Opening Facebook, I see another post. Published on July 6, 2020, in Spanish it reads, “Eugenio Vela Ramos. Bolivian. 17 years old. He worked in repairs. He died together with his brother Juan.” Attached to the message is a grainy, black and white picture of Eugenio with his collar slightly open in front of an unclear background. The rest of the image is cut off. I wonder when this was taken. Who else was there.
The comment section is a never ending flow of messages calling for justice for Eugenio. As I continue to scroll through, I see a comment that makes me stop: “I remember the last embrace of my brother, I was a child, I never got to see him [after that], my mother died three years ago with the same pain, with the same suffering, maybe she is with her kids, I imagine that in the end, they are together….” It continues, all commas, a stream of pain.
Eugenio was killed on Monday, July 18, 1994, at 9:53AM, when a bomb exploded in Buenos Aires. The terrorist attack destroyed the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society (AMIA) building, wounded hundreds, and killed 85 people. Although considered the worst such attack in Argentina’s history, to this day, no one has taken responsibility, adding layers of impunity to the trauma felt by the families of the victims. The chances for justice or accountability seem to recede as every year passes.
For years, Argentines demanded accountability for the AMIA bombing through the courts. But they also turned to memory, remembering the victims in a vigil for justice they hoped would come. At these commemorations, citizens gathered together—literally “co-memorating”—as a form of protest, using memory to resist the erasure of time and the silencing of a difficult history. But with COVID-19 and the subsequent social distancing measures enacted by President Alberto Fernández, all such events have been canceled. What happens, then, to memory?
Memory has been a form of activism in Argentina since the 1970s, when mothers whose children disappeared during the military dictatorship protested in the Central Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. An estimated 30,000 people were tortured, killed, and “disappeared” in the years of the so-called “Dirty War.” The state terror and repression inspired a powerful human rights movement that turned memory into a form of activism and citizenship, pivotal for the development of democracy and civil society. Every week, for over forty years, these mothers returned to the same plaza, standing up for their children and insisting that society not forget what happened to them and that the state provide justice. That is, until March 2020, when they had to suspend their weekly protests for the first time in more than 40 years.
Through memory, societies negotiate who they want to be, determining how to understand the meaning of the past and defining what they value today. For victims of oppression and injustice, memory becomes an especially potent tool against silence, which can feel like a secondary form of violence. To resist state terror and impunity, Argentines have often turned to public streets and plazas, standing together to remember the victims, the violence, and demand for truth and justice. So, what happens when such gatherings are no longer possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic? When people can’t turn to the very rituals that have shaped their sense of citizenship and belonging?
There has always been power in standing together with other concerned citizens, even when facing the terror of state violence or the pervasive trauma that followed in the wake of the bombing. After the 1994 AMIA attack, memory-based protests became a central form of activism, one that required working with others. Through such commemorations and memory-based protests, ordinary citizens could make these issues their own. The 18th of every month, family members would gather at the site of the attack and read aloud the names of each victim, and the crowd would respond, “presente.” In that moment, through invoking their names, they became present again, alive in the minds of those standing together. Protests also took place in front of the high courts, where the organization Memoria Activa convened to demand justice for the victims every week for many years after the bombing. The largest demonstration, though, took place every year on the anniversary, July 18th. The site of the attack on Pasteur Street would fill with thousands of citizens holding signs with the images of the victims and their ages, or signs that simply read “Justice.” And at 9:53am, after a piercing siren would ring to mark the moment of the bombing, the ritual of memory would begin—invoking the memory of all victims, so that once more, they too could be present. Here.
This street is where I first met Sofía Guterman, whose daughter Andrea Judith was killed in the bombing. Over many years of conversations at her kitchen table, Sofía would tell me about why remembering matters to her. She wasn’t sure that justice would ever be possible, but she believed in memory. Her goal as the mother of a victim was to fight for her daughter’s memory, “so that she didn’t die again.” For Sofía, it was important for others to remember her daughter, and to be able to remember together.
This year, in Argentina, the AMIA commemoration, like many events, will be virtual. On March 24, 2020, the National Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice went virtual, with Argentines using the iconic symbol of the white headscarf from the Madres movement in their windows, doorways, balconies, and social media posts in a “pañuelazo blanco.” The Plaza de Mayo, though, was empty.
This July, the site of the attack at Pasteur Street will also remain empty. Instead, there will be Zoom talks, shared videos, and live virtual commemorations via Facebook and other channels convened by the AMIA, youth groups, and the group Memoria Activa. But for the first time in over 25 years, no one will be there to shout “presente” in person, or stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow citizens in the chill of a Buenos Aires winter morning.
I called Sofía last week to ask her how she felt this year, on the 26th anniversary of the bombing, her voice quickly collapsing the great distance between Buenos Aires and New York City. She told me she felt “sadness” this year, which has been like no other. She continued, “We need the contact of people. In other years, you can see all the people and touch them, the people who had posters raised with the victims’ faces, the people who shouted ‘Justice!’ With the people, you feel more supported, like they are with you.” Though she understood that this year’s virtual format would still honor the victims, for Sofía, she thought it could feel “cold,” lacking the human contact of a traditional commemoration. Even as the years pass, and perhaps especially in these times of COVID-19 and social distancing, Sofía still needs the collective to join her in remembering her daughter and the 84 other victims.
Every day, more victim stories are posted on Facebook, with the hashtags #AMIA26años #NoDebemosOlvidar. Twenty-six years after the AMIA bombing, they implore us not to forget. Black-and-white grainy pictures give shape to the details of each life—becoming more than just a name. “Andrea Judith Guterman…. She liked to laugh.” “Emilia Jakubeic De Lewczuk had worked since she was 18 years old.” “Fabián Marcelo Furman, 30 years old, was the oldest of three brothers…”
Sofía explained that the histories of the victims first appeared in a book published by the poet Eliahu Toker in 1995. Today, their stories and images are circulating again through social media, taking on new meanings within the context of 2020. They also open a space for readers to participate in a different way—commenting with their demands for justice, or with a personal memory, or sharing it and spreading the word. Sofía thinks that maybe through this new format, these stories could reach new readers who might also try to seek justice for the victims, to help participate in remembering.
2020 will not look like any other year of commemorations. And yet, we also know that the ritual of memory can become, well, a ritual. Something you do out of obligation, or a duty, a rote practice that does not necessarily generate the active remembering these movements need. There is a movement in memorials called counter-monuments, which try to do just that—inspire to do more than routinely perform the act of remembering, challenging us to genuinely engage with the past. So while this year’s changes may indeed be disruptive to the routines of memory, such disruption may also be valuable.
In Argentina, and beyond, that very disruption may open new ways for remembering and reimagining who we really want to be. Even if people cannot stand together, this new COVID-19 world of ours could lead to something greater. It may become an opportunity to revitalize the meaning and stakes of such remembering for society, reminding all of us that holding on to such memories can be a way to fight for justice, which in these difficult times, is perhaps more vital than ever before.