| September 2021, Por Cora Gamarnik

Concealment, bread and solidarity

Sometimes a single photograph can tell a whole story. It can revive a memory, become revealing evidence, even speak about the war. Such is the case of this image, which was taken on June 19, 1982 in the southern city of Puerto Madryn. In it you can see men and women who managed to approach a truck that was bringing back soldiers from Malvinas; in it, men and women are trying to get closer, stretching their arms, offering bread, willing to greet them. 

It is an entire moving image. 

The weather is cold in this coastal city of the Argentinian Patagonia that faces the sea. The approaching neighbors are wearing warm clothes, beanies, trapper hats, jackets. One of them is holding an Argentinian flag in one of his hands. 

Perched on the truck, there are a few soldiers leaning out of the rear part of it. The truck tarp is rolled up but they are not getting off. Instead they’re grabbing the bread they’re being offered, eating it, blowing kisses, smiling. 

There is a hand greet that is about to happen. The sunlight causes the shadow cast by a hand to get frozen still on the back door of the Army’s Unimog. One of the soldiers stretches out his open hand and from below, other hands reach out trying to hold it. Mabel Outeda managed to capture this unique historical and symbolic moment in a single photograph.

The return of the soldiers from Malvinas after Argentina’s defeat in the war was regarded by the Armed Forces as a potential threat. What soldiers could tell and their very own physical and psychological condition could contribute to fuel the public outrage, disrepute, and the general increasing discontent with the dictatorship. For this reason, the military junta devised a plan to hide the soldiers upon their return. There would be no welcome, no reception; no one would be waiting for them, no one should even see them. The Armed Forces orchestrated the return of the soldiers secretly in the early hours of the morning. That is why there are virtually no photos of those moments; that is why this image is an exception, a photograph evading the official control, a vanishing point, an anomaly.

The English ocean liner SS Canberra was one of the ships that brought the highest number of soldiers back to the continent. She arrived in Puerto Madryn on June 19, 1982 carrying 4,136 soldiers. The zone was heavily guarded by military troops that had thrown a cordon of Army, Navy, and Coast Guard members, many of whom were also soldiers. The people from Puerto Madryn had not been told about the arrival of the ship. Nevertheless, in a small town that unusual military deployment along with the prohibition of getting near the harbor made it clear that something particular was about to happen. When the soldiers got off from the British ship, they were made to jump onto trucks covered in trailer tarps only to be transported to the Lahusen cabins, a place where there is a bingo hall nowadays. 

This photo shows the exact instant where one of the trucks had to come to a halt as a result of people surpassing the security operation. In spite of the obstacles and the bans, neighbors —both men and women— forced the truck to stop. It all started when, as this Unimog passed by, somebody began clapping. Then some others got closer; they wanted to welcome the soldiers, see them, hug them. According to some sources, there was an overall urgency in those neighbors who wanted to greet them, to feed them. It was not something planned beforehand. It was spontaneous, improvised, authentic. The soldiers began dropping some of their belongings from the back of the truck: helmets, scarves. People rushed to the bakery stores that had just opened to get them hot freshly-baked bread.

As described by the soldiers themselves, before getting to Puerto Madryn they had been lectured by the Argentinian military: they had been told people were waiting for their arrival to punish them for having lost the war. “It was actually the other way around: we were looking forward to welcoming them,” photographer Mabel Outeda explained. “We wanted to see them, touch them, receive them with a round of applause, we wanted to talk to them.” At the time she was a photographer in one of the local newspapers, and that day she was one of the witnesses of this moment. As for Julio Calvo, head of the Puerto Madryn War Veteran Center (Centro de Veteranos de Guerra de Puerto Madryn), he pointed out: “I came on board of the Northland, which disembarked in Madryn at 5 o’clock in the morning. While still on the ship, a lieutenant colonel bellowed on the speaker. We were traveling in cabins like war prisoners, and we had been warned we should be careful because people were angry and could start throwing rocks at us. They said we would not have any contact with the inhabitants in Madryn and that we would have to roll down the truck tarps and draw the curtains once on the buses. And that’s how we were transported to Trelew. However, the situation was quite the opposite: people were actually trying to welcome us.”


Sometimes a single photograph can tell a whole story. It can revive a memory, become revealing evidence, even speak about the war. An image like this one. An anonymous photograph, a frozen still instant that tells a story about concealment and defeat but also about bread and solidarity.


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