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ARGENTINA | 10-12-2022 05:30

‘They’re people, not bodies’ – Geoffrey Cardozo, the British officer who highlights the human factor in war

Ex-colonel and co-nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize Geoffrey Cardozo CBE, who became known for identifying and burying Argentine soldiers fallen in combat, recalls the crude post-war scenario and sends out a conciliatory message beyond the territorial dispute and nationality.

Geoffrey Cardozo wears a cockade in which the flag of Argentina intermingles with the Union Jack. Now 40 years on from the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) war, the symbol carries impact while reflecting the thinking of the former British colonel, who is known for his work in the subsequent identification of the Argentine soldiers whom he helped to bury in Darwin Cemetery on Isla Soledad, which earned him a co-nomination for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

"I never use the word ‘body.’ When I talk of the people we found on the battlefield, there were 240. The problem was that half of them could not be identified with no name tags also giving their blood groups, as  professional soldiers have," recounts Cardozo in almost perfect Spanish, shortly after playing a melody on the piano in the auditorium of the Fundación Beethoven.

In an interview with Perfil, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize nominee (alongside war veteran Julio Aro) recalls the post-war scenario on the archipelago and the moment in which his work of accompanying his country’s combatants entrusted to him by the British Crown took a dramatic U-turn upon finding the Argentine soldiers fallen in combat who were impossible to identify. 

Cardozo, 72, preaches a message of peace and reconciliation with history, placing emphasis on revindication of the human factor in war and the fraternity between soldiers beyond nationality and combat. 

He thinks of the stories behind those young anonymous soldiers plunged into fighting an unjust and improvised war, also giving details of the origin of the phrase "Argentine soldier known unto God" which accompanies the tombs.

 

‘Typically post-war scenario’

British Captain Geoffrey Cardozo, then aged 32, arrived on the Malvinas islands in June 1982, a few days after the end of fighting. His fluent Spanish positioned him as the ideal soldier to be sent out to the islands "to take care" of his compatriots and the sequels of combat.  

"Like any survivor, combatants have a huge potential for disciplinary problems.  They are aggressive between themselves, consuming plenty of alcohol and drugs," he explains, adding that he found a desolate and "typically post-war" scenario, marked by filth, munitions and minefields all over a territory populated by prisoners and the wounded and the dead.

Nevertheless, his destiny changed when a team of engineers clearing mines communicated to him via radio that they had found the bodies of Argentine soldiers.

"My task was to look after the British soldiers. A few weeks after my arrival on the islands, I found a dead Argentine soldier and I thought: ‘What do I do?’ My work was with living men, I wasn’t expecting that," he narrates.

Cardozo immediately headed to the spot in a helicopter, climbing down by rope and approaching the location of "the heroic Argentine soldier," in his own words. It was the first time he had run across an "enemy" soldier with neither a name tag nor documents to lend clues as to his identity, as he found after searching his clothing.

"It’s difficult burying somebody without knowing who he is. I found some letters from schoolgirls, reading them gave me very strong emotions but they did not help us," he reflects.

After burying the remains, the officer prayed briefly and noted down the coordinates of the grave. He recalled his mum’s kiss before leaving England as being "the most amorous he had received in his life" (as possibly the last), which made him think of the mother of the person lying at his feet.

At that moment, between soldiers and out of combat, nationality lost all meaning.

 

‘Known unto God’

From that point on, he carried out the same task with all Argentines without name-tags or identification which he found around the archipelago in times when DNA techniques did not exist, something which officially became his "new post-war job." 

Organising Darwin Cemetery, Cardozo gave burial to 237 of the fallen, of whom 121 were young conscripts born in 1962 or 1963 and hurled into combat without training or the means of identification worn by all military regulars. For those anonymous soldiers, Cardozo chose the phrase "Argentine soldier known unto God" to accompany the tombs, inspired by the phrase coined by Rudyard Kipling, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and son of a British officer.

"It was a divine gift for me," says Cardozo, who would afterwards deliver a report to the Red Cross in Geneva giving all the data on the Argentine fallen at a time when there were no bilateral relations between Argentina and Britain. 

Many years afterwards  Julio Aro received a copy when meeting up with British veterans in London, inspiring him to create the Fundación No Me Olvides NGO which identified 88 of the 121 conscripts via DNA.

In the Malvinas war, 649 Argentines died, of whom almost half (323) were victims of the sinking of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano. A total of 237 were killed in ground combat and were buried in the Argentine Military Cemetery in Darwin on Isla Soledad.

Cecilia Degl'Innocenti

Cecilia Degl'Innocenti

Politóloga. Licenciada en Relaciones Internacionales. Periodista.

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