The history of conflicts is never simple
1st May 2022: Ukraine. The Kremlin’s version of recent events is accepted by most Russians. They are engaged in a ‘special military action’ of liberation. Residents greet them with joy. The Western version is that we are helping Ukraine repel a criminal invader and defend freedom and democracy. Residents flee. All those who stay risk rape, looting and summary execution. The two versions are impossibly opposite.
1st May 1982: A British task force begins its offensive on the Falklands Islands, having previously retaken South Georgia from Argentinian invaders. The action will lead to total Argentine surrender on June 14.
May 2013: I am travelling in Argentina on an assignment for The Guardian with partner, Sophie, and guide, Juan. The following incidents, recorded in my diary, never get written up.
We drive north-east from Buenos Aires and in the Calchaquí valley stay with Soledad, a potter and keeper of horses. She has a huge rambling house built without the assistance of an architect. Rooms are added when they are needed, with the materials that are to hand. In her living room is a Charlie Chaplin rug and lots of her pots, great rotund offerings to Pacha Mama, the earth mother. There are strange creatures too: toads, snakes and many owl-like birds. Many of them sport condor feathers.
We saddle up some horses and set off towards the mountains. “My mother discovered the place we are going to, when she was guarding the sheep.” Soledad tells us. “She was eight years old.”
She points out landmarks. “Before the conquistadores came, this was all the land of the Diaguita.”
They were, she tells us, a group of tribes who resisted Spanish invasion for 130 years. “Many of them committed suicide. Others were force-marched to Buenos Aires. Out of 3,000, only 600 survived. That is why I use the owl in my pots, as a symbol of the way of the dead.”
All over Argentina stories like this abound. In the face of the violence and disease brought by the Spanish, the indigenous tribes were destroyed. Their cultures survive as fragmentary relics, tiny smouldering embers that people like Soledad can make glow, though never force into flame. As she talks, I lose track of the names and places and am left with a feeling that I understand nothing.
We head towards Little Fox Mountain where, according to legend, Atahualpa buried the Inca gold to keep it form Pizzaro. Then we enter a labyrinth of slot canyons and eroded buttes, the red rock glistening with tiny crystals and beads of amber. I jump down from the horse and climb, slipping into narrower and narrower spaces until I feel enclosed by the rock with just a tiny patch of sky above me. I look down at my feet and pick up a grey ball of bone fragments. It is an owl pellet, no bigger than my thumbnail. When I carefully pull it apart, the tiny skull of a rodent emerges.
Several days later, now heading towards Chile, we are stopped by a road block. Secondary school kids have halted the traffic to demand that their school building be finished. They release the cars every two hours, but when it is our turn we don’t move: the battery is flat. By the time we get the engine going, a government mediator has arrived and annoyed the students so much that they refuse to let anyone pass. We decide to try an alternative route on gravel tracks.
This dessicated area is in the rain shadow of the Andes. We see giant cacti and cardons, chucking up clouds of dust as we pass around the shoulders of mountains that are slashed with red, yellow and white. Tiny doves flutter up from the track and disappear into clumps of pampas grass. We are soon thirsty and a bit lost so when we spot a shack on the hill, we head up the side track towards it.
Approaching the homestead, I see a tin roof, only half complete, set in a stand of golden poplar trees. The owner comes out to meet us, a stocky man in late middle age wearing a smart fawn stetson hat. He invites us inside and we climb up some steps and enter his living area – I wouldn’t call it a room - it’s crammed with flags, maps, badges and memorabilia of the Falklands War…
“Malvinas War,” he corrects me.
Nicholas is a veteran of the conflict and I try to make up for my faux pas with a conciliatory comment. “I’m sure it’s a battle that Argentina will win in the long run.” I’m not sure I believe this, but I want him to be friendly.
He glares. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, well, you know… the British may have won that part of the struggle, but Las Malvinas will be Argentinian one day.”
This seems to annoy him more. “We did not lose ‘that part of the struggle’. We won the Malvinas War.”
Whenever you meet someone who appears to hold an opinion directly contradictory to your own, and one contrary, as you see it, to all the known facts, it’s a shock. There is an awkward silence. Is he speaking metaphorically? No. He is speaking about the actual events. The Argentinian army defeated the British on the battlefield. He was there and saw it with his own eyes. He has wall maps and photographs to prove it. He points to photos of himself, much younger, in battle dress. All the archive material on the walls adds up to prove the absolute certainty of the Argentine victory.
“We repulsed them twice and then, out of spite, they sank the Belgrano. Once they realised they could not beat us militarily, they conducted ‘peace negotiations’ and the US president and the Pope betrayed us.”
I stare at the walls. His implacable belief has raised questions in my mind. How did I come by my version of events? Am I sure? How can history so recent be so slippery?
He had been flown out by helicoptor and sent home, spending a further twenty years on UN peace-keeping missions. Now he has retired here. “I’m completely out the system.”
His living is selling peaches. He has one horse, four dogs and no car. He is out the rat race, in the wilds, and detached from reality. Far out in the arid mountains, he is nurturing an alternate view of history, blowing on the embers and hoping it will survive.
He shows us through to his bedroom, a Latin love palace swagged with sexy textiles and presided over by a huge Jesus on a cross. At the foot of the circular bed is a sturdy karaoke machine that he fires up and begins singing Besame Mucho at ear-shattering volume. We perch on the edge of the bed, thinking he will just give us the chorus, but no, he is doing the entire song: “Dearest one if you should leave me, Each little dream would take wing and my life would be through. Besame besame mucho. Love me forever and make all my dreams come true.”
I look around, but there is no sign of any lover. The only photographs are of his younger self in uniform. He lives alone.
When we leave, he gives us bread and water for the journey.
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