- BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters)
- Falklands war veteran Marcelo Torres was so desperate to escape the battlefield
horrors that still plagued his dreams two decades after the conflict that
he put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
- The Argentine was lucky. The gun misfired and the bullet
blew a hole in his tin roof instead. But more than 300 of his fellow veterans
have killed themselves since Argentina's ill-fated 1982 invasion of the
remote south Atlantic island cluster, and survivors are making a desperate
plea for help.
- Marginalised on their return home from war, many veterans
have been unable to hold down a steady job. Argentina's worst ever economic
crisis in 2001 and 2002 has only made things worse, putting work and good
health care further out of reach.
- "I tried to kill myself twice ... I can't sleep,
am always nervous, anxious, depressed," said former infantryman Torres,
his voice trailing off as he rubbed a shrapnel scar on his shin. He has
been seeing a psychiatrist for 12 years.
- "We need help," he added, as a fine drizzle
soaked the green canvas army-issue tents he and dozens of fellow veterans
have camped in for several weeks opposite Argentina's presidential palace
to demand higher war pensions, medical help and recognition.
- After weeks of seeing the disgruntled veterans on his
doorstep, President Nestor Kirchner recently decided to draw up a definitive
official census of veterans to determine their medical and housing needs.
- Some 650 Argentines, most of them conscripts, were killed
during the 10-week war against Britain for sovereignty over the Falkland
Islands -- known here as Las Malvinas -- over which Argentina has a centuries-old
claim. Over 250 servicemen from Britain's professional armed forces were
killed. Argentina invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982 and by June 14,
Argentine troops had surrendered to British forces.
- MARGINALIZED LIKE AIDS PATIENTS
- Paid a meager monthly national war pension of around
440 pesos, some veterans resort to dressing up in their war-time fatigues,
berets and medals to sell badges of the Argentine flag on buses and trains.
Others simply beg.
- Many of Argentina's 12,000 Falkland veterans were only
students when sent to war by military dictators and have since returned
to impoverished, remote provinces where they have no access to psychiatric
- "What we are demanding is a health plan that befits
a war veteran, a dignified war pension ... recognition by the state and
economic compensation for the past 22 years," said veteran protest
organizer Martin Borbad.
- "A lack of work and lack of help from the state
leaves some of our companions unable to take it any more and they commit
suicide," he added.
- Edgardo Esteban, a local journalist and conscript in
the war, said the suicide problem is taboo and veterans like himself have
long felt like "a kind of Argentine AIDS sufferer."
- To get the message out, Esteban wrote a book about the
conflict and suicide, "Enlightened by Fire", and the film version
is due to debut at the Berlin Film Festival.
- Psychological scars are not just an Argentine problem.
British soldiers are fighting their own demons.
- "The suicide rate is very high. It's well over the
number of dead that we actually had (during the war)," said former
Royal Marine Colin Waite of the Falklands Veterans Foundation in Britain,
who himself tried to commit suicide four times.
- POORLY EQUIPPED, POORLY TREATED
- One thing that gnaws at the Argentine veterans is that
their conflict was an aberration, fought for all the wrong reasons.
- They were sent into battle by hard-drinking Gen. Leopoldo
Galtieri, who declared war to mask the woes of a crumbling economy and
growing criticism of military rule.
- Galtieri sent them hastily without the proper equipment.
They will never forget how their World War Two-era weapons jammed in the
south Atlantic cold, or being so hungry for lack of rations they had to
hunt ducks, penguins and sheep to stay alive -- and then eat them raw for
fear a smoking fire would be seen by the enemy.
- When it was time to come home, they felt tainted by the
association with the bloody dictatorship, under which up to 30,000 suspected
leftists were killed or disappeared.
- Like the war itself, veteran affairs were not handled
with care. Adding insult to injury, thousands of men who didn't fight in
the war masquerade as veterans to claim pension benefits.
- Kirchner, who hails from the Patagonian province of Santa
Cruz near the Falklands, might be the man who makes a difference for the
veterans. His government has vowed: "We cannot have another single
- The veterans will stay camped on Kirchner's doorstep
until they see proof.
- Copyright © 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.