Argentina exhibit shows dictatorship-era abuses to women

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Graciela Garcia Romero says she was in her 20s when a former navy captain turned her into a sex slave in Buenos Aires.

Ex-Navy Capt. Jorge Acosta, who is now serving life in prison for numerous human rights crimes, would take her to apartments and rape her during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, said Garcia, now 69.

“They would leave me the whole weekend until Acosta arrived… then, they would bring me back here,” she added, referring to the detention center at the former Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, where she was held. “They would put me in handcuffs and shackles and put a hood over my head.”

Her testimony is now part of a new exhibit titled “Being women at the ESMA, a testimony to look back,” in which 28 women recount harrowing stories of dictatorship-era gender-based violence. The exhibit was inaugurated Thursday.

ESMA museum director Alejandra Naftal said that since the former secret prison re-opened as a museum in 2015, “women and young people began telling us that we had forgotten about the gender perspective when recounting the acts that happened here.”

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The latest exhibit is a response to their demands and comes as tens of thousands of people across the country have mobilized to fight violence against women.

Museum officials said when they researched women who had been held captive at the center, they realized that they not only suffered violence because they were seen by the dictatorship as suspected leftists dissidents, but simply because they were women.

Miriam Lewin, a journalist who was kidnapped in the late 1970s, said in testimony on display that women at the ESMA were groped, tortured with electric shocks to their vaginas and breasts, and forced to shower naked in front of people watching.

“The women were their war trophy,” said additional testimony by Silvia Labayru, who was five months pregnant when she was also kidnapped. “Our bodies were their war trophy … that’s pretty common in sexual violence.”

Labayru’s daughter, Vera, was born in 1977 and given to family members while she was held prisoner.

Both of their stories now form part of the exhibit, which includes photos and videos and runs until June.

The ESMA was once the era’s biggest clandestine detention and torture center with an estimated 5,000 prisoners. During the country’s dictatorship, human rights group estimate that more than 30,000 people were jailed, tortured and killed, or forcibly disappeared.

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