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Souvenire mug from HMS Avenger whose 16" guns killed three women Falkland islanders they came to rescue.

HOW ARE YOU ENJOYING THE DAY?
Remembering the victims of the Falklands war
Lucy Beck April 2007

I was intending to write about a story which has haunted me since 1982 – the forgotten civilian deaths in the Falklands War. However reading my yellowing newspaper cuttings has reminded me of all the deaths, of how young the soldiers were, and of those wounded both in body and mind who continue to suffer to this day. ‘How are you enjoying the day?’ was said by Mrs. Thatcher to one who was blinded when his ship, the destroyer Antrim, was bombed (Daily Mail, 13.10.82). This comment at the Falklands Victory parade, speaks for itself in the insensitivity of all politicians to those they send out to fight and suffer ‘for their country’. The Falklands wounded and disabled victims were only invited to the Victory parade after a media outcry at their exclusion.

In most wars these days, the majority of deaths are civilian. We rarely know their names. They are not buried in neat rows like the military victims, tended for years afterwards by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The British troops went ostensibly to save and protect the Falkland Islands and the Falkland Islanders. But they killed three women who lived there and this time we know their names: Mrs Susan Whitley, Mrs Doreen Bonner and Mrs Mary Goodwin.

They were killed by British shelling (accidentally of course) when they were sheltering in a house together during the naval bombardment of Stanley. A recent Channel 4 programme which conceived the cynical idea of sending Mrs. Thatcher’s daughter Carol to the Falklands and to Argentina, interviewed a woman survivor who movingly described the deaths. She said it was a cluster bomb though another account describes it as an explosive shell fired by HMS Avenger. There were other injured civilians who survived and two young children amongst others also sheltering there who were unhurt.

The women’s names do not appear on the Falklands memorial in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral which is a memorial to the Task Force only (among a weird collection of military tombs and memorials where schoolchildren can be found clustered round Nelson’s tomb, next now to the café and gift shop). But they are remembered in the Falklands memorial chapel in Pangbourne, in a forest of trees planted in the Falklands and on the Liberation Monument in front of the Secretariat in Stanley. They are remembered too by the South Atlantic Medal Association which has created a Garden of Remembrance for all the British dead on the web – though they haven’t yet worked out how to say these women were killed by the British. The Pangbourne chapel website avoids the issue and says ‘three islanders who died in the fighting’. On the Ministry of Defence website for Operation Corporate (as they call it) there is a Roll of Honour which includes the three women (under RAF and others) – uniquely, I imagine, civilians remembered along with the military dead. But what kind of a mentality is this – that they can calmly include the civilians they killed in this way?

Susan Whitley, one of those who died, was a Home Economics teacher and an annual memorial exhibition has been held since in the Falklands, displaying artwork, craftwork, baking and sewing. A Susan Whitley Trust Fund was set up to advance the education of children and young people on the Falklands in these arts and crafts.

Ironically, by 2002, seven more Falkland Islanders had been killed post war in accidents on the ‘brutal gravel motorway built to link Stanley with the military airport.’ Have any others died from the 100 minefields reportedly scattered over the Falklands – Argentinian mines still being cleared slowly today?

Out of the 255 British ‘military’ deaths, there were some other ‘friendly fire’ deaths – in my cuttings a mention of 4 dying in an army helicopter shot down by British Sea Dart missiles, 5 dying and 9 wounded in a series of night-time clashes between friendly patrols. “In the darkness and the monotonously featureless terrain of the Falklands it was all too easy to lose your way.” News of these deaths was suppressed at the time as it would be bad for morale in Britain.

There are eight Chinese names among the ‘British’ dead. Who were they and why were they there? They appear to be mostly merchant seamen, possibly from Hong Kong, on ships hired/commandeered by the UK to transport the troops. They are listed as seamen, or laundrymen, a butcher and an electrical fitter. Did they have any choice about going to the Falklands? Their names were Yu Sik Chee, Yeung Swi Kami, Leung Chan, Sung Yuk Fai (or Pai), Ng Por, Chan Chi Sing, Lai Chi Keung, Kye Ben Kuro. They died on the Sir Tristam, the Sir Galahad, the Atlantic Conveyor, on HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry. There were six other British merchant navy seamen who died.

I am reminded that many of the young Argentinians who died are buried in a cemetery in the Falklands. The Argentine military junta of the time (and the relatives) wouldn’t bring them home because they considered that they are already buried on Argentinian soil. But President Menem later built a bizarre monument outside Buenos Aires – a cemetery with white wooden crosses bearing the names of the dead, where all the graves are empty. There is now also a black marble memorial in Buenos Aries where an orange flame burns and two guards stand to attention, with daily ceremonies. It is not entirely clear how many Argentinians died – 650 seems the most common figure.

323 of these died when the British sank the Belgrano. A survivor remembers that ‘many of the younger guys panicked and jumped overboard, trying to save themselves. The water was freezing and rough, and they drowned.’

Some of the Falkland Islanders themselves were compassionate towards the young Argentinian conscripts:
Mr Goodwin said “Many of them were young boys. They were badly fed and badly treated by their officers. A food wagon would come around once or twice a day and all they got was soup.
“I remember two young soldiers who would bang on the gate of the garden waving about a container. They were asking for food and drink. I could understand them because I speak a bit of Spanish.”
His wife still vividly recalls watching the young conscripts being beaten by senior officers. Many, she says, were made to wash their clothes in the chilly waters of Stanley Harbour and some were pushed in as punishment.
“I could see some of them crying and shivering with the cold. Sometimes I would give them food, because I was thinking that if my son was in the same position, I hope someone would do the same for him.”

Emma Steen showed a reporter, with misery, the Dinky toys, owned by the young Argentinians, she had found in her backyard after the invasion. When told the reporter was going to attend the Argentinian funerals she said “That’s good. It has been worrying a lot of us for a long time, the thought of other people’s children lying out on the hills.”

The Argentinians were not the only young men there. ‘There was a lot about how young the Argentinian soldiers were, but when we tried to report on the ages of our marines – the average age was 19 and there were some 17 year-olds that NCO’s thought were too young – we were told it wasn’t a story. We thought they had to be 18 to go into combat, but we were told this wasn’t the case, and therefore it wasn’t worth our while to do a story.” (radio reporter Kim Sabido, reported in City Limits). The MOD has just admitted ‘accidentally’ sending some 17 year-olds into the Iraq war, though now this is against the official policy.

Since the war, hundreds of veterans, both Argentinian and British, have committed suicide. Numbers of suicides are not recorded by the MoD, but the South Atlantic Medal Association claimed in 2002 that more British ex-servicemen from the Falklands have killed themselves since the 1982 conflict than died in action: 264 they estimated (300 is more recently quoted). An example is Lance Corporal Colin Deary who lost three friends in the Falklands, was discharged from the army eight years later with drink problems, and in 1994 stabbed himself to death. Similar reports have been made about the Argentinian troops. A recent report from the Centre of Ex-Combatants Islas Malvinas (CECIM) claims there have been 460 suicides among the Argentinian veterans. One such was Jorge Martire who was found in 1992 wandering the streets, having lost his memory. In hospital he hid under the bed, sheltering from ‘an English bombing’. Released from hospital he bought a gun and blew his head off.

As in all wars but still not adequately recognised by the military establishment, the servicemen and women suffer to varying degrees from post traumatic stress disorder. Many soldiers found it hard to return to normal life, ended up getting into trouble and committing crimes. Simon Skinner suffered flashbacks and stumbled from one crisis to another attempting suicide on several occasions, becoming an alcoholic and getting into debt, and finally in 1995 having his final flashback. ‘He got out of bed, stood to attention, marched out of the room as if in a trance and, stumbling, fell down the stairs. He died five days later.’

There were potentially thousands if not millions more victims: it was confirmed in 2003 after sustained pressure from The Guardian, that the Task Force carried nuclear weapons. I had believed this was possibly accidental – that there had been no time to unload them before they set sail. But the official history of the Falklands war, by Lawrence Freedman, apparently reveals that they were taken deliberately ‘in case the conflict escalated and Russia joined in on the side of Argentina.’ That is the risk that the British military (for the politicians seem to have dithered but the military regarded this as operationally necessary) was prepared to play, during the Cold War . A little war in which the stakes were unbelievably high.

So while the Falklands jingoism is resurrected by the government and media over the next few months, we remember that the shadow of this war still falls on many lives which have been ruined for ever, and that this little war did not solve the underlying conflict. I have just heard on the news that Argentina has backed out of a deal to share any oil revenues from Falkland Islands waters, until the issue of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is again looked at. I hope that the victims of the conflict are not forgotten so soon and that neither government will go to war over these islands again.

(All quotations from the Guardian and Observer except where specifically indicated.)

 



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