“They were unconscious: we undressed them and when the captain of the flight gave us the order we opened the door and threw them out, naked, one by one,” says Adolfo Scilingo, a former Argentine naval officer.
Over 5000 people were killed in this way by the Argentinian dictatorship during the so-called Dirty War of 1976 to 1983, in which it attempted to wipe out all opposition. Suspected dissidents and subversives were sedated and put on planes for so-called Death Flights; their journey ended when their unconscious bodies were thrown into the Rio de la Plata or the sea.
Argentina’s desaparecidos – or “disappeared” – have stories that are almost beyond belief, and it’s only thanks to the testimony of survivors that justice has started to be done. Miriam Lewin is one such witness. A political activist who fought the dictatorship, she was just 19 when she was kidnapped and taken to a detention centre, where she stayed for one year.
She was then transferred to the infamous ESMA facility – originally the Navy School of Mechanics (“Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada”), but then the dictatorship’s largest secret detention centre. She was one of the few to come out alive. “We were deprived of all our rights, we were neither alive nor dead, no one knew where we were,” Lewin told RAI (Italian Radio Television) on 26 April this year. “We have been victims of all kinds of crimes and tortures.
“When we were in the concentration camp, every Wednesday a group of prisoners were taken to a location in Patagonia, so they told us – but it was a lie, they brought them to die,” she continued. “As Jews who did not believe to be destined to the concentration camps, we could not believe this reality. We deceived ourselves to stay alive with the illusion of a better destiny. ”
Keen to find answers, he contacted Lewin and suggested they try to track down the Death Flight planes. Initially she was surprised by his proposal, and not particularly enthusiastic. “No one had ever thought of where the aircraft used for the Death Flights were taken when it was over,” she says. “I was wondering how could help us to locate them, at that time it seemed to me a madness. He replied ‘To get to the killer pilots’.”
They started to collaborate from 2003, starting a global hunt which resulted in finding five aircraft – two in museums in Argentina, and three sold to a Luxembourg company (of one one remains in Luxembourg, another was sold on to the UK, and the most important ended up at Fort Lauderdale in Florida). Their book depicts the aeroplanes and some of the evidence they built up, as well as other aspects of the dictatorship’s crimes and their aftereffects.
“One plane, used for the postal service, was found with the original flight plans that, once decoded by Enrique Pigneto, allowed us to identify the suspect flights departing on Wednesdays,” Ceraudo explains.
“For example to cover Buenos Aires-Punta Indio, a distance of 150 kilometers, four hours flight had been allowed. The following charge lead to the arrest of three pilots, who are currently waiting for judgment.”
Destino Final by Giancarlo Ceraudo is published by Schilt Publishing, available in stores and online for £40.