Argentina marks 'Night of the Pencils'

By Vladimir Hernandez
BBC Mundo, Buenos Aires

Image caption,
Maria Claudia Falcone, 16, was among the victims

They were young idealistic high school students who were unaware of what horrors they were about to face: imprisonment, torture and, in some cases, death.

Thirty-five years ago, one of most notorious episodes of abuse committed during military rule in Argentina took place - the abduction of 10 students by security forces in the city of La Plata near Buenos Aires.

On 16 and 17 September 1976, masked men raided their homes under cover of darkness, taking them away to clandestine detention centres in what became known as the "Night of the Pencils".

Six were never seen again.

Emilce Moler was one of four who survived the ordeal.

"A group of armed men stormed into my house looking for me. When I came out of my bedroom, in my nightclothes, they seemed very surprised as I looked much younger than my 17 years," says Emilce.

Beaten senseless

Like most of the others, Emilce belonged to the students' union, which had links to an urban guerrilla group known as the Montoneros.

It is not clear what actually provoked their abduction. What is clear, however, is that in the repressive atmosphere of the time, the military regarded them as subversives.

"That night, when they saw my sister, who was older than me, they wanted to take her too. But fortunately there was no space in the car and they left her behind," Emilce says.

With a hood over her head, Emilce could not see what was happening nor where was she being taken. Only years later did she manage to reconstruct the events that began that night.

"We were taken to a clandestine detention centre called Arana, in La Plata, where we were made to suffer the worst conditions a human being can bear.

"They tortured us with profound sadism. I remember being naked. I was just a fragile small girl of about 1.5m and weighed about 47kg, and I was beaten senseless by what I judged was a huge man," says Emilce.

"He didn't even ask me coherent questions."

She avoids going into specific details, but another student, Pablo Diaz, gave graphic testimony to an inquiry into military abuse and helped to bring their case to wider attention.

"In Arana, they gave me electric shocks in my mouth, my gums, and on my genitals. They tore out a toenail. It was very usual to spend several days without food," says Pablo, who was 18 at the time.

The other survivors were Gustavo Calotti, then 18, and 17-year-old Patricia Miranda, who unlike the others was not a political activist.

The murdered victims, aged 16 to 18, were Francisco Lopez, Horacio Ungaro, Maria Clara Ciocchini, Claudio de Acha, Daniel Racero and Maria Claudia Falcone, whose face became one of the best-known images to keep the students' memory alive.

The abuse the students suffered became one of the emblematic events of the dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 to 1983.

Their story was told in a 1986 film directed by Hector Olivera, called The Night of the Pencils, regarded as a powerful depiction of events.

During military rule, an estimated 30,000 political dissidents were murdered by the security forces. It is believed some 250 people under 18 years of age were among them.

The Commission Against the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep), which in 1984 carried out an inquiry into crimes against humanity committed by the military government, found that some of the victims were as young as 13.

Unanswered questions

Image caption,
Emilce lost many of her friends from that time

Emilce can still vividly recall the events of 1976.

"After about a week at our first detention centre, we were all taken to another place in a truck. At some point we stopped and some of my friends were taken out. Those are the ones that disappeared," she says.

Emilce was taken to two more clandestine jails until several weeks later she was formally declared a prisoner - a sign that she would be allowed to live - and imprisoned for two years.

The question that remains is not why she was allowed to live but why her teenage friends had to be murdered.

"I did not do anything to survive and they certainly did not do anything that meant they should die," Emilce says.

At a trial that began this week in Buenos Aires, 25 former police or military officers and one civilian were accused of committing crimes against humanity for the "Night of the Pencils" and hundreds of other cases.

Prosecutors say one of the policemen, Miguel Etchecolatz, now aged 82, tortured 90 prisoners. It will be his second trial, as he is already serving a life sentence for other crimes committed under military rule.

Emilce has rebuilt her life, thanks, she says, to the help of her then boyfriend and now husband who waited for her to be released. They have three children.

But memories from those times are still painful.

"I hardly have any of the friends I had when I was young. Most of them were disappeared, or those who survived suffered torture or imprisonment."

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