Thirty years later, two Falkland veterans share war-time memories
In this photo from 1982, Roberto Barrientos (second from left, top row) poses with his colleagues from Argentina’s Engineer Corps, shortly after Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands. Barrientos, was ordered to place landmines around the islands, in order to impede the advance of British forces. (Photo: Roberto Barrientos)
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Islas Malvinas, or Falkland Islands, an incident that triggered the 2-month-long Falkland Islands War between the UK and Argentina, back in 1982.
Thirty years after the war, Univision News interviewed two men who participated in opposite sides of the conflict.
The dispute over the remote islands harks back to the early 19th century when the British Navy expelled a small Argentine garrison from the islands. Argentina has tried to reclaim its sovereignty over the islands at different points and through different means, and most recently diplomatic tensions flared over the islands after Britain decided to send a warship there on a routine military exercise.
One of our interviewees was an Argentine conscript, sent to the islands to deploy landmines, and eventually captured by the British.
Our second story comes from a British seaman, who provided logistical support to British marines who retook the Falklands. During the war, he was asked to keep dozens of Argentine prisoners on his ship.
Roberto Barrientos, Argentina: “I am dying to go again … but I will not go”
Roberto Barrientos in a recent veterans parade. (Photo: Roberto Barrientos)
“I am dying to go again, but I will not go,” Roberto Barrientos said on the phone in a weathered voice. A veteran of the Malvinas or Falklands war, Roberto still dreams of returning to the islands he fought for 30 years ago. In his mind, going back and having his passport stamped by a foreign country would be a personal betrayal.
“I would be contradicting myself, I should not have to ask for permission. The islands are occupied, seized — but they are still my territory”.
Barrientos first set foot on the Malvinas islands, or Falklands as they are called in the English-speaking world, on the morning of April 12, 1982. He was fresh out of high school and, at 19, had only just completed two months of basic training. Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship, and military service was mandatory. Thousands of fresh-faced kids like Roberto would be shipped to the tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic to fight the professional and highly-trained British forces.
Barrientos was assigned to the engineering corps. Their main mission was to scatter landmines to try and harass the British advance.
“We were not prepared to handle that sort of stuff. I learned it all over there.”
It is estimated that the Argentine military planted around 15,000 landmines, many of which are still there today.
The war lasted a little over two months. Argentina surrendered on June 14, 1982, but Roberto stayed on the Islands as one of 600 prisoners of war.
“I spoke English and I knew where landmines were, so we had to indicate where they were to take them out,” he told Univision News.
This was a treacherous task. According to Barrientos, three British soldiers were killed and one fellow Argentine lost his leg after stepping on a landmine that was hidden under a heap of snow.
Eventually, the Red Cross intervened and Barrientos was able to return home.
“Coming back was hard, we felt defeated and we did not want to surrender. The will to fight was intact and I still have that will in my head today. I went to defend the country and did not want to leave and see a different flag waving,” Barrientos said.
649 Argentines were killed during the war. According to Barrientos, however, the tragedy of Malvinas has lived on for decades.
“There are more than 700 Malvinas veterans who committed suicide in the past 30 years (…) A lot of veterans, including myself, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Barrientos remembers how difficult it was to adjust to society upon his return.
“When looking for a job, if they knew you had been to war, they would discriminate against you. We were potential liabilities.”
Today, Barrientos is the head of the Veteran’s Department at the Ministry of Labor in Buenos Aires where he is tasked with helping veterans find work. He also maintains a close relationship with his fellow comrades in arms.
“We meet two or three times a year with a group of 55, 60 people to eat an asado (Argentine Barbeque).”
Barrientos still thinks about Malvinas everyday.
“It is my reason to live (…) I am traveling to Ushuaia (on Argentina’s southern tip) to be part of the events that are taking place for the 30-year anniversary of the war,” he says. “I would love to see the Argentine flag waving on the Islands before I die.”
Peter Hill, United Kingdom: “We were seen as a liberating force.”
Peter HIll says he “retired from the sea” a year after the Falklands war. Hill, now 66, still enjoys the occasional sailboat cruise. (Photo: Jonnie Hill)
Peter Hill set off for the Falkland Islands in the RFA Sir Percivale, a ship that provided logistical support to British troops assaulting the islands.
Hill was 36 when the war broke out and served as the Chief Officer on the Percivale.
He remembers the islands as a bleak and rocky place, always covered in fog.
“It was pure wilderness,” Hill told Univision News in a phone interview. “The nearest thing to it (in Britain) would be the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.”
After British forces defeated the Argentines in the crucial battle of Goose Greene, Hill was told to hold dozens of Argentine prisoners on his ship, which was anchored off the shores of San Carlos Water, on the west side of the Falkland’s East Island.
“We had a few very arrogant, very professional full-time military people,” Hill recalled. “But the vast majority were young conscripts. They were cold, wet, hungry. They hadn’t gotten proper rations and they hand’t gotten proper training. Some of these guys were 16, 17 years old. It was absolutely appalling,” Hill said.
During the war, Argentine soldiers spent several nights in a row in foxholes and camps, defending strategic positions.
According to Hill, the Argentine soldiers on his ship were at first terrified of their British captors, but were eventually “quite happy” that they had proper shelter and food.
The war was no walk in the park for Britain however, which lost more than 200 men as it took the islands back, most of them during attacks against British warships by Argentine planes.
Nevertheless, Britain’s aircraft carriers gave the Europeans an edge over Argentine forces, who had to deploy their planes from the Argentine mainland, as there was no airstrip on the islands that could accommodate them.
“If we had lost the air superiority it would’ve been disastrous,” Hill, now 66, said from his home in Kent.
When the war ended in June, Hill’s ship was deployed to Stanley, the Falkland Islands’ small capital. There was little time for celebration however, as British officers were confronted with the task of evacuating some 12,000 British troops and Argentine prisoners from a town where the water and energy supply were only designed for a population of 3,000.
Hill spent an additional week on the islands, making logistical arrangements for repatriating thousands of Argentine prisoners back home. He has never gone back to the South Atlantic islands.
“We were seen as a liberating force,” Hill said of his time on the Falklands. “The islanders were with us 110 percent.”