Argentines return to divided Falklands

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The Independent Online
EDGARDO ESTEBEN, now 34, left the Falklands Islands by ship as a teenage prisoner of war in 1982, with a gun at his back. But he returned on Saturday to Mount Pleasant with 69 other Argentines on a new mission. As a television reporter, he is finding out how the islanders feel about the first visit by Argentines since General Leopoldo Galtieri's surrender ended the war with Britain. He is the only war veteran among them.

Two thousand Falklanders were bitterly split over the visit. Pub brawls broke out between former friends, and the councillors who approved the agreement between Britain and Argentina by a margin of 7-1 suffered verbal and physical abuse. Bricks were hurled through an office window, and obscene graffiti was scrawled on the walls of one residence. But the councillors insist there is "a silent majority of the population in favour of the agreement".

Margaret Watson, 37, who was a shop clerk during the war and now raises two young children, vehemently disagrees. "Having so large a group of Argie journalists roaming the streets again and invading our privacy horrifies me and brings back bad memories," she said.

Anne Grisby, a shipowner, appears to be more open: "The Argentines should have been allowed access much sooner and at a slower pace so we could get used to the idea," she observed.

"We have been treated perfectly well, with no problems of any kind," said Gerardo Verkindere, a Buenos Aires transmission technician staying at the Upland Goose hotel. "The food and drink here are fine. But it is very cold." After a hearty breakfast with mutton sausages, the Argentine sightseers were pulling on wellingtons and woollies to tour the boggy battlefields outside Port Stanley. Many were packing binoculars to spot albatross and five types of penguin. Behind a guard fence, they could gawk at Gentoo penguins waddling over a wide beach planted with plastic Argentinian mines, still undetonated. It is far too chilly to attempt any deep-sea fishing for mullet or smelt, a sport that's been introduced to the islands recently. Previously, most fishing was commercial. Other than the odd toy penguin or moody photograph, the souvenirs are thin on the ground.

Mr Esteben, the veteran, was bracing himself for a visit to the military cemetery at Darwin. "During the war," he explained, "I swapped guard duty with another soldier and [on my watch] he got killed. Heis buried in the Malvinas."

"The war was absurd," he reflected. "I want the Malvinas to be Argentine again, but force achieves nothing."