Argentina’s ambassador speaks for the ‘Disappeared’


EL PASO — After 40 days of searching for his missing father during Argentina’s “dirty war” against dissidents in the 1970’s, Héctor Timerman finally found him in a prison, nearly destroyed by torture.

“If thinking about someone being tortured is terrible, it is not as painful as seeing its results,” said Timerman, now Argentina’s ambassador to Washington.

Argentina's ambassador, Héctor Timerman, speaks to students and faculty at The University of Texas at El Paso

Argentina's ambassador, Héctor Timerman, speaks to students and faculty at The University of Texas at El Paso (Ana Gabriela Monsalvo/

He told students and faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso recently that he was only allowed near his father, newspaper editor Jacobo Timerman, for three minutes and in that short time he found, “…a man destroyed, both physically and mentally…” who pleaded with his family to continue with their lives as if he would never be freed.

Ambassador Timerman said his father’s kidnapping in 1977 was one of some 10,000 cases of ordinary citizens considered enemies of the state being “disappeared” by Argentina’s military junta.  The elder Timerman was targeted because he published the names of the disappeared persons in his left-leaning newspaper La Opinion.

“I was scared when he published the names, but I was proud that he did that,” recalled Timerman.

Although, the elder Timerman had been warned that he would be killed, he was adamant about remaining in Argentina.

“He wanted to fight for his country as well as not be perceived as cowardly because he was a Jew,” Timerman said, explaining that a cloud of anti-Semitism also hung over the dirty war.

The military junta had begun a campaign of torture and brutality against its citizens and Jacob Timerman’s challenging act could not go unpunished by the dictatorship. When his wife reported him missing at the police station, she was subjected to cruel ridicule. Timerman said, “ the police told my mother ‘maybe your husband got bored of you and left with his mistress because you did not provide for his needs […] you better take care of your family before they too get tired of you.’”  The policeman amused himself by adding insult to injury.

The family’s dilemma was now great. They didn’t know whether to fight the authorities for his release risking additional torture and perhaps death for him, or whether to keep silent and hope for his release.

“For the first time we had to deliberate, not only without my father’s advice but knowing that he was the one that was going to pay the highest price for our actions,” Timerman said.

The young Timerman took action nonetheless and sought the help of journalists and human rights groups around the world. Due to these actions, his father was again disappeared, and they no longer had the three-minute daily contact with him.

“We lived in terror thinking about the way he had been tortured upon his initial imprisonment,” Timerman said.

When contact was resumed, the family was only allowed a three-minute visit every Friday, and his father was denied permission to speak.

Amidst looming threats, and with the encouragement of the American ambassador, it was decided that the younger Timerman’s efforts would best be served if he left the country. He traveled in secret without a passport to Brazil, then Israel. In New York he continued to work with U.S. diplomats for his father’s release. His father was finally expelled from Argentina and sent to live in Israel where he wrote a book about his 30-month imprisonment and torture. He sought to bring awareness to what happens to a society when it consents to torture out of ignorance, fear or sense of patriotism.

“Nothing is possible in such a universe,” Timerman said.

Timerman told the audience, “El Paso serves a special place in my heart.”  He recalled that in the years preceding the “dirty war” he could sense the imminent danger to his family as the political conditions grew tense and the government began to target dissenters as terrorists. As part of an escape from this harsh reality, he dreamt about El Paso —a far away place where people in constant travel could easily remain free in obscurity.  Thirty-three years later, he told El Pasoans during his visit, that this border town not only served as temporary refuge in his mind, but today is also a place that will resolve its own human rights conflict in the midst of a drug war.

Timerman exemplifies what a hard fought battle against injustice can accomplish. His rise from political refugee to Argentina’s ambassador to the U.S. proves that justice and democracy can prevail.

Advancing the cause of human rights, bringing justice and awareness to the atrocities committed by the dictatorship in Argentina during the dirty war from 1976-1983 is what Timerman dedicates himself to now.

“I am not a philosopher, nor a historian, nor a theologian. There is no way I can explain how a general decides that by killing a 14-year old boy, he can change the fate of a country,” Timerman said.

Timerman works with an indisputable conviction that if the victims of such injustices are forgotten, human beings are bound to repeat the mistakes of hatred, indifference and violence toward each other.

Although the dirty war is over and justice has been restored in Argentina, Timerman works to restore the identities of the quiet victims and missing children that were born while in captivity. Over 500 children were abducted form their imprisoned parents and given away to military families in order to indoctrinate them in nationalism and keep them from becoming enemies of the state.

“This indeed is the goal of state terrorism, that of terror embodied in actual living persons intimately perpetuated over time,” Timerman said.

These victims are denied their true identities, their origins, and their families. Timerman asserts that it is Argentina’s responsibility to undertake the task in order to restore its society and continue to heal.

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