Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Samuel Tieman: The Dirty War


it’s not the police you see
Eduardo says
fear the police you can’t

sometimes you hear the missing
sometimes you don’t
they open their mouths and make
that sound that makes your back ache
and you twist and try to crack that pain
away and promise to learn a name
the meaning of which isn’t clear
but about that name
it once was known only in its inflections
it lacked the sweetness of consonants
and the tenderness of vowels
a common name a mother gave
even before she understood it
that’s why in Argentina to this day
when someone knocks on the door
a mother looks at her hands
then looks at her child and knows only
that someone will open and someone will
enter and someone will one day confess to
all the names made of cadence and stress
and all the corpses that fell from the sky

“La Guerra Sucia” the Argentines simply call it, The Dirty War. From roughly 1969 until 1983, the government hunted, exiled, tortured and killed people believed to be associated with anti-government actions, ideologies or even sentiments. The military junta officially called it “El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional”, The Process of National Reorganization.
Last July, my wife and I were in Buenos Aires for ten days. Phoebe was on a panel for the International Psychoanalytic Association. I was the tourist.
One day, I was in the Plaza de Mayo, the central square of Buenos Aires, just a mile or so from our hotel. I went to Mass at the cathedral. I then wanted to get “La Nación”, a daily newspaper. I noticed a newsstand in front of the Banco de la Nación Argentina. So I got my paper, then thought of finding a coffee shop and just reading. I turned the corner, walked down a side-street — the bank covers a whole city block — and noticed a series of rectangles in the ground beside the bank. They measured about a foot by two feet each. At first, I thought they were some decorative something. Then I noticed writing. I stopped and read one. It was dedicated to a bank employee, who disappeared during the Dirty War. Each memorial gave the employee’s name, the employee’s branch of the bank, the date of the disappearance, and didn’t hesitate to say “state terrorism”. The memorials went the length of the block. I wish I had taken a photo. But I was too upset to think of a snapshot.
On the last day of our visit, I walked to a park along the Rio Plata near our hotel. I stopped to read a large glass and stone tablet, about two meters high, which I thought would explain the multi-storied building we had seen from our suite all week. Trabajordes de YPH víctimas del terrorismo del estado. “Workers Of YPF, victims of state terrorism”, read the tablet. Then the names. YPF is a petroleum company.
What is it like to work in a place where folks just disappear? What is it like to live with the knowledge that there is nothing the state will not do? The last line of my poem refers to the military’s practice of making folks disappear by throwing them alive from airplanes flying far out into the South Atlantic.
Phoebe and I visited a dear old friend, Eduardo Saguier, a fellow student from our days at Washington University in St. Louis. He had been a student activist in Argentina. We met him in 1977, shortly after Eduardo went in exile, a refugee from The Dirty War. Last July, we met him at a pastry shop near his apartment in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It was a delightful reunion.
I mentioned that a policeman outside seemed rather intimidating. “It’s not the police you see,” Eduardo said. “Fear the police you can’t see.” It was an almost casual comment, slightly melancholy, one that evinced his familiarity with cruelty.
But about those police you can see. Thirty-plus years ago, Eduardo and I were walking down a street. We were lost. I saw a cop, and told to Eduardo that I’d ask the guy for directions. Eduardo grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t ask him anything. If you ask a policeman a question, it will give him an excuse to question you.” Over three decades later and I can still feel his fingers still digging into my arm.
Copyright 2017 John Samuel Tieman

Tieman’s friend Eduardo Saguier arrested in Buenos Aires in 1977.

Plaque dedicated to oil company employees who were “disappeared” during the Dirty War.

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This entry was posted on August 15, 2017 by in Personal Essays, Poetry, Social Justice, War and Peace.

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