How do Malvinas War veterans’ relatives cope with “extraordinary deaths”

Anthropologist of death Laura Panizo examined the rituals and the ways of mornings in the cases in which death does not occur in a traditional manner

For some people death is considered as a taboo subject. But this is not the case of Laura Panizo, researcher of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), who works on one difficult and necessary question about death: how do people cope with the loss of a relative without a body and without knowing how they died? The scientist first analyzed the case of the ‘desaparecidos’ [disappeared people] of state terrorism and then the ´’fallen in the Malvinas War’. “Thanks to the ‘Malvinas Humanitarian Project Plan’, which has been implemented since 2017, we’re in a process of transformation of the memory as regards Malvinas”, the researcher states considering all her research work.

Panizo refers to the Malvinas Humanitarian Project Plan, an agreement between the governments of Argentina and Great Britain mediated by the International Red Cross. Although the plan was launched in 2017, the initiative began in 2012 when the Argentine government asked the International Red Cross as an intermediary to help in the identification of 122 fallen soldiers that were buried in unmarked graves as ‘Argentine soldier only known by God.’ “The war veterans of the CECIM (center of ex soldiers combatants in Malvinas, La Plata) along with war veterans and Relatives from Chaco, who legitimized their demand about the identifications in 2011 with a ‘writ of protection’ [recurso de amparo] referring to the ‘Right of Truth and Identity.’ Thanks to this Plan, the remains of 110 Argentine soldiers buried in the Darwin cemetery were identified. For this task –which was conducted by the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology-, it was necessary to have DNA samples, which were taken between March and December of 2017, with the consent of the relatives.

“The subject of identity was very significant in the case of Malvinas”, Panizo affirms. As an anthropologist, she specialized in death anthropology, which aims to shed light on the different ways in which “the alive” are related to “the dead.” This branch considers death as a social process that comprises different stages with the respective practices and rituals, in which the relationship between the alive and the dead play a key role. Besides, this field objective is to identify the stages, rituals and processes a person undergoes when a loved one dies and the relationship with the dead one.

“When one faces death, we speak about mourning and grief at the same time: mourning is linked to intrapsychic and grief has to do with social practices”, Panizo explains. As a researcher, she focused on extraordinary deaths, which refers to those deaths that cannot be faced with traditional rituals and have a great impact on ordinary life, thus making a break. I was interested in learning what happens when there is no body, and the traditional rituals cannot take place. It is possible to understand what could have happened but the lack of a body does not lead to a clear way of facing death, and in several cases, does not allow the dead and the bereaved to end the social process death involves, where there is a farewell and one significant separation.”


Death and the compass

 It all began when she was doing her Anthropology degree thesis, in which she analyzed the way in which a group of relatives had dealt with the disappearance of their loved ones. “When I studied the ‘disappeared people’ I focused on the concept of ‘neglected death’, those cases in which there is no body to worship and no rituals for the bereaved. For this reason, it is a kind of death that is not socially recognized or legitimized and is not linked to the possibility to deal with death in a clear way, with recognition, social and symbolic support of great part of the society. Several families did not have the chance to recover the body of their loved ones, so they had to cope with a death in which they knew that took place after a long time. First they looked for the body alive and after some time the searched for a body. The family had to deal with a death socially neglected and without a ritual.”

In 2005, when the researcher started her postdoctoral studies, she learnt that a movie about Malvinas War veterans was being shot by film-maker Tristán Bauer: Iluminados por el Fuego. At that time, she was interested in comparing the results of her analysis of the relatives of disappeared people with a group of relatives of Malvinas war veterans. Panizo made a hypothesis supposing that the experiences of both groups would be similar. She studied the relatives of the fallen that were grouped in the Commission of Relatives of the Fallen in Malvinas of City of Buenos Aires and the relatives of the disappeared people of the Organism for Relatives of Disappeared People and Political Prisoners. The fieldwork revealed that they had different ways to cope with death despite the common feature of the absence of the body: “Although there is a clear break and a modification in how those relatives deal with death, and there are no socially established rituals, the relatives of the Malvinas fallen I had interviewed showed me that there was a clear recognition to death, to a socially neglected death, and from the relative”, the scientist indicates.

The researcher found that among the relatives of the fallen, there were several ritual, symbolic and mourning practices that took place to acknowledge the dead: masses of April 2nd with floral offerings to the fallen, mortuary marches, pilgrimages the relatives made with the Virgin of Luján in all the provinces, in the Malvinas and in different places of Argentina only to then place the virgin in the Darwin cemetery. “The inauguration and displacement of the busts also acted as important symbols to show the death and the situation of combatants and relatives that play an important supportive role, and to create a symbolic framework of interpretation to give meaning to the war and death in the war.”

In several cases, Panizo found that the fallen had even become a kind of sanctified national hero: a patriot linked to the idea of sacrifice and civic responsibility. What called her attention was that several lots of relatives had domestic altars: small sacred spaces arranged around the photo of the fallen one with other symbols –some from the Malvinas Islands-, such as earth, peat or objects related to war. “I noticed that through those rituals people establish some sort of connection with the heroes. They suffered some sort of sacralization from their family members over the years. These are men who became heroes and then saints. It’s a sacralization process with a very active role in everyday life, what allows these people open a connection space with the fallen before an extraordinary and complex death.”

In recent years, death for the relatives of the Malvinas war veterans has undergone a new change, as exhumations have been conducted in the Darwin cemetery from 2017. The anthropologist states that “the exhumations and identifications facilitated by the Humanitarian Plan played a key role. For a long time, the relatives had denied to contribute to that task and after a great debate they changed their minds. They had built their lives based on a type of relationship with their dead through some practices around the absent body. To have the body back means rebuilding their way of dealing with their dead. It is a process that involves fears, doubts, contradictions, and so on. But the exhumations were important because they came, in many cases, with objects of the fallen, in addition to what implies the recovery of the body and the cause of death. When the body is found, the voids are filled the ritual of death is completed, even the story of how he died, which comes with the exhumations. That is why I think that the identifications in the Malvinas War are very significant. Argentine society recovers part of its recent past and the bereaved and the former combatants recover part of their history of life, rebuilding the relationship with their dead (either among relatives or among the fallen and their comrades in the battlefield) as part of a process of transformation of this memory as regards Malvinas”, the researcher concludes.



By Cintia Kemelmajer