"I carry my rage like a dead fish, limp and stinking!"

"I carry my rage like a dead fish, limp and stinking!"

I am alive. I, Alicia Partnoy, am still alive," she repeats to herself every morning. Her face, however, does not display any signs of fear or bitterness. Partnoy is a woman who has managed to find closure despite her horrific experiences and she now spends her life helping other victims and their families achieve this state.

Unlike many of her close friends in Argentina who were brutally killed or simply disappeared, Partnoy survived her years in prison and exile to tell a story so extraordinary and yet so familiar to everyone in the subcontinent. Ironically, it is the recent controversy surrounding the election of Pope Francis of Argentina to the Vatican that has renewed international interest in the country's dark period.

Partnoy was among the 30,000 who had "disappeared" between 1976 and 1983 in Argentina. The period, known infamously as the ‘Dirty War’, was the most oppressive in the country as activists, who were fighting poverty, unemployment and lack of health care, were routinely kidnapped, tortured, secretly detained or murdered for opposing the ruling military regime. "It was not war. It was genocide," Partnoy remarked.

It was for his attitude during this period that the present Pope, then head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, has been criticised: he has been accused of remaining silent despite the systematic human rights abuse by the former military dictatorship, which had taken place during his tenure, at a time when the downtrodden needed him the most. This allegation has been strongly refuted by the Vatican as false and defamatory.

Partnoy was in Kolkata in February 2010 at an invitation of the Centre for Studies in Latin American Literatures and Cultures, Jadavpur University, for a discussion on 'Prisons, Politics & Poetry: In Argentina and India' with the feminist poet and novelist, Nabaneeta Deb Sen. Partnoy's book about her experiences in a concentration camp, 'The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina'  (Virago publications), was central to the discussion. A powerful testimony of the survival of the human spirit. In 2007, a collection of her poems describing her experiences was published by an avant-garde Hebrew magazine.

In one piece, Survivor, she writes: “I carry my rage like a dead fish, limp and stinking in my arms. I press it against my breast, whisper to it, people on the streets flee from me ... I don't know: is it the smell of death that makes them flee or is it the fear that my body's warmth might bring rage back to life?”

Partnoy's presence at the discussion had touched a deep chord among the seminar participants. Bengal was in the throes of political turmoil during 1960s and 1970s. Many who were in that room discussing Partnoy's experiences had either heard or known people who were directly involved in the Naxalite movement or had been arrested, tortured brutally, murdered. Thousands had been detained for years without charges.
Many survived to write their prison memoirs.

"Keep talking about your experience. Keep writing," urged Partnoy quietly. "Don't let the memories die out." She spoke of how her stories and poems were smuggled out of prison and published anonymously. Later, as an exile in the US, she continued to keep alive the memory of the struggles of her people as she spoke on various occasions of her experience.

Recently, in a clever move to revive these very memories, Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group that works to locate children kidnapped or those that went missing during Argentina's military dictatorship, met Pope Francis to request his help in finding their grandchildren who had gone missing; these were children adopted by families of the military junta with the help of the church and kept hidden from their legitimate families during the dictatorship. According to a recent BBC report, there were at least 500 children who were forcibly taken away from activists. Partnoy was lucky, she was reunited with her daughter, Ruth.

In January 1977, Partnoy was 20 when she was picked up from her home in Bahia Blanca and taken to a concentration camp, euphemistically known as the Little School. "I became another number in the list of  7,000 prisoners to be held without charges indefinitely," she said.

Many of her friends, including her husband, were detained. The inmates in the Little School were packed in two rooms with leaking roofs, soaking them when it rained; during freezing temperatures, they covered themselves in dirty old blankets. For Partnoy, the most terrifying experience was being held blindfolded. Like other inmates, her wrists would be tied tightly, forcing her to lie prone on her bunk bed, often immobile. "We would remain silent without speaking for hours," she remembered, "We would be beaten up if the guards caught us talking. Or if we spilt food while eating blindfolded or even asked for water, guards punched or clobbered us." Blindfold is a recurring theme in her book.

If the Little School was about brutality it was also about human endurance and comradeship. When she and her fellow prisoners spoke to each other it was in guarded whispers; they reassured a despondent inmate by pressing against him with their toes; sometimes their fingers met, fleetingly, when brushing past to go to the toilet but long enough to press a message of comfort. Sometimes she would whisper poems to her comrades.

Even as she suffered from chronic constipation due to lack of adequate food and exercise, what made life bearable was her imagination and a lively sense of humour. Imagining the brutal camp supervisors' faces inside the latrine during the times when she succeeded in emptying her bowels was her most favourite!

In 1984, after three-and-half years in various prisons and four years in exile in the US, Partnoy returned to Argentina. Hundreds of lawsuits had been filed against the junta that had collapsed under national and international pressure. She too testified before commissions investigating the disappearance of citizens, while hundreds of corpses were exhumed, bearing marks of torture.  

Like in Bangladesh today, where war criminals accused of genocide go scot-free even after 42 years, only recently have people dared to speak out in Bahia Blanca. "I have some wonderful news in terms of justice," writes Partnoy in a recent letter. “After 14 months of trial where 400 people testified, in September 2012, 17 perpetrators of the crimes in the Little School were convicted, 14 received life terms.”

"The people of Argentina, led by a president who has a political will to achieve justice, have walked a long way without the Pope's help. Maybe he'll decide it is time to join us," she signs off.

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