Outgoing President Alberto Fernández expressed his gratitude to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for designating Argentina’s School of Naval Mechanics (ESMA) as a United Nations World Heritage Site. He believes that the designation will shed light on a history that “deniers want to hide.” The military school, which served as a secret detention center, played a significant role in state-sponsored terrorism during Argentina’s dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Fernandez, who experienced the horror of ESMA firsthand, emphasized the importance of preserving the memory of the tragic events that took place there.
During the military dictatorship, an estimated 30,000 people lost their lives as the military leaders aimed to suppress opposition, activists, and left-wing political views. These individuals were taken into military custody and subsequently disappeared, never to be heard from again. Around 340 detention centers were established across the country, with ESMA being one of the earliest and largest facilities in Argentina. The former military school was transformed into a place of torture, where prisoners endured unimaginable suffering. Only a small number of approximately 200 prisoners managed to survive.
ESMA was not only a detention center but also housed a maternity ward. Pregnant detainees were subjected to the heart-wrenching experience of having their children forcibly separated from them immediately after giving birth. These children were often adopted by families who colluded with the dictatorship. Efforts were made by military leaders to conceal the crimes committed at ESMA, including removing stairs leading to the basement where torture occurred, and constructing a wall to cover the stairwell during an investigation.
However, in 2007, ESMA was repurposed as a site of remembrance and opened to the public as a museum. It aimed to educate visitors about the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. In recent years, the museum acquired exhibits such as a plane used in “death flights,” where prisoners were drugged mid-flight and thrown alive into the sea as part of their execution. These exhibits serve as a powerful reminder of the tragedy and the importance of democracy.
UNESCO’s decision to designate ESMA as a World Heritage Site at its 45th session in Riyadh serves as a rebuke to those who attempt to deny or minimize the human rights abuses of the past. It highlights the significance of the location at a time when some Argentine politicians have been accused of downplaying the atrocities committed during the military dictatorship. President Fernández and Argentina’s Human Rights Secretary express their gratitude to UNESCO for preserving the memory of these crimes and ensuring that they are never repeated. They emphasize the importance of seeking justice rather than revenge in the face of such heinous acts against humanity.