A collective sigh emitted from approximately 2,000 Falkland Islanders this week as the long-suffering population attempted to get on with day-to-day life, in the face of dramatic newspaper headlines from British and international newspapers claiming an Argentine military invasion was imminent.
Britain announced this week it would spend $267 million over 10 years to “beef up” the Falklands’ defenses because of the “continuing threat” represented by Argentina. This, Argentina said, was a “provocation.”
Falkland Islander Jonathan Summers, 36, said: “It does appear the media and politicians are dramatizing it for their own benefit—the situation with Argentina is intrusive enough without it being sensationalized by people who don’t have to live with it on a daily basis.”
Just 3 years old when Argentine forces occupied the Falkland Islands in 1982, Summers said he only has vague images of the 74-day conflict between Britain and Argentina. But as a result of the ever-present political pressures from Argentina, like every other Islander young and old “the war” doesn’t seem like ancient history while the cold war continues.
“You never quite know what they’ll be up to next,” he said of the Argentine government. “But it generally involves threatening international companies that have some kind of connection with our industries. To be honest, nothing they could do would be too much of a surprise.”
In 1982, I lived with my grandmother in Stanley, the islands’ capital city. The daughter of East Falklands sheep farmers, like other children from “the Camp” (the name Islanders give to the rural areas outside of Stanley) I boarded in the capital in order to attend school.
In the early hours of April 2, 1982, my grandmother woke me with the words: “Wake up, Pet. The shooting’s started. You’ll have to come downstairs, I can hear guns.”
In a short book I wrote for children about my wartime experiences, I explained how on that dark morning I watched fascinated as the colored lights from tracer bullets zipped through the dark: “In the distance I saw arcs of continuous yellow, then blips of red and blue less than half a mile away. The cracks and bangs startled me at first but after an hour of the alien noises I had become accustomed to the zips and pop-pops of the airborne ammunition.”
Thirty-three years ago, the people of the peaceful British outpost, two islands roughly adding up to the size of Connecticut, had their lives turned upside down when a massive Argentine military force invaded the territory they had long laid claim to.
Within weeks, a British task force was ordered by then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to sail the 8,000 miles south. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought for and liberated (with loss of lives on both sides) the wind-swept archipelago from its unwelcome occupiers.
Despite the British victory in 1982, the right of the Falkland Islanders to choose their own government is still disputed by Argentina.
And while the Falklands people themselves largely doubt any intention from the now democratic Argentine government to undertake another military invasion, the political pressure that the country imposes has never gone away.
On the contrary, the Peronist president of the country, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, known for capricious politics in her debt-ridden country, has increasingly spotlighted the “Malvinas” (as Argentines call the Falklands) in an attempt to deflect attention from the state of the Argentine economy.
Her diplomats travel the world seeking support for their claims, trumpeting their version of history, protesting about a British military presence in the South Atlantic, referring to the Falkland Islanders as “pirates” and a “non people,” denouncing their right to self-determination. Back at home, they do all in their power to disrupt any trade between the Falklands and other South American countries.
Falkland Islanders are a determined lot, though. When Kirchner’s sanctions affected vessel movements carrying certain supplies to the islands, in particular produce difficult to grow in the islands, the locals simply built more poly tunnels and planted gardens or alternatively decided, “Who needs bananas anyway?”
In any case, not all islanders think the constant hot air from across the water is a bad thing.
“While Kirchner is ranting and causing trouble ,it keeps us in the public eye,” said Stanley resident Sharon Jaffray, who is 48. “Argentina is always causing us trouble one way or other, sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly—at least when they’re loud about it, the rest of the world understand[s] they are causing us difficulties and even better, understand why we don’t want to be Argentine.”
With such permanent tension in the South Atlantic, news stories emanating from both U.K. and Argentina are always emotional, but this week they reached a crescendo when U.K. Defense Minister Michael Fallon made a strong statement in defense of the rights of Falkland Islanders, prior to outlining the results of a recent defense review of the Falklands.
The review is in fact no more than a much needed “refurbishing” of some aging defenses already in the Falklands.
However, despite making it clear in his statement that the “current military presence is broadly proportionate to the threats and risks we face,” and the only increase to defense would be the return of two Chinook helicopters to the islands, the British media gleefully declared that Fallon’s decision to “beef up” the defense of the Falklands indicated that war was once again looming on the South Atlantic horizon.
In response, Argentina accused Britain (as it does every time a high-profile exercise takes place in the Falklands) of “militarizing the South Atlantic.”
Islanders are of course happy about any modernizing or upgrading of the defense system. Stanley’s market garden owner Jan Miller commented happily on her Facebook page: “Wahoo, the defence minister says we are getting our Chinook back. Two arriving next year. Sooo pleased.”
Jan’s husband, Tim, lost an eye in the Falklands War when he was hit by a piece of shrapnel. Like others, she has no objection to the noisy British military aircraft presence.
In fact, Falkland Islanders refer to low-flying RAF jets as, “the sound of freedom.” The population grumbles if they haven’t had a jet fly past their window for a few weeks.
But how do the islanders feel about the situation with Argentina, vulnerable as they are not only to politics in Buenos Aires and a people easily moved to emotion over their historic passion for the “Malvinas,” but also “beholden” to the goodwill of the people of Britain, to the U.K. government and to the British forces who stand guard over what has been described as Fortress Falklands?
The truth is the people are pretty much used to this less-than-perfect scenario; Falkland Islanders have never really had an easy time of it.
The Falklands have an unkind climate; it is generally cool and often furiously windy. The acid peat soil means few trees grow and sparse white grass is a more common ground covering than green pasture.
For 182 years, islanders have toiled hard in this uncomfortable climate to develop an economy that started out virtually dependent on sheep farming for wool.
It is true for much of that time wool prices were high, but the Falklands was just a colony then, and we all know where the money from a colony goes—“home” to the U.K. (a situation that continued up until 1980).
Throughout those hard years from the mid 1800s right through until the late ’70s, there was, and still is, no moment out of the shadow of the Argentine threat, be it physical or diplomatic.
Among countless British and Argentine political “back and forths” over the years, it is easy to find a diplomatic protest from Argentina here (1888) and a message to Congress there (1941).
But as Stanley resident (former Royal Marine and 1982 war veteran) Taff Davies likes to point out: “Argentina and Britain are both members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Argentina has had over 100 years to take the Falklands there, but it hasn’t?”
Davies has no doubt that Argentina is aware its historic claim is weak. In the past, the country refused outright Britain’s offer to take the Falklands’ dependent territories to the International Court of Justice.
In fact stunts, as opposed to a sensible approach, have long been the order of the day from Argentina.
In the Falklands in 1966, an Aerolíneas Argentinas DC-4 was hijacked by 20 terrorists calling themselves Condors and crash landed on Stanley race course.
Locals, assuming the aircraft was in trouble, rushed to assist and were taken hostage. Eventually the terrorists surrendered and were repatriated to Argentina.
Not being easily perturbed by life’s dramas, were you to enquire of any male islander of a certain age about the 1966 hijacking, you would invariably be informed that the one female in the group was so pretty she became known as, “the blonde bombshell.”
In 1971, things took a dramatic turn. Despite a fearful population, a communications agreement was signed between Britain and Argentina.
Air links to the islands were established by LADE, Argentina’s military airline and as such the government had the islanders over a barrel. Forced to travel through Argentina, they were made to carry Argentine identity cards rather than British passports.
By 1974, the Argentine company YPF was the exclusive supplier of oil and gas to the Falklands and worst of all (from the Falkland Islanders’ point of view) Britain proposed a condominium solution to the sovereignty dispute. The islanders utterly rejected it.
History now suggests that as a result of this increasing dependence on Argentina and due to the U.K.’s apparent dwindling interest in the islands, if the then-Argentine president (General Leopoldo Galtieri) had been patient, then the Argentine dream would eventually have been realized despite the protesting Falklands population.
But it was not to be. In 1982, General Galtieri was facing political problems at home. He needed something to distract his unhappy people, and Falkland Islanders knew this.
It was a particularly insecure time for the people of the islands, the author of this piece grew up understanding, having listened in to the conversations of her parents, that it wasn’t a matter of “if” Argentina invaded but “when.” And so it happened on April 2, 1982.
The population of the tiny Stanley, 1,000 people or less at the time, watched one winter morning as hundreds of Argentine soldiers crawled over their town in the half dark, heard bullets rake along the side of houses, and listened to the sound of machine gun fire between 80 British Royal Marines and the vastly outnumbering Argentine special forces.
Between that day and the moment when the surrender of the Argentine military force was announced, it was a deeply disturbing time for the residents.
Some were exiled, some imprisoned, others subjected to their houses being frequently searched. There were others too that went to great pains to cause difficulties for the Argentine occupiers, sabotaging communication lines or finding ways to pass vital information to the British Task Force.
In the early days of the conflict, many of the farmers’ children who lodged in Stanley for school were taken in a convoy overland (there were no roads to farms in 1982) to various farms to wait out the war with their parents. The schools were closed on the day of the invasion.
One of those children, my brother Paul, who was 14 at the time, recalls: “Dad came to collect us from Stanley House (the boarding house). The street was full of Argentine soldiers and military vehicles.
“As we drove off there was a lot of confusion. Dad’s vehicle clipped an Argentine war correspondent and he fell over and dropped his camera. Soldiers dragged him from the rover and took him to the town hall. We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again.”
Our father was allowed to go free after a short time, but the memory is etched forever on his and my minds.
This was not to be Paul’s only abiding memory, however. Shortly after the invasion, six Royal Marines, having escaped the initial battle, arrived at his family’s farm.
After a night’s sleep, the Marines decided it would be sensible to give themselves up to the Argentine authorities.
“But they left their weapons for us,” Paul said. “We buried them in a bank on the sand beach. Then when the British troops reached the Falklands, we decided to dig them up to give one to Terry Peck, the chief of police, who was making his way across East Falklands to the British troops to offer his help as a guide.”
In that time, however, around 100 Argentine soldiers had made permanent camp near where the guns were buried. “Me, Dad, Terry and our cousin’s husband staying with us went and dug them up under cover of darkness. We were right under the noses of the Argentine soldiers.”
While our family made it safely through the conflict, three civilians were killed in Stanley, all as a result of “friendly fire” in the nightly bombardment of the Argentine troops that surrounded the capital. Some 255 members of the British Task Force died in that short war as well as 764 Argentine troops.
The Falklands War was a disaster for Argentina in terms of loss of life and pride, but since then it has also been credited as a turning point for the better for the country, with the ousting of the military government and beginnings of a democracy.
In the Falklands too it was the start of something great for the small population. With a military force on-island, the Falklands government was able to declare an enforceable conservation zone in its surrounding seas.
Valuable squid and fin fishing licences could be sold to foreign countries and local fishing companies were created; often joint ventures with foreign companies interested in benefitting from this new South Atlantic industry.
Previously a colony dependent on British financial aid, the Falklands is now economically independent. “Fishing money” was administered by a newly formed Falkland Islands Development Corporation and pumped into education, communications, small businesses, and farm development (farms now owned by Falkland Islanders as opposed to absentee U.K. landlords).
Young islanders today are well-educated and despite having to travel outside the Falklands for further education around 90 percent return to take up increasing opportunities at home. I was educated up until age 16 in Stanley before travelling to the U.K. for further education, before returning to the islands.
One of the opportunities that draws people back is within the growing oil and gas industry. Already youngsters are looking to qualifications that will take them into that industry itself or one that offers it a support service.
And despite the size of the population in the British Overseas Territory, as it is known today, daily life isn’t so different from elsewhere. Young people attend their modern school, surf the Internet, watch movies on their iPads, or socialize with their friends at sports clubs or at home.
Adults drive to work at 8 a.m.; they work as teachers or nurses, or shopkeepers or fishing company executives. They run the tourist board or work for the education department or drive a truck or run a haulage company.
Out on the farms, they might climb aboard a quad bike and drive out over thousands of acres to “gather” in sheep bred for meat for the new abattoir, or for their fine, snowy white wool.
The shadow of Argentina has barely faded, but islanders feel secure in the knowledge that Britain retains adequate military defenses.
This defense is perhaps even more necessary now than in past years, bearing in mind Argentine antagonism toward the Falklands government successfully attracting British and American companies to drill for oil off the islands.
Despite Argentina claiming a British military presence in the islands is unnecessary and aggressive, Argentina has made no secret of its harassment of companies with a link to those prospecting for oil or fishing in the Falklands.
Without the military presence, the islands could not enforce their 200-mile conservation zone and could not ensure the security of the oil companies.
Quite apart from that, without a military presence it would be a simple matter for Argentina to entirely isolate the Falklands from the rest of the world until it was forced to surrender to the will of its strong neighbor.
How keenly do islanders feel the threat?
Sharon Jaffray said: “It’s probably true to say that a day barely goes by without at least one mention of Argentina, or without one thought of Argentina.
“But perhaps that isn’t always a negative. Fear of losing something gives it greater value and Falkland Islanders are always a little bit fearful. We adore the islands; it wouldn’t be too dramatic to say we’d die for it.”
With the latter thankfully—as yet—unnecessary, instead they toil incessantly to make the Falklands the best it can be.
They expect the highest standards from their politicians in terms of hard work and honesty. They expect the same from the public sector, from the private sector, from each other and from themselves.
The people also feel an enormous debt of gratitude to those who lost their lives in ensuring their freedom from occupation 1982.
This emotion too underpins their need to succeed and to be valued; not valued in the sense of being “owned” citizens of a British Overseas Territory, but respected as a nation—albeit a tiny one—of Falkland Islanders
The following is a letter Lisa wrote to her grandparents in UK on the day of the Argentine invasion:
Dear Nan & GrandadHow are you?I suppose you've been listening to the news about Argentina taking over the Falklands. Well last night about 8.15 the governor gave us a message over the radio telling us that the schools and everything were closed and we were not allowed to go out of our houses because 4 Argentine warships and one aircraft carrier had been spotted.He also told all the Defence Force to report to someplace (which I can't remember). The radio kept going all night with Patrick playing music and giving us messages from the governor.I think it was about 5am when Gran woke me up and wanted me not to be scared if I heard some shooting. When I looked out my window I could see the ships and a landing craft at the jetty.There were just about 1000 Argentine troops and they were fighting with the marines and the Defence Force. There were big rattles and crashes that shook the house.George Lyes has got a bullet hole in his window next door but he was all right. Mr Davis got a bomb thrown at his house and he has got a 6ft hole in his roof… In the morning they were still fighting and three Argentines were injured. I think one of them is dying.None of the locals were hurt. They surrounded government house but the governor would not surrender. They took over the airport, police station and exchange, studio and other government places.Then all the gun carriers arrived they are really big. I think they look like a boat on wheels. People keep ringing up Patrick with messages about what is happening on their road.It was quite funny because of the gun carriers got bogged behind the power station. A General somebody with a long name is coming and he is going to be the chief and Mr Hunt is going to be sent away with all the rest of the officials.It is quite quiet now except for the Argentine helicopters flying about. There are Argentine flags everywhere and they keep playing their National Anthem on the radio.I hope the British ships come soon. We are not allowed out of our houses until the top feller gets the order to let us carry on normally.I want to go out to Long Island but Dad won't be able to come and get me yet. If you need food or help you have to put a white flag in your window.Sorry this isn't a very nice letter but I wanted to tell someone about it.Lots of love, Lisa