. A second joint investigation was negotiated and the ensuing report was published in 2021. 

Through the two humanitarian work phases, 120 soldiers have been identified by comparing their DNA profiles with the families sampled by the EAAF. 

“The main impact of our job was the impact that it had on these families,” said EAAF anthropologist Virginia Urquizu. “Knowing where they were buried, putting a name on their gravestones – it means something.” 

However, six bodies remain to be identified, as they haven’t matched with any family group yet. 

For Urquizu, this is why it’s particularly important for the humanitarian project to continue — there are still families that haven’t provided their DNA samples or remain unaware of the Malvinas Humanitarian Project.

After the war, carried out by the last military dictatorship at a time when it was losing power, families were left behind by the state. Some of them had never even received an official message confirming their children’s death: they just never came back. Most of them lacked any sort of psychological support, didn’t receive survivor family benefits, and were in general unrecognized by the rest of society — just like the Malvinas veterans. 

“This was much more than, you know, identifying the bodies,” Urquizu told the Herald. “They were being acknowledged by the state for the first time, they were being heard.”

Filmus told the Herald that the Argentine State expects to sign a third agreement with the UK to identify the remaining bodies buried in the islands. 

As the wounds of an unfair war remain open, the government and humanitarian organizations continue their work to deliver the truth to those families who continue to wait. 

Editorial disclaimer: Although the UK refers to the territory as the “Falklands Islands,” Argentina strongly contests this name. The Buenos Aires Herald uses “Malvinas” to refer to the islands.


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