Emotional reunion spurs justice in Argentina
Toronto man testifies against accused in brutal crimes (WARNING: Graphic content)
It was always the eyes. Even after 35 years apart, when they'd never met face-to-face, they recognized each other immediately.
Last week, in front of a hotel in Mendoza, Argentina, Rosa Gomez ran across the street and into the arms of Antonio Savone.
With tears running down their faces, the two former political prisoners embraced, clasping each other in a tight hug, pulling back only to kiss each others' cheeks.
"I only knew his eyes. And now that I've seen him it's like I've known him all my life," said Gomez, who like Savone endured imprisonment, torture and worse during Argentina's brutal military regime decades ago.
Savone never imagined he'd see Gomez again, let alone return to his hometown to confront the men who caused him to "disappear" for six months. That all changed last month.
Savone was on the internet at his Toronto home when he stumbled across a story in an online Mendoza newspaper. It outlined how the state is finally prosecuting the people who set up and ran Mendoza's clandestine detention centre during Argentina's seven-year military dictatorship.
"I saw Rosa and another two women giving their testimony and I was just shocked."
What most startled Savone was the realization that he alone could corroborate Gomez's testimony. "I saw. I was right in front of her. I was the only one in front of her cell and I saw!"
Savone was the 27-year-old father of a toddler son with a pregnant wife and a promising small business at the time of his arrest in 1976. It was the first year of the brutal dictatorship, which human rights groups blame for the murders of up to 30,000 people. Many "disappeared," never to be found, after being shot, electrocuted or thrown out of airplanes while still alive.
It's estimated that almost of all Mendoza's disappeared went through what's known as "D2," the sub-basement of the city's downtown police station. That's where police took Savone after snatching him off the street in front of his house around noon on June 14, 1976.
"They throw me in the cell and they left me there for hours, hours, until maybe the next day. And I heard other people crying and people who were kind of lamenting, even children. I heard children."
Antonio spent 112 days in a cold, dark cell that he estimates was less than 5 feet by 3 feet. The floor was sticky, there was no mattress, toilet or sink. Prisoners received little food, were never
allowed to bathe and could only use the bathroom once a day. Every day brought fresh beatings by guards, as well as ominous threats.
"They keep telling me, 'okay you're next. You're the next to go to the barbeque, to the singing room.'"
After three weeks of confinement, Savone's captors brought him to his first torture session. Savone says polite questioning soon turned into false accusations about his political affiliations. When he was unable to provide answers, his captors showered him with punches to his ears, neck, back and kidneys. They threatened to harm Savone's wife and child, and when no answers were forthcoming the men undressed Savone and tied him to a metal table.
"I was terrified. I just wanted this thing to end. They apply electricity on your body, on your mouth, your testicle, your you know....and you feel electricity and it is very painful."
Savone says the only comfort in D2 came through the small, 3-by-6-inch window in the metal door of his cell. Savone remembers the first time he learned how to silently slide it open when the guards weren't around. "I open and I look at the other cell and I see two eyes on the other cell. And then we start communicating with our fingers (...) What I saw was another human being like me, desperate to communicate and to express our anxieties."
Rosa Gomez's ordeal
That other human being was Rosa Gomez, in the cell across the hall. Sometimes they were able to exchange a few words. "We're talking about our families, her family, where she worked, all things related to our personal lifes and what we want to do when we get out. She was very sweet. She always asked me how I was," said Savone.
Communication with Gomez was a means of escape, it also amplified Savone's hell in D2. That's because every night, guards raped Gomez. Savone overheard the screaming, scuffling and fighting. But he also saw who went into her cell.
And that's why last month, after stumbling onto Gomez's story online, Antonio realized his testimony was crucial. After an emotional series of phone calls with Gomez and the prosecutor Pablo Salinas, Savone booked a flight.
Twenty-four hours after their reunion, Gomez and Savone are still holding on to each other. Their arms are linked as they sit at a patio in downtown Mendoza. Gomez was the longest-serving inmate at D2. She spent nine months there before a military court sentenced her to four years in prison for being a guerilla leader.
At the time of her arrest, the 26 year-old worked in a shopping mall and was the mother of a three month-old son. Police grabbed her partner Ricardo Sánchez Coronel the same day. Gomez says he spent a week at D2, "One day when I was coming back from torture they lifted my blindfold and there I saw my partner and he was disfigured. One arm was hanging by his side, he was dragging a foot and he could barely walk and the guard said, 'Hey do you know this son of a bitch?'" Gomez never saw him again.
Yet for Gomez, life at D2 deteriorated further. Speaking in Spanish, Gomez recalls the violent daily rapes by at least four guards. "First you resist and you fight and then after awhile you just cry.
And after that you just hope that the next day they're not going to be on guard duty that day." Her captors also tortured her repeatedly with electricity.
Like Savone, Gomez remembers sliding open the tiny metal window on her cell door for consolation. "I would look across and see Antonio and his eyes. Those moments when they brought me back from the
torture room and Antonio would open up and say, 'How are you? How are you feeling?'"
Wiping tears from her eyes, Gomez says that's why it was so hard when guards moved Savone out of D2 and into a penitentiary, "I was alone. It was very difficult. So when I was all by myself and there's no one else there, just me. After Antonio went, I feel they were more violent. I don't know if that's because they were more violent or because I felt more vulnerable because I was by myself."
While Gomez recounts those final months alone in D2, Savone wraps an arm around her shoulder. He looks devastated.
A reunion in the name of justice
Three days before Savone's testimony, Gomez organizes a get-together of seven former political prisoners. It's a traditional Argentinian asado, or barbecue, at the home of Guido Actis. Savone hasn't seen Actis or any of the others in 35 years. Over wine, tender cuts of beef and fresh fruit the five men and two women refuse to dwell on the unspeakable confinement at D2. Instead they spin funny tales about the years afterwards, in the penitentiary.
They recall how common criminals would sneak newspapers to the political prisoners by balling them up inside bread. One prisoner, a bus conductor, tells them how his captors forced him to chauffeur them to the scene of an emergency because they didn't know how to drive. There is talk of romance behind bars, plays they produced and the prison newspaper where the society page heralded the arrivals and departures of inmates.
The laughter dies down when conversation turns to the trial. Of this group, Gomez is the only one who has testified about D2. She also identified three of the four men who raped her. One is dead but two others have been arrested and are awaiting trial. Her case could help establish rape as a "crime against humanity," making it easier to prosecute those who used sexual violence at D2.
Ana Laura Zavala Guillén, a human rights lawyer in Buenos Aires, says Savone's testimony will make all the difference.
"Sometimes judges refuse to condemn perpetrators because no one can confirm the allegations. If we don't break the silence about these things, we just get impunity about the most terrible crimes or atrocities."
A regime on trial
The trial at federal court started last November. Ten men are accused with the torture and murder of 30 people including Gomez's former partner Coronel.
On this day, only two of the accused are in the courtroom, but one of them, retired police commissioner Eduardo Smaha, signed the order for Savone's detention in 1976.
For three hours Savone answered questions from the panel of three judges as well as the dedicated young team of lawyers representing the state and several human rights groups. He tells them about his arrest, six months at D2 and more than a year in the penitentiary.The prosecutors and human rights lawyers are very interested in the names he recalls from his days at D2.
For years, government officials have maintained a number of missing people are living abroad or in hiding somewhere in Argentina. But testimony from surviving inmates of D2, including Savone, has established that several people who are still disappeared were last seen in custody.
From a book of photographs, Savone was able to pick out two of the men who raped Gomez. Watching from the gallery, Gomez let out a loud sigh of relief. Savone ended his testimony by thanking the judges for allowing him to participate in the judicial process he was denied 35 years ago and the courtroom erupted in applause.
Outside the courtroom, Savone breaks down and Gomez rushes to his side to offer comfort and thanks.
"The fact that he came gave me back my life. It's the nicest thing to happen to me in the past 35 years."
Savone may well have to return for further testimony. Two sitting federal judges are under investigation for their roles as prosecutors during the dictatorship and it appears one of them may have falsified documents relating to Savone's case.
In addition, lawyers for the detainees and disappeared have uncovered documents from D2 have persuaded them that Savone's captors also stole the house he owned in 1976. They're now tracing what happened to the old Mendoza home, with hopes Savone may get it back or receive compensation.