Why the AMIA Massacre and Mysterious Death of Alberto Nisman Still Haunt Argentina
This weekend Argentina remembered one of the worst massacres of Jews since World War II, and the mysterious death of the special prosecutor just as he was about to accuse the country’s leadership of a cover-up.
BUENOS AIRES — The names of streets and neighborhoods in Buenos Aires often commemorate historical events.
Most relate to its revolutionary period, like Nueve de Julio, often tagged the world’s widest avenue, for the 9th of July, Argentina’s Independence Day.
A more recent July date lingers in Argentine memory: July 18, 1994, when a car bomb ripped through AMIA—La Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina—the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires’ Abasto neighborhood.
Though the country denies involvement, Iran has long been blamed for the incident, which was Argentina’s worst terror attack.
Every year, the event is commemorated with a ceremony in front of the since reconstructed and now heavily fortified AMIA.
This year with the true anniversary on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day, it was held the morning of Friday, July 17.
The attack date marks another anniversary: it is six months since the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, found dead January 18 under mysterious circumstances, days after announcing he would reveal evidence accusing the country’s highest authorities of complicity with Iran in covering up the AMIA bombing.
As reported in two New Yorker articles, Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment in the Puerto Madero neighborhood of Buenos Aires. He had a bullet wound to his head and a .22 caliber gun near his hand.
The gun was apparently lent to Nisman by his assistant when he feared being murdered. There were no signs of forced entry or robbery in the apartment. In a garbage can at the scene a copy of a draft of a warrant calling for the arrests of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and foreign minister Hector Timerman was found.
Four days before he had accused them of being involved in a cover-up to protect those involved in the AMIA bombing. More than a decade of Nisman's life had been spent investigating AMIA and the cover-ups.
The theme of the 21st commemoration is “Victims of Terrorism, Victims of Impunity,” and Nisman’s death slashes open the wounds of survivors and those who lost loved ones.
A series of events, exhibits and a renamed subway station, completely redesigned as a memorial to AMIA, marked this year’s anniversary.
Bearing Witness As A Survivor
Ana Weinstein, director of AMIA’s Marc Turkow Center of Documentation and Information on Argentine Judaism and of the Vaad Hakehilot Federation of Argentine Jewish Communities, is a survivor of the bombing.
That year was meant to be a happy one, the organization’s 100th anniversary. Weinstein, who explained personally and not as a representative of AMIA, told the Daily Beast, “Every July 18, it brings me back to the moment. This shock that somebody wants to kill you. It is a very strong feeling.”
While the commemoration generally followed the same pattern as in years past, Weinstein said Nisman’s death added new elements.
“This anniversary has to do with some ingredients that we cannot ignore, about the shocking thing that happened with Nisman, his appearing dead.”
She added, a sense of both sadness and anger in her eyes, “It shocked me, because it was death again. Somebody is dead again related to AMIA bombing. Somebody is dead again and I had this feeling that we would never know exactly what happened, like we don’t know exactly what happened with this bombing.”
Weinstein, who has written several books on AMIA, emphasized the significance of the event Nisman was investigating.
The 1994 bombing was the largest terrorist attack on Argentine soil, and is one of the largest massacres of Jews in the post-Nazi period.
She said, “It was the first attack against a Jewish premises, against Jews, and where 85 people were killed, not all of them Jewish. This speaks of something that is very big in its intensity of destruction and hate.”
It followed an earlier similar bombing, on March 17, 1992, of the Israel Embassy, which killed 29 people.
Argentina has the sixth-largest Jewish population in the world, and the largest in Latin America, with estimates ranging from 250,000 to 300,000, according to Weinstein.
Weinstein feels the size of the AMIA case and its unsolved nature have a bearing beyond Argentina.
“Those organizations that are aware that hate and discrimination and violence and fundamentalist thinking connect with each other, are aware that is dangerous for the world and for society. Attacking Jewish targets means any other day they can attack other targets that are not Jewish as well,” she said.
The case’s mysteries have exacerbated the emotions of those connected to the tragedy.
“We do not have justice after 20 years. Relatives who have lost their loved ones don’t know who is to be blamed. That is the most important thing to understand, and that is the thing that is the most difficult thing to understand, because of course we don’t have any answers. Things like that don’t happen unless they cross political situations. Somebody who was very high up may have come very close to knowing the truth.”
Art and Pain
Throughout Buenos Aires, art spreads knowledge of the AMIA bombing, connecting it to other forms of hatred during the commemoration period.
In the downtown Corrientes Avenue theater district, AMIA worked with SIGEN, the Sindicatura General de la Nación, or Office of the National Comptroller, to exhibit murals through August not only on AMIA, but on genocide across the world.
Perhaps the most impactful is a 3- by 9-meter mural, “Olvido Terminal,” or “Forgotten Terminal,” a concentration camp scene by Mariano Sapia.
Swastikas adorn black flags in the background of an industrial landscape. Gray and brown bodies flow down a cliff, a silhouette of a woman on her knees, a gun to her head, nearby.
Clouds of black smoke from chimneys form faces. Train tracks lead to cattle cars, gallows with hanged men to one side, women, naked, lined up on the other.
Emaciated men stare through barred barracks windows. The only brilliant colors are a row of children in the foreground who seem newly arrived, some with dolls and teddy bears.
They stare out through barbed wire with unsure, frightened expressions at eye level with children who come to see the exhibit, as if to connect them to the historical tragedy.
At Recoleta Cultural Center, a public art space within a former convent adjacent to Recoleta Cemetery where “Evita” (Eva Peron) is buried, a small exhibit open through August features two pieces of interactive art: “Illustrated Memory,” from graffiti art collective Buenos Aires Stencil; and “Carriage of Memory” by Jorge Caterbetti, a cart loaded with boxes full of mock Supreme Court documents related to AMIA and other Argentine tragedies along with an accompanying video.
Inside AMIA, Argentine artist Milo Lockett worked with students and organization staff on new murals to exhibit at SIGEN.
Lockett told the Daily Beast that art can “transform this pain into love. I can’t say that pain can change. But pain can transform into truth. And I believe that we have to say that we artists are present and are participating. Not only as artists but as Argentine citizens.”
Lockett, who is not Jewish, feels the AMIA tragedy can be a unifying force.
“AMIA is the cause of all of Argentina. It is not just for Jews and for the Jewish community. It is a question of the state. I don’t want to show that this is a country without impunity, but that it is a country that searches for the truth. And the truth needs to come into the light. It is a shame that for these 85 victims, it has been 21 years, and how many presidents, and they cannot clarify what happened with the attack.”
AMIA’s Youth Night
The night before the main commemoration, nearly 1,500 people participated in AMIA’s Youth Night, according to one AMIA staffer.
The event, with displays, bands, and speeches grew out of an earlier, informal vigil in which young people stayed near AMIA until daybreak, according to 28-year-old Marianela Aprosof, who was there representing MASA Argentina, an organization bringing young Argentines to Israel.
Aprosof acknowledges most young attendees have no direct knowledge of the bombing.
At the same time, she feels youth must know more than just AMIA’s tragic history. “AMIA is an institution, with events, programs, things for kids, and information. The young people need to think of it as more than just the day the bomb happened,” she told the Daily Beast.
Youth Night, Aprosof said, is also growing in popularity. However, she did not feel Nisman’s death played a role.
Instead, she said, “the real reason more are coming is because the cause is not being investigated. It is not just Nisman.”
Iran and Impunity
On July 17. a cold, sunny Friday morning, nearly 6,000 people attended the main ceremony, according to AMIA press coordinator Marcela Pieske.
Nearly all the stores along the route were closed, but the faint smell of zataar hung in the air, testimony to the many Sephardic and Mizrahi shops and kosher restaurants open the day before.
Family members and survivors were near the stage, youth groups behind them. Many held images of victims on small posters, their life stories printed on the back.
At 9:53 a.m., the time of the bombing, a sense of shock and silence fell over the chatty crowd as an air raid siren echoed through the streets.
At times crying, Argentine television journalist Cristina Pérez served as mistress of ceremonies, introducing speakers and family members who read the names of victims, the crowd shouting “presente” after each one.
At points, readers choked into tears, perhaps when they had come to the names of their family members.
Among the most powerful speeches, his voice booming against the stucco façades of the surrounding buildings, was that by Ariel Cohen Sabban, AMIA’s director and the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Argentina.
Cohen Sabban spoke of Hezbollah and Iran’s involvement in the bombing, demanding Argentina’s government work with Interpol in “actively seeking out the Iranian suspects, and that the requests for their capture are not just a formality.” (Here is a link to the text).
Nisman was also a concern in Cohen Sabban’s speech with the reminder, “Tomorrow will also be six months after the death of the prosecutor Alberto Nisman. An event so traumatic for society that it made us feel the echoes of the bomb of July 18.”
He added that as with AMIA and the impunity around the original investigation, the mystery of Nisman’s death leaves Argentines wondering, “what happened and how did the prosecutor die investigating the bombing?”
Nisman’s death was, in essence, added to the total number of victims of the AMIA bombing that day.
His elder daughter, Iara Nisman, 15, walked on stage to emotional applause to light a candle and place a rose into a stand marked Justice and Memory.
Perez read a speech prepared by Nisman in which she wrote, “I wanted to thank you for the place you have given to pay homage to my dad and convey that, even though my pain is more recent, I understand and share the long route of searching and suffering that you have carried for 21 years.
“Because I saw how much my dad worked for justice and heard from him the details and stories behind the families of the attack.
“Both my sister Kala and I, we ask you to join us and help to find the truth about what happened to my dad, no matter what happens, without giving importance to things that are sometimes said to dirty him, because he cannot defend himself when they try to detract from his effort and work.” (This is the original text of the speech from La Nacion).
Special prosecutor Viviana Fein, a longtime colleague of Nisman, is in charge of the investigation into his death. Fein is pursuing a forced-suicide theory in explaining the death.
Redesigned Subway Station Honors AMIA Dead
The same week, the closest subway station to AMIA, the B-Line’s Pasteur, was renamed Pasteur-AMIA.
The memorial went far beyond name, the station redesigned with artworks and interactive displays in a commemorative form known in Argentina as an Espacio de la Memoria, or “Space of Memory.”
A large niche in the subway station lobby contains a bold, black-and-white placard explaining the attack in Spanish, an English version to its side.
A relic from the bombing, a twisted, broken typewriter, is set in a glass display case within a wall adorned with images from a vigil held soon after the attack.
A touch screen allows visitors to tweet their thoughts on AMIA, record short voice messages, and examine photos and stories of the 85 victims.
On the subway platforms, an electronic calendar counts the number of days the terror attack remains unsolved.
The rounded platform walls are decorated with new ceramic works by 25 artists, largely in political cartoon format.
Some of the individual pieces are remarkable for their criticism of Argentina’s government.
One contains an image of the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, splattered in blood; others have blind justices or authority figures asleep while AMIA is attacked. Some are sentimental, parents talking to children about AMIA and other Argentine tragedies.
Family members of the AMIA victims appreciate the city’s new memorial. Mario Averbuch, whose daughter Yanina died in the 1994 bombing, told The Daily Beast inside of the station as he made his way home after speaking at the ceremony, “It was a fight to get this done, but we made it happen.”
Another family member, Sofia Guterman, whose daughter Andrea died in the attack, told The Daily Beast that the redesigned subway station was, “a work of love, re-expressing the tragedy that is so terrible.”
Guterman added, “For us, it’s very important, because within this subway station pass millions of people. They are going to look at this. This goes from the older people who remember when this happened to the new generations who are going to pass this and ask, ‘What happened? What is this?’”
A new trial has been set for August 6 to examine the cover-up of bribes related to the original investigation of the AMIA bombing.
Regarding Nisman’s investigation and mysterious death, Guterman said, “It was many years that he was doing this. You don’t have to imagine that people wanted to kill him. This was not suicide. They killed him. Now, we don’t know anything.
“If we don’t keep fighting for this, there will pass year after year since the attack on AMIA, without knowing anything. Nor will anything happen for Nisman either. Every day we are further from the truth.”
It is for this reason that she appreciates the annual commemorations, and the new memorials.
“Memory is very important, because there is no justice,” Guterman said. “So we have to work very hard for the sake of memory, because memory is the justice that we have.”