Saturday, 6 April 2013

Argentina: Visit to the ESMA

Spanish daily El País recently visited the ESMA, "the biggest centre of torture and extermination", something it described as "almost a moral obligation".

The paper starts off saying that "you hardly see anything", because "it's not a theme park". The actual instruments of torture are not laid out for visitors to gaze out - I wonder if anyone would expect them to be? While from the outside, the site certainly appears large, the area where the prisoners were kept is "surprisingly small". But what you do get is a guide to answer questions.

The correspondent's experience seems to be on the one hand that almost all of the evidence of torture and imprisonment has been cleared away, but on the other, that the very act of standing in that place and listening to what happened there is in itself impressive (even though the facts of what happened there could be easily found out elsewhere). I felt something similar at Dachau, which is also a very stark, quite empty space but full of the visitor's knowledge of what took place. Opening up these places of memory is quite a balancing act because clearly, if they are not made interesting enough to visit there is little point, but the "theme park" option is generally not seen as desirable either. One way in which Argentina gets around this, I suppose, is by keeping the actual torture centre with its informative guided tours, but by also having a cultural centre on the site for exhibitions, shows, etc. Obviously not everyone would agree they get the balance right all the time (remember the "barbecue at the ESMA debate" around New Year?) but the site is, at least, open after having been closed to the public for years.

Anyone in Buenos Aires wanting to visit the ESMA needs to book in advance; the details, according to El País, are 00-54-11-4704-7538 or

Visita a la ESMA, el mayor centro argentino de tortura y exterminio (El País)

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