Grave at Falkland Island's Darwin Cemetery
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Grave at Falkland Island's Darwin Cemetery

The following article was written by Forces News reporter Jon Knighton.

An agreement signed by Britain and Argentina at the end of 2016 to allow the Red Cross to identify the remains of 123 Argentine soldiers in unmarked graves in the Falkland Islands is the latest move in a 30-year process to bring some form of closure for the relatives of the fallen.

This year will mark 36 years since the conflict, which continues to stir much political, diplomatic and military sensitivity, and keeps more than 1000 British military personnel on standby in the South Atlantic.

The 123 are among 235 graves which lie in a small cemetery near the East Falkland settlement of Darwin, about 60 miles from the capital Stanley.

The cemetery is made up of simple white crosses standing on a bleak hillside.

It is there where representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) will begin the highly sensitive job of collecting DNA samples from the bodies.

There have been regular visits made by the families of those who died for many years now, but they were not always welcome to pay their respects.

I was there on March 18, 1991, when the very first pilgrimage was made by Argentinian families to the Darwin cemetery, some nine years after the war ended. It is a day I will never forget.

That first visit was authorised by the British Government, a major element of an agreement signed between London and Buenos Aires in February 1990 re-establishing the diplomatic relations that had been so abruptly broken off after the Falklands were ‘invaded’ in April 1982.  

Ten weeks later the islands were retaken by the British Task Force. Britain lost 255 military personnel, the Argentinians 649.

Argentine Prisoners of War guarded by British troops
Argentine POWs in Port Stanley guarded by British troops

That first visit was a hugely sensitive one, described at the time by Christophe Swinarski, the ICRC’s regional manager, as “purely a humanitarian effort on our part… and up to us to ensure that there are no political overtones”.

He added “we had to jump through a lot of hoops to pull this one off, but we are used to jumping through hoops”.

The British forces were integral to the visit, being the only ones who could provide the infrastructure needed to facilitate it.

A small tented village was set up for the families at Darwin, including a chapel, rest and medical areas, food and drink and even a phone line established to allow families to call home and for members of the Argentine press to file their copy.  

A fleet of four Chinook and Sea King Helicopters were to be used to airlift those across from the runway at Mount Pleasant.

A special welcome area was also set up and military personnel were hand-picked to act as support couriers and helpers.

Darwin Cemetery on East Falkland Island

And so on the dank, windy morning of March 18, 1991 an Aerolineas Argentinas 747 Jumbo Jet appeared through the low cloud and touched down at the Island's Royal Air Force base.

Military personnel held their breath, not knowing quite what to expect from the first Argentinian citizens to set foot on the Falklands since the end of the war.  

I watched the 358 family members leave the aircraft. Many were old and infirm, some having already made exhausting journeys just to get to Buenos Aires for the flight. Some looked frightened, all were tired and emotional.

Sixty miles out from landing the 747’s windows had been blacked out for security reasons. Each passenger had to surrender their passports in return for a Red Cross ID card - handed over on arrival each passport was carefully labelled and stored by British troops.

Passengers were not allowed to bring any literature, clothing or flags bearing the Argentinian name or national colours off the plane.

Upon arrival, they were briefed about how the visit would be structured including being told they'd have a maximum of one hour and 20 minutes at the graves.  

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And so on a cold, windy day began the massive operation to move so many people out into the wild Falkland country.  

Although the world’s media knew of the visit, the local Falkland Island Broadcasting Service (FIBS) radio station never mentioned it.

A handful of local residents were there and kept at arm's length, but there was never any visible hostility to this group of people who came only to grieve.

What struck me the most as I watched the visiting families was that most knew they would not be able to identify a specific grave as their loved ones.

Instead, each unknown cross was ‘adopted’ by a family so that by the end of the day every single fallen soldier was ‘recognised’ and every grave was decorated with a trinket or medallion.

Short services were conducted by a Catholic priest while many of those who had made the emotional journey scooping up the earth around the graves to take home - their little piece of ‘Las Malvinas’.

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All too soon the visit was over but for some, especially the old and infirm it was all just a little too much.

Many needed the help and support of British medics ahead of an exhausting journey to get home.

It was an emotional day too for many of the British sailors, soldiers and aircrew selected for the job.

"Our personnel treated their guests with great thoughtfulness, kindness and respect" commented British Forces Falklands Commander,  Major General Malcolm Hunt RM, as he saluted the departing aircraft.

All present, however, heaved a collective sigh of relief as the Argentinian airliner disappeared out of sight.

That was the first of what have now been regular pilgrimages made by families to that little cemetery on a windswept hill.

All these years later the final act is now under way to determine exactly whose son, brother, nephew or father lies there.

Surely, whatever the politics, diplomacy and sensitivity, we should at least be grateful for that.

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