A Bird That Lives

On the 10th January 1984 Reynaldo Bignone, the ex-president and general of Argentina was arrested. The arrest was part of a bitter and protracted campaign to bring all of the instigators of Argentina’s “Dirty War” to justice. Argentina had endured over a decade of totalitarian rule, any dissent from the regime was met with the most severe consequences.

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Dissenters were imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed. The victims were euphemistically described by the dictatorship as “the disappeared”. It would take many years for their restitution, and for democracy to be restored. However their desperate plight was not forgotten by the Argentinian writers living in exile, they were their fiercest advocates, and the loudest voices calling for truth, freedom and justice.

It is not known how many of the disappeared were actually killed, it is only an estimation. It is believed that there were at least 30,000 people murdered in the course of the Dirty War. The exiled Argentine poet Juan Gelman was personally and directly affected, as his son and daughter in law were two of the disappeared. Gelman`s sorrow and grief for their loss, and the despair that enveloped him about the political course that his country had taken was channelled into his work.

His poem “Epitaph” illustrates this perfectly,

“A bird lived in me. A flower travelled in my blood. My heart

Was a violin. I loved and didn`t love. But sometimes I was loved.

I also was happy:about the

Spring, the hands together, what

Is happy. I say man has to be!

Herein lies a bird, a flower, a


Gelman evokes the spirit of freedom, encapsulated in the metaphor of the bird. The modern post-colonial nation of Argentina is just like a bird, in that it is a perfect and apt representation of the buccaneering personalities of the early European settlers.

The first wave of immigrants sought their fortunes in this outpost of the Spanish Empire, driven by promise and opportunity. They believed that the vast open spaces of land could herald riches. However, like all imperial projects, this was not a totally seamless or peaceful transition from the old and familiar world to the new world that awaited them.

There were bloody battles fought between the European nations and between the colonial powers and the colonised peoples. It is an inconvenient truth that any nation created through conquest and subjugation will face struggles to define itself, or reconcile with its history.

This is something that we have had to reflect upon in our contemporary world, whether it is actually possible for a country of many cultures and identities to succeed and thrive upon the modern cultural and political stage.

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