In the spring of 1982, the Falkland Islands group, or the Falkland Islands as Britain calls it, found itself at the heart of a ten-week armed conflict with Argentina. Four decades later, Buenos Aires’ defeat by the British remains a gaping wound for the South American nation. For more than eight out of ten Argentines, their government must continue to claim sovereignty over these South Atlantic islands. Report by Éléonore Vanel, Nicolas Flon and Flavian Charuel.
400 kilometers from the Argentine coast, in the Atlantic Ocean, the Falkland Islands experienced several waves of colonization before finally being considered a “British Overseas Territory” in 1833. But neighboring Argentina claimed the islands since its independence in 1816. In the spring of 1982, Leopoldo Galtieri , head of the junta in power in Argentina at the time, decided to “restore” his territory and ordered his troops to invade the Falkland Islands.
The archipelago falls in a few hours. In order to recapture these islands, as Great Britain as the Falkland Islands, the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, immediately decided to send her fleet more than 12,000 kilometers from London. The conflict lasted ten weeks and killed 649 Argentine soldiers, 255 British soldiers and three islanders. It ends on 14 June 1982 with the surrender of the Argentine troops. Since then, diplomatic relations between Buenos Aires and London were restored in 1990. But the position of the two countries on the Falkland Islands has not changed.
A Falklands Museum in Buenos Aires
Despite this military defeat in 1982, time does not seem to have any effect on Argentine attachment to the Falkland Islands. The 1994 Argentine Constitution itself is unequivocal: “the restoration of said territories and the full exercise of sovereignty (…) constitutes a permanent and inalienable goal of the Argentine people”. We thus find the Falkland Islands everywhere in the country, ubiquitous, on murals, road signs or even on the 50 peso note.
The Falklands Museum in Buenos Aires is even dedicated to this claim. It is visited every day by more than 1,000 students who learn the reasons why these islands are truly Argentine. “The most important thing is that all students know the arguments to defend our sovereignty. When the English usurped the islands on January 3, 1833, they forcibly displaced the population and the Argentine authorities who were there. But we were there before them.” explains guide Silvina Gutérrez.
Thirty years of exile to heal from the war
Martín Otaño was 18 when he was sent to fight in the Falkland Islands. Like him, seven out of ten fighters were young conscripts under the age of 20. Upon returning home, he suffers from post-traumatic stress and falls into drugs. “The return was traumatic because we were brought back into hiding at night. When we had lost the war it was like a shame. It was almost more painful than anything I had experienced during the two and a half months of the war. So I locked everything that happened inside and I never talked about it with anyone again. I imagine psychological help would have helped me but I never did. I had it and I never asked for it because I didn’t wanted to talk about any of this. I was afraid it would reopen wounds I thought were closed. When they weren’t closed at all.” Due to a lack of support, more than 400 Argentine soldiers committed suicide in the months following the return of the war.
Martín left the country and went into exile in Spain for almost 30 years to heal. It was when his childhood friend, Javier de Aubeyzon, contacted him again that Martín decided to return to Buenos Aires. Javier found a letter that the young soldier had sent him from the battlefield. Javier, who is now a painter, wants to turn it into a large painting: “The surprising thing about this letter is the way Martín writes. He was only 18 at the time and you can feel the extreme situation he is in . He writes: ‘I write to you lost at the end of the world, in the midst of the cold and the most absolute loneliness’. The cadence of this sentence!”
Javier was not drafted by the army in 1982 and therefore did not have to fight in the archipelago. But like all Argentines, he is not unaware of the central location of these islands in Argentina. “The cause of the Falklands is deeply rooted in this country, no doubt,” he said. “Furthermore, despite the very significant political divide, the two political sides of the country agree on a single theme: sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. Over time, it has become something almost sacred.”
A local population linked to the United Kingdom
Graciela Cabrera lost her pilot husband, Luciano Guadagnini, during the war. He died during the attack on the English frigate Antelope on 23 May 1982. She attended a tribute ceremony in Cordoba province 40 years later. “I am proud that there are still people mobilizing these memories and keeping them alive, that we remember the heroes who died and also those who came back. We have to keep this fire alive, that of assert our sovereignty, be it historically, geographically, politically and socially. These islands are ours, they are part of our countries. One day, perhaps diplomatically, the Argentine flag will once again be able to fly over the Falkland Islands.” Andra Guadagnini, daughter of Graciela and Luciano, was one year old when her father died in the Falkland Islands: “I feel proud to carry my father’s name.”
According to a 2021 poll, more than eight in ten Argentines want their government to continue to claim sovereignty over the islands.
But on the archipelago in question British feeling is very strong. In 2013, a referendum was held there to ask residents whether they wanted to remain attached to the UK: 99.8% of participants voted yes. Leona Roberts is one of them. His family arrived in the archipelago in 1841, they represent the sixth generation. “What is difficult for us is that Argentina completely refuses to take us into account,” she explains. “They accuse us of being settlers, which is absurd. There was practically nothing when my ancestors arrived here. We built this country. Then tell us we don’t exist, that I and my children have no right to self- determination, I find it offensive and very annoying. The international community does not seem to listen to our voice. We are so few, 3,000 inhabitants, compared to 40 million Argentines…”
Eric Goss was in charge of the Goose Green colony on the archipelago. During the war, more than a hundred inhabitants had been held hostage by the Argentines in the village’s central building. These traumatic memories have never left him for forty years: “I have never forgiven and I never will. I have been to the United Nations twice, I met Argentines there and I told them that I will never shake hands with an Argentine, before they give up the Falkland Islands.”