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March 14, 2005

Survivor Recalls Human Rights Abuses In Argentina

Writing may be the last best hope for survivors of human rights abuses seeking a measure of justice, says Alicia Partnoy.

Partnoy, a poet, human rights activist, and professor and chair of modern languages and literature at Loyola Marymount University, spoke at the William Benton Museum of Art on Feb. 24.

Her talk, “I Lived to Tell: Writing, Justice, and the Disappeared,” was this year’s Robert G. Mead Jr. Lecture. The Mead Lecture is given annually in memory of Robert G. Mead, a Latin American studies scholar and professor of Spanish at the University from 1949 to 1983.

Partnoy, a survivor of the Argentine government’s repression of thousands of political activists and dissenters in the 1970’s and 1980’s, related her experiences of detention in a concentration camp known as La Escuelita (The Little School), internment at the Villa Floresta Prison in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, and subsequent exile in the United States.

During the so-called Dirty War, the regime engineered the arrest, detention, torture, and execution of thousands of Argentinians. More than 30,000 people disappeared during that era. Some, like Partnoy, survived, but thousands were never heard from again.

Partnoy dedicated her talk to Marta Landi, an Argentinian woman who was arrested in Paraguay and handed over to Uruguayan and Argentine security forces, becoming one of the thousands known as los desaparecidos (‘the disappeared’).

She said most of the prisoners did not expect to survive the concentration camps and have had a hard time since their release coping with the horrors of their experiences.

“Disappearances paralyze societies for at least three generations,” Partnoy said.

She added that many children have been deeply affected: “The scars of our children are deep.” Her own daughter was taken in by relatives during Partnoy’s internment. “She was forced to suffer for something she didn’t choose,” she said.

Partnoy came to the United States as a refugee. She received a Ph.D. in Spanish from the Catholic University of America and began to talk about her experiences and those of ‘the disappeared.’ She has testified before the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International, the Argentine Human Rights Commission, and local “Trials of Truth” in Argentina, recounting the isolation, separation from family members, inhumane conditions, and torture she experienced both in the camp and in prison.

Partnoy, who turned to poetry while in prison, said writing is a powerful tool for revealing the truth about the state-sponsored disappearances, paying tribute to those who disappeared and did not survive, and trying to ensure that atrocities do not go unpunished in the future. She has compiled several anthologies of the recollections of fellow survivors, as well as stories about those who remain unaccounted for.

After teaching in the U.S. for many years, Partnoy said she sees “little pebbles” of progress toward greater understanding and awareness of the Dirty War in Argentina. She said improvements have also been made in Argentina in coping with this chapter in its history.

In addition to teaching, Partnoy has launched an organization, Proyecto Vos, which provides opportunities for survivors of human rights abuses to tell their stories.

Some of her writing, such as her book The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, is taught in several high schools in the United States. She has also edited You Can’t Drown the Fire: Latin American Women Writing in Exile, an anthology of accounts of abuse and survival, and compiled a collection of poetry, Little Low Flying/Volando Bajito, scheduled for publication later this year.