Sunday Herald / 25 th Anniversary April 2007
‘We were forced to make trips to Stanley to pilfer supplies we knew were there, but weren’t reaching us. When we became too weak to even do that we would spend most of the day sleeping in our dugouts’
The Other Side: An Argentine Conscript’s Story. By Andrew McLeod
MICHAEL SAVAGE considers himself a lucky man. Having survived the Falklands war physically unscathed, he is today happily married with a young family, living a peaceful life in the depths of the Argentine Pampas. But he has made his own luck, laying his ghosts to rest by reaching out to the people whose land he once occupied, and he has seen this friendship graciously accepted and returned.
Some of his friends have been less lucky. They, like Savage, would never have been a soldier by choice. He finds it hard to believe that a quarter of a century has gone by since he found himself huddled with hundreds of other Argentine conscripts aboard a transport aircraft heading for the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas, as they knew them). They had been told to prepare for war, but rumour had it that they would be based in Río Gallegos to cover for regular troops taking part in the invasion. The first Savage knew for sure that he was to go to war himself was when the conscripts were guided across the tarmac towards a huge Hercules C-130. "Yes, this is it, you are going," they were told.
He was 19. He had completed 14 months service in the Argentine army and was due to return to civilian life within 10 days. He barely knew how to fire a rifle.
For Savage, the war was to be a particularly painful experience - not only was he subjected to humiliation, physical ill-treatment and near starvation at the hands of Argentine military officers, he was also torn between conflicting sides of his heritage. He had Irish ancestry on his father's side, while on his mother's he had deep Argentine roots, as he could trace his ancestry to James Burnet, a sheep farmer from Dunbar who emigrated to Argentina in 1845. Burnet donated the land for one of the first Scots churches on the Pampas. A squat, thatched roof adobe building in Chascomús, on the frontier of Indian territory, it was famously known as the "Rancho Kirk".
Like many Argentines of British descent, Michael's grandfather, who was known in the family as Che Dad (as in Che Guevara), fought for Britain during the second world war. He was an intelligence officer with the RAF at the bloody battle of Nijmegan. "He probably suffered the most," says Savage of his grandfather. "He was born in Argentina but in some ways was more British than the British, and now they were fighting his country, and his grandson was on the frontline."
On arrival in Port Stanley on April 2, 1982, Savage was startled to find how much the houses of Port Stanley reminded him of the home of his grandparents in the Buenos Aires suburbofTemperley:"Thedecor,the colours, the smells were all so familiar."
Savage was sent to Mount Longdon, scene of one of the fiercest battles of the Falklands conflict. The 7th Regiment La Plata, to which Savage belonged, was strung out thinly across a sector that stretched from the summit of the hill almost to Stanley Harbour seven miles away. The Argentines did not expect an attack on this sector from the north, thinking that the British would go for the more attractive option of a narrow front from the south. They were wrong.
Recalling the two months he spent in the hills waiting for the British, Savage says that he and other colimbas (conscripts) were in no physical condition to fight. "I belonged to C Company, and we were positioned just north of Mount Longdon, on a feature called Rough Diamond. We were around 150 men, two officers and maybe 10 NCOs, and the rest of us just badly trained civilians. We had mate cocido an Argentine green tea for breakfast, never any bread, and we only had one meal later in the day, a watery soup and nothing else." Savage discovered later that friends and family had sent him 53 parcels, but he received only one, though letters did get through. "We were forced to make trips to Stanley to pilfer supplies we knew were there, but weren't reaching us. When we became too weak to even do that we would spend most of the day sleeping in our dugouts."
Hostilities broke out at around 9.15pm on June 11. After a paratrooper stepped on a mine, Savage took on his job, handing ammunition to the mortar team that was supporting a counter-attack led by Lieutenant Raul Castaneda, whose section had gone to the aid of B Company. "I did that for several hours, then my mate and I got into our sleeping bags to avoid freezing. With the battle raging all around us we just lay there like sheep when attacked by a dog, too weak and tired to do anything else. We thought we'd be dead by morning."
They slept feverishly until they were awoken by survivors of Castaneda's section as they retreated. The conscripts had put up stern resistance against the British paratroopers. "The survivors were full of horrifying stories; they'd killed about 25 British soldiers - one had a maroon paratrooper's beret - but then, when the paras spotted us they began to shell us, trench by trench, very accurately. At around 9am our officer ran away with most of the company, and we were left alone, about 40 colimbas trapped in our dugouts by the artillery."
During 10 hours of shelling, Savage recited the rosary he'd learned at his Catholic school in Llavallol, a Buenos Aires suburb "I'll never forget it, tons of hot steel falling down. One shell landed about a metre away from me and killed a friend." When a shell fell on this body and two others, "I remember the blankets floating three metres above in the blast and at that point we all ran for our lives."
When the bedraggled conscripts reached Stanley they were met by Argentine officers in immaculately clean uniforms, some of whom had not fired a shot. "They'd been sleeping in warm beds in comfortable houses while we were out there," Savage recalls. It came as an enormous relief when he was made a prisoner of war and was ushered on board the Canberra with hundreds of other conscripts for the return journey home. "We were filthy and had no fresh uniforms, but at least we were able to shower." He was asked to act as an interpreter in surgery.
On his return to Buenos Aires, the army tried to fatten the conscripts up at the main barracks at Campo de Mayo - Michael had lost 17 kilos in two months - but the conscripts rebelled and all were allowed to return home. "It was unbelievable," says Savage, "one officer with slicked-back hair came up to me and asked, Soldado, was it like it is in the movies?'"
Aftertwoyearsat university,wherehe studied agronomy, Michael dropped out "because my concentration had definitely gone". He began to work with his father, who ran a metalworks firm, constructing sheds and roofing for farmers and ranchers on the Pampas, and that is still his business today. "I was travelling with my dad and out in the fresh air and it was good for me." One day in 1992 a friend of Savage's bought a gun and shot himself in the bathroom of his home, leaving his wife and three children. In all, an estimated 350 Argentine veterans have ended their lives, many long after the end of the conflict.
In 1996, Savage contacted a young artist from the Falkland Islands, James Peck, who was exhibiting in Buenos Aires. "I was scared because, being a child of 13 during the war, I had a lot of horrible memories," says Peck, "and before leaving my advice had been not to get involved in anything to do with the war or politics. Michael says he was surprised by the look of fear on my face, but we sat and talked and over the years as I returned for more exhibitions we became really good friends and he always said, I want to go back, you know, as a friend.'"
In 2000, Savage returned to the islands for the first time to stay with James Peck and his family. There he met Peck's father Terry, who during the Argentine occupation had fled Stanley on his motorbike, living alone for weeks in the open, hiding and eating dried fruit and nuts. Later he emerged from the hills "like Clint Eastwood" to the astonishment of 3 Parachute Regiment, whom he guided to Mount Longdon.
On Savage's return to the islands the three climbed to the site where he and Terry had fought on the fateful night of June 11. There they found two 105mm field guns, "one of which was carried by me and six other colimbas by hand uphill from Moody Brook, four miles away," says Savage. But then an extraordinary thing happened.
"We spoke sincerely and openly about what had happened that night, filling in the gaps in our stories, swapping anecdotes. Terry told me that three days before the battle the British were already very close when they saw six men heading for a farm beyond the Murrell river. I was among those six men, acting as an interpreter. Terry said, You were crossing the river and I got my boss to bring in the artillery to fire on you. But the regiment commander didn't want to lose the element of surprise before the battle. To meet you after all these years and to know that I could have been responsible for your death it wasn't to be."
Savage has returned to the islands since then. Sadly, Terry Peck, a hero to the islanders, died of cancer last year. Peck gave Savage one of his berets from the 3 Paras, prompting one islander to say, "Getting that from Terry is like being awarded the Victoria Cross."
James Peck, who is married to an Argentine, is a successful artist, and continues to draw strange ghostly sketches of Argentine conscripts scattered across the desolate slopes of the Falklands, or filing past as prisoners of war. He is troubled by the memory of what happened to people so young, "so far from those they wanted to be close to". His brother once asked whether he was feeling guilt; Peck is not sure, though others would suggest it was compassion.
"Life gave us an opportunity to be friends and we haven't wasted it," says Savage, who believes Argentina's historical claim to the islands is legitimate, but that the invasion was wrong. "How absurd war is. It is incredible that in the times we live in anyone should think of forcing change on other people's lives. All wars are the excuse of governments to invade and make money or stay in power and it's always in the name of God, or freedom. I'm convinced that if you could put small groups of people from countries with hate between them together for a week there'd be no more war, ever."
Savage treasures a photograph taken by his father with the last frame of a film roll. "This was the most exciting day of my life, when I was released and I heard my mother calling to me. Mum was an unknown victim of the war. Those two months of uncertainty were bad for her. Luckily, she was with us for a few years after the war before she died of colon cancer.
"In the hard times of my life, and the good times too, this picture always comes to mind. When I returned for the first time to the trenches, I lay on the ground and looked up at the sky and it was as if I were talking to her, and I said, You see, Mum, this is the place, this is where I was.'"