It’s been almost forty years since the conflict in the south Atlantic between Argentina and the United Kingdom was fought over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). The war– which lasted less than three months from April and June of 1982– resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives on both sides.
Still all these decades later, the names of 122 Argentinian soldiers who fought, died, and buried there remained unknown. All that’s left are graves without any identification on the tombstone apart from “Soldado Argentino Solo Conecido Por Dios” —Argentinian Soldier Known Only To God. And so for the family members of those soldiers, there is no closure, no peace knowing what happened to their family member.
Helping families find that peace is something the ICRC has done since our forensic unit was created in 2004. And, sharing information on the whereabouts of missing or deceased soldiers goes back much further than that to World War II, over a century and a half ago, and continues today in conflicts like Ukraine. Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must account for enemy combatants and civilians in their hands, dead or alive, and inform families of their fate and whereabouts.
In the case of the Falklands/Malvinas War, the ICRC partnered with the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team. Luis Fondebrider co-founded the Argentinian Team in 1984 to identify the bodies of some 30,000 people who were disappeared under Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.
Decades later, in 2012, Argentina and the United Kingdom initiated negotiations about potential exhumations of the unidentified soldiers. ICRC acted as the neutral intermediary of those talks which resulted in a final agreement in 2016 also, known as the Humanitarian Project Plan. This allowed Luis and a multidisciplinary team of scientists from around the world to begin the process of identifying the remains in graves dug by British soldiers in what became known as the Argentine Cemetery near Darwin–on the central eastern side of the islands.
Read more about “The Forensic Human Identification Process: An Integrated Approach” used by Fondebrider and the team.
Learn more about the work of the ICRC’s Missing Persons Global Response and protection of the dead through forensic action.
Learn more about the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team.
The episode script is now available for the hearing impaired.
When a loved one dies, we reflect on the items they leave behind: a necklace they wore, or a shirt that touched their skin. These cherished remnants turn into reminders of those we’ve lost.
[Luis Bernardo Fondebrider] “Many families touch the personal belongings we gave to them, not all of them have personal belongings, but in some cases if they have it and they stroke with the hands, they kiss, a letter an ID document, some families were quiet some families were asking many questions. It’s a process you can not swallow somehow this news in five minutes.”
I’m Dominique Maria Bonessi and this is Intercross, a podcast that offers a window into the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and shares the stories of those affected by war and violence.
For this entire season we’ve been focused on the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency. For more than 150 years, it’s been a crucial resource for families desperate to know the fate of their missing loved ones, who’ve been either captured, wounded, or killed in armed conflict. Today on the show, 40 years after the Falkland Islands/Malvinas conflict, we look back on the ICRC’s efforts to identify unknown soldiers.
On April 2, 1982 the conflict in the south Atlantic between Argentina and the United Kingdom was fought over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas.
[CBS Evening News] “The confrontation between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands is escalating quickly. Argentina is beefing up the invasion force that last Friday captured the islands, a 40 ship British Armada primed for possible war set sail for the Falklands.”
The war– which lasted less than three months– resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives on both sides. And ultimately, ended with Argentinian forces withdrawing.
[ABC News] “Correspondents reported the British troops have taken hundreds of prisoners and had capture the Goose Green Airstrip which would be used by hairier jets. Almost 1000 Argentine troops were stationed at Darwin and Goose Green.”
While the conflict was relatively brief, the pain of the war has lingered on for decades, especially for the families of the 122 Argentinian soldiers who fought, died, and were buried in graves dug by British soldiers. These unknown soldiers were henceforth identified as Soldados Argentinos Conocidos Solo Por Dios—Argentinian Soldier Known Only to God. And so for these families there’s was no closure, no peace in knowing what happened to their loved ones.
That was the case for Noberto Scaglione and his family. He lost his son, Claudio, to the war. His wife later passed as well.
[Noberto Scaglione] “The came with an officer to give us the new that Claudio was dead. But they didn’t know if he was actually dead. They didn’t know if the English had captured him or if he was in fact dead. And that’s where my whole ordeal began. I’ve been trying to trace him for about 22 years. Our life changed, it changed completely. There came a point when she lost the will to live. Because she said to me, ‘Without my son, life no longer has meaning.’”
Helping families like the Scagliones to find that peace is something the ICRC and Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has done since our forensic unit was created in 2004. And, sharing information on the whereabouts of missing or deceased soldiers goes back much further than that to World War II and continues today in conflicts like Ukraine. Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must account for enemy combatants and civilians in their hands, dead or alive, and inform families of their fate and whereabouts. In conflict, the ICRC is the neutral intermediary for the exchange of this information.
In the case of the Falklands/Malvinas War, figuring who these unknown soldiers were took decades to resolve. But in 2012, the ICRC received a request from the Argentine government to help identify their remains. Then in 2016 with the ICRC as a neutral intermediary Argentina and the UK negotiated and signed, an agreement known as the Humanitarian Project Plan.
The crucial work of exhuming the graves and identifying remains fell to Luis Bernardo Fondebrider. He worked with a multidisciplinary team of scientists from around the world who began the exhumations at the Argentine Cemetery at Darwin–on the central eastern side of the islands.
Fondebrider had decades long experience in the area of identifying remains. He was the co-founder of an organization called the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team. Their initial mission was to find the missing 30,000 Argentines who were disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship that lasted from 1976-1983,
His team gained worldwide recognition for its work and has been called in the aftermath of other global conflicts.
Nowadays, Luis lives in Geneva and is head of the ICRC’s forensic unit. It’s a long ways from Argentina, but he still clearly recalls the short conflict and the pain it caused for many families when he was just a teenager.
[Luis tells his story] When the war was started in 1982, I was 18 years old and was a shock for the whole country. We were in a military dictatorship and and we were struggling in the streets again, these military government. So when they, we got the news on April the second was, as I say, it was a shock. Very confusing was a mix of, of people very excited about but very worried about the consequence of this war.
During the last military dictatorship in Argentina, 30,000 people disappeared as a consequence of the action of the government. In this case, we were talking about the war with UK and it was a very short war 74 days.
We learned when the war ended, the combatants who come back alive to the continent were forgotten it was like a taboo subject for most of the state and many people die after that and so for the families it was also an anguish and uncertainty about where are the bodies of our loved ones.
[Music plays underneath]
A dignify management of the dead means to fulfill first with Geneva agreements to recover the body properly, the document what happened to initiate an identification process and to give back with respect the remains to the families and to inform properly to the families but also a humanitarian approach. It means also dignity for the families because the families have the right to know what happened with the loved ones. //
Anytime you have to work in a larger scale case with many people missing, you need to work in different steps.
Argentine authorities had to meet the families who suspect they never saw their loved ones, they never have a grave and to ask then authorization to be part of this process. So the Argentinian authorities created a commission composed by different ministers and also invited the Argentine Forensic Anthropologist Team to be part of the commission to prepare several protocols and training to meet each of these families to visit them at their houses. And to ask several questions among them, the authorization to proceed with this forensic intervention.
Most of the reactions were of concern, because the families of the soldiers in Argentina, were for many years denied the right to know the truth. So when we arrived many times people were angry with us. What do you want, or they say this is political. And also the family ask questions about which family member is better for DNA? What’s going to happen after the body is found identify?
In 2014, we didn’t know we said this could happen in two years in five years, or never going happen is just a possibility.
So was basically to get on the inside the family and to say, please trust me, and this is going to happen. Of course, in this process, the credibility of the Argentine forensic anthropology team working more than 35 years in Argentina was critical to get the access from the families.
So HPP1, one was the diplomatic political agreement between Argentina and UK with a mediation of the ICRC, who allowed to start the forensic operations on the island.
[Sound of car driving on the island]
We arrived around early July to the islands it was in winter. [10;17 It’s very cold many days or it’s snowing many days we had to stop was very harsh conditions.
And the first day we went to the cemetery we were preparing the camp and for me I was the only Argentine on the team was really shocking to see all those graves in that solitude was very strong impression because usually I work a lot in cemeteries and there are buildings different things around Oh, but this is a place totally isolated.
It’s a very green place with no trees, almost where you can see the sea around you and some ships and birds. And that’s it that nothing else. On the island lives around 3000 people and most of them live in the capital city Port Stanley. So in this area, which around 50 meters from the city, almost nobody’s living except some farmers. So it’s, it’s a very empty area, and very abandoned to say. So in those conditions we did the work.
That’s why the logistic work very important and the ICRC have been critical in organized with the local habitants of the islands on all the logistics, the water, electricity, internet, the food, etc.
We arrived the group of around 14 scientists from different countries put together by our CRC.
[Priest blessing the scientists] “In the name of the father, son, holy spirit, amen. I’m Father John Wisdom the Catholic Priest from Stanley. I’m here to give you a blessing for the start of your work. We all know why you’re here. You’re here for humanitarian purposes and you have the full support of everyone on the islands for that.”
[Sounds of preparatory work inside mortuary opening boxes]
We created a multidisciplinary team of forensic scientists coming from the UK from Spain, from Chile, they were forensic pathologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, or odontologists. We were all together is not easy to work with people from different countries with different backgrounds, but each of us has a mission during the work.
So some of us were involved in the, in the planification, or recovery of the bodies in the graves, then moving the bodies to the adjunct mortuary created close to the cemetery and started different steps of the analysis on X ray, photography, and medical, anthropological ,and ontological analysis of the remains.
[Sound of outdoor digging sounds in the cemetery]
The third phase of the process was a multidisciplinary forensic analysis of the each body was a routine from the analyzing the clothing, personal belongings, the biological profile of the person, the injuries and every information who allow us to reach an identification of taking a sample for genetic analysis from bones and from teeth. And at the same time, we have on the papers on the on the walls of the the mortuary. Paper with the ultimate information collected by from the families. But at the same time, we have a report from Jeffrey Cardoso who was the British military who collect the bodies. He flew by helicopter to different locations in the islands. When he discovered a body. He collected the body and took it to Darwin. And then he started checking the pockets, the clothing of the soldiers, trying to find ID tags, letters with a name, ID cars. In some cases, he was successful. And he informed the Argentine authorities. But in other cases he couldn’t. He couldn’t find any information.
So he wrapped the bodies into body bags to protect them. And then he wrote with a marker, the name of the place where he collected the bodies, he usually was a battlefield. So then he buried the bodies in in a coffin, when we exhume the ball is in 2017. The coffee was already disappeared, because the pass of the time, but still in each bodybag we have the location where he wrote in that moment, and also, he produced a very detailed report about all his activities. So it was extremely helpful for us to try to find the right body in the right place.
[Music plays underneath]
In every investigation you need to use different disciplines different steps. No, any case is simple. Really is a complex process that sometimes doesn’t produce the result you’re looking for. But in this case, we were very successful in terms of the identifications.
The genetic analysis of the families’ samples, and on the remain samples were done in in the continent in Argentina and the province of Cordoba, in the genetic life of the origin time forensic anthropology team. At the same time, two labs one in England and one in Spain, were decided to do the quality control of the process, though the Argentine lab perform the analysis, and in three months, they have the genetic results. When we have those genetic results, we organize a meeting in Geneva with all the forensic team most of us we were discussing every case with all the information to produce reports confirmatory reports for identification and exclusion reports for no identification.
So at the end of November 2017. The final report was presented to the Argentine authorities by the ICRC and first day of December, together with the Argentinian authorities we were calling the families to notify them in Argentina.
So more or less, the same team who interviewed those families were the same team notifying the results to the families, we handed to each family a resume of the forensic report with some special pictures of the information. We have a close meeting with each family. And we inform and we listen to them, we reply questions. Because in a spy in this case, the families knew the loved ones died during the war. Families always have when they don’t see their body, they have dreams about maybe my loved one is still alive, maybe his injury. So somehow when you will notify the families with an identification is the end of the of the long walk in this case, 37 years. And it’s a it’s a moment where the families have to to process that information inside the families, but also around their communities.
So always it’s a very touching moment. Many families ask if they suffered. Many families touch the personal belongings we gave to them, not all of them have personal belongings, but in some cases if they have it and they stroke with the hands, they kiss, a letter an ID document, some families were quiet some families were asking many questions. It’s a process you can not swallow somehow this news in five minutes, has to get a report to come back to your family and to start seeing how the the mourning process because at the end it’s that, it’s a mourning process. The injuries are always open, never closed. But at least these families according what they say to us later, they have some peace. They close that circle of uncertainty about what happened with their loved ones.
[Todo Noticias] “Nuevo imagen los soldados argentinos en la guerras de las Malvinas. 75 familiares pudieron visitar a la isla y visitar a los soldados que fueron identificado durantel ultimo ano…”
While I have worked in more than 50 countries for the last 37 years, and I don’t have any case with families don’t want to find the body, sometimes families are told, we cannot look for the body for a political decision. Sometimes families are told is too dangerous. Sometimes families are told. If we open the graves will open the goons, but inside a family, they never reject in most of the case, a general reject the possibility to recover the remains of the loved ones. It’s a human being process doesn’t matter the country doesn’t matter the time always happened like that.
[BONESSI] Luis I just want to make sure I understand…What makes the work of the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team and the ICRC different from other organizations that do this work?
When we started our Argentine team in 1984, well, behind the forensic unit was established in the ICRC in 2004.
We’ve worked from exhuming and identifying Che Guevara remains in Bolivia, from a Chon Cinapa case in Mexico, from Mengistu victims in Ethiopia, to unfold and pan in Iraq, passing from Columbia, South Africa will have been in–with exception of Rwanda. We have been around in all these cases all the time.
And from the beginning, we believe the was not a contradiction, to look for justice and to look for the response to the families. This approach is very characteristic for us. And then for the ICRC, because we put the families in the center of our work. So the families are no secondary actors who don’t understand who don’t get information, who don’t have the right to us from the very beginning, we establish relations with the families and is the same case with the with the forensic unit inside our CRC when they started in 2004 was a small unit with just two or three colleagues. But they follow this kind of model. And today we are 100 people in representing 55 countries. And we follow the same approach to have the families in the center of our activities.
[Music plays underneath]
That was Luis Bernardo Fondebrider, head of the ICRC’s forensics unit based out of Geneva and co-founder of the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team.
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See you next time on Intercross.