Episode 18: La testigo (The witness)

Photo provided by Andrea Krichmar

When Andrea Krichmar was a girl, she spent an afternoon at her friend’s dad’s house. This was during the dictatorship in Argentina, and that afternoon, without knowing it, Andrea witnessed a scene that would change her life and make her key to the country’s historic return to democracy.

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Transcript

Martina: When Andrea Krichmar was in elementary school, Argentina was in the first years of a brutal dictatorship. But she was only 11 years old, so she was mostly oblivious to it.

Andrea: Lo más importante para mí era jugar con mis amigas de la escuela, especialmente con una que se llamaba Berenice. Éramos mejores amigas.

Martina: One day in 1976, Berenice invited Andrea to play at her father’s house. What occurred that afternoon would follow Andrea for years, and would convert her into a key witness in proving the atrocities committed in her country. Bienvenidos and welcome back to a new season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again—and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com. Today’s story comes from Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s called La Testigo (The Witness). Told by Andrea Krichmar and written by Tali Goldman. Please note that you’ll be hearing Andrea speak in an Argentine accent. They pronounce their double LLs and Ys with a SH sound, as in “aSHer” or “caSHe” instead of “ayer” or “calle”.

Andrea: El juego preferido mío y de Berenice era actuar como los personajes de nuestra serie favorita que se llamaba S.W.A.T.: un grupo de policías que atrapaba a ladrones.

Martina: During recess, the girls would hum the theme song of this police show, and would roll around on the ground imitating the actors.

Andrea: Un día Berenice me invitó a pasar el día a la casa de su papá. Sus papás no estaban separados, pero como él trabajaba mucho, se quedaba a dormir en su lugar de trabajo. Entonces ella iba a pasar los fines de semana con él. Eso me dijo ella.

Martina: Andrea’s friend Berenice told her that the house where her dad lived was very big and that it had a huge garden where they could play all day without anyone bothering them.

Andrea: Yo estaba muy emocionada. Así que esa misma tarde le pregunté a mi mamá si podía ir y me dijo que sí, que no había problema. Unos días después me llevó temprano a la casa de Berenice, que estaba cerca de la mía.

Martina: Before leaving her daughter, Andrea’s mom told her to take a sweater with her in case it got cold. Andrea put it in a little purse and jumped in the car.

Andrea: Cuando llegamos a la casa de Berenice, nos pasó a buscar un chofer en un auto grande y verde.

Martina: This driver was to take them from Berenice’s house to where her father lived and worked.

Andrea: Estábamos muy emocionadas. El viaje fue un poco largo porque la casa estaba al otro lado de la ciudad.

Martina: As soon as they arrived at Berenice’s father’s house, Andrea realized it wasn’t like other homes she had played in. It was a massive property, many blocks wide. There were various buildings and a big park.

Andrea: Después de llegar, el papá de Berenice me preguntó qué llevaba en mi bolsita. Yo le dije que era un suéter que me dio mi mamá. Pero él no me creyó.

Martina: Berenice’s dad snatched Andrea’s purse from her and began to search it. Andrea: Yo no dije nada.

Martina: They went inside to eat lunch together. Berenice’s dad sat at the end of the table, and the girls on either side. This was Andrea’s first time meeting Berenice’s dad, and she noticed that he was very serious, dressed in full military uniform, like all the men she saw walking around the property.

Andrea: Unos meseros de guantes blancos nos servían la comida y Coca-Cola en botellas individuales. Para mí eso era algo nuevo. En mi casa nunca comíamos con meseros ni con botellas de Coca-Cola. Yo estaba feliz.

Martina: After eating, Berenice told Andrea that she had something to show her, but that it was a secret. She grabbed Andrea by the hand and snuck her into her father’s bedroom.

Andrea: Cuando estuvimos solas con la puerta cerrada, Berenice abrió el armario. Había más de diez armas.

Martina: Andrea was shocked to see so many guns. She had never seen one before.

Andrea: Yo me quedé en shock y Berenice siguió enseñándome lo que había en la habitación de su papá. Me dijo: “Mirá aquí debajo de la almohada”.

Martina: Almohada is a pillow. Berenice swiftly walked over to her dad’s bed and as Andrea turned around to see what she was doing, she saw Berenice grab something Andrea had only seen in the movies: it was a grenade.

Andrea: “Y mirá esto”, ella me dijo y abrió el cajón de la mesita de luz. Yo tomé aire y caminé hacia ella: había una pistola.

Martina: Berenice and Andrea snuck back out of the bedroom without anyone noticing, and went to sit in a big living room to watch a movie. Afterwards, they played pool in another enormous room where they wouldn’t be bothered.

Andrea: Pero mientras jugábamos, escuché un ruido que me llamó la atención. Miré por la ventana para ver qué era. Vi un auto verde, igual al que nos trajo hasta ahí.

Martina: The car Andrea saw come onto the property parked right in front of the window. She clearly saw two armed men get out with a woman at gunpoint. She was handcuffed and blindfolded.

Andrea: Yo los observé hasta que no pude verlos más.

Martina: All of this happened in a fraction of a second.

Andrea: Pero yo estaba impactada.

Martina: Andrea asked her friend what that was all about.

Andrea: Ella me dijo que era como la serie de televisión que veíamos, S.W.A.T., la de los policías que atrapaban a los ladrones.

Martina: “It’s just like our favorite TV show,” she told her.

Andrea: Después, volví a mi casa sin saber que ese día me iba a cambiar para siempre.

Martina: Andrea didn’t tell anyone in her family what had happened. She felt like they wouldn’t understand her and treat her like she was crazy. In her house, nobody talked about what was happening in the dictatorship at the time.

Andrea: Mis padres eran parte de ese gran sector de la población que en Argentina decidió mirar para otro lado y ser indiferente.

Martina: But since that day, Andrea wasn’t able to look the other way as her parents had done. She knew she had seen something, even if she wasn’t sure what it was. Time went by and the image of that hooded woman got more engraved in her mind.

Andrea: Yo sabía que vi algo violento, pero no entendía qué significaba la imagen de esa mujer. Yo solo tenía 11 años y esto estaba fuera de todo lo que conocía.

Andrea: ¿Adónde estuve yo? ¿Qué era ese lugar? ¿Quién era esa mujer? ¿La iban a matar? ¿Quién era el papá de mi amiga?

Martina: These are the questions that plagued Andrea for years. When democracy was restored in Argentina in 1983, Andrea was 19 years old. She would frequently visit social and cultural organizations where people openly talked about the terrible things that happened during the dictatorship.

Andrea: Yo estudiaba para ser maestra. En la universidad, los grupos de derechos humanos denunciaban lo que pasó durante la dictadura. Ellos hablaban de 30 mil personas desaparecidas y 400 bebés robados.

Martina: The harsh truth of what people were just starting to discuss openly, gave Andrea a unique opportunity. She felt like she could start looking for answers to the questions she had carried with her for the past 7 years.

Andrea: En ese tiempo descubrí que el padre de Berenice, Rubén Chamorro, fue el director de la ESMA durante los primeros años de la dictadura, cuando yo era niña.

Martina: ESMA is short for the Mechanical School of the Military. At that time, word was getting out that it had been a secret detention center during the dictatorship. There the military jailed and tortured political dissidents.

Andrea: La ESMA, ese fue el lugar que yo visité. Pero yo nunca pude preguntarle a Berenice sobre eso. En 1981 ella y su familia se fueron a Sudáfrica y perdimos el contacto por completo.

Martina: Testimonials from family members of people who had disappeared during the dictatorship started appearing in newspapers. Andrea read these and was motivated to participate in marches to protest what had happened.

Andrea: En ese punto me preguntaba: ¿Dónde está la mujer que vi? ¿La torturaron? ¿La separaron de su hijo? Sentía un dolor cada vez más grande.

Martina: The same year democracy was restored, the Argentine government created an agency called Conadep, or the National Commission for Disappeared Persons. It would gather evidence on those who had disappeared during the dictatorship to be used in trials against the military a few years later.

Andrea: En la televisión había mucha publicidad sobre la Conadep. Invitaban gente a dar testimonio si sabían algo. Cada vez que veía las publicidades había algo en mi cuerpo que me decía: es hora de hablar. Pero, ¿era importante lo que yo vi cuando tenía 11 años?

Martina: Andrea’s boyfriend at the time, Alejandro, had been a member of the communist party. One afternoon they were at his parents’ house watching TV, and they saw one of those Conadep ads.

Andrea: Por fin, por primera vez, pude decirle a alguien lo que pasó. Le dije a él quién era mi amiga de la infancia, adónde estuvimos jugando y lo que vi esa noche.

Martina: Alejandro was shocked by what Andrea told him. He immediately told his parents and they all sat down to talk with her. They proceeded to answer all of the questions Andrea had secretly been carrying around with her.

Andrea: Finalmente pude ver de forma clara lo que ocurrió. Yo fui a un lugar en donde se torturaba gente. Y estuve con la persona que era el jefe de ese lugar: el papá de mi amiga Berenice. Vi sus armas, comí en su mesa y vi a esa mujer, una de las miles de personas capturadas.

Martina: But even though Andrea now understood what she had seen, she still didn’t have answers to all of her questions.

Andrea: ¿Qué tenía que hacer yo con todo esto? ¿Sería útil para algo?

Martina: One day in September of that same year, 1983, Andrea went to downtown Buenos Aires to run some errands. She happened to walk by the Conadep office.

Andrea: Entré casi sin pensarlo. Yo me sentía mal por esa mujer. Ella probablemente fue torturada y tirada al mar, como la mayoría de la gente desaparecida. Quería justicia para ella.

Martina: That happened to be the last day Conadep was taking testimonials from walk-ins, so there were dozens of family members waiting to be interviewed.

Andrea: Todo era muy triste y yo me comencé a sentir mal.

Martina: As she waited to be seen, Andrea started to feel sick, so she went up to the woman organizing the line of people and said to her:

Andrea: “Yo tengo algo para decir y quiero saber si es útil de alguna manera porque si no, me voy. Yo era amiga de la hija de Chamorro, el jefe de la ESMA. Cuando era pequeña fui a pasar el día ahí y vi a una mujer capturada saliendo de un auto”.

Martina: The woman asked Andrea to wait. A few minutes later, four men in suits came down the stairs and asked for her. They took Andrea into an office and asked her to tell them everything she had seen.

Andrea: “Usted no tiene idea de la importancia que tiene su historia”, me dijo uno.

Martina: Another one of the men said to her, “we are the lawyers dealing specifically with everything that happened at the ESMA.”

Andrea: “Nosotros hemos trabajado mucho para enseñarle a todos lo que sucedió en ese lugar”, me explicaron.

Martina: “Your testimony is going to be key to our case,” they told her, “and if we had a bottle of champagne right now, we would be celebrating.”

Andrea: Cuando salí del lugar me sentí mejor. Mi mente estaba libre y me llené de energía. Pero no estuve así por mucho tiempo.

Martina: When she reached her parents’ house, Andrea decided it was time to tell them what had happened. They immediately got very angry with her, saying she had put them in danger. They begged her not to get further involved. She refused, and their relationship would never be the same.

Andrea: Dos años después me llegó una citación para ir a la corte.

Martina: This was the first trial against those responsible for the thousands of disappeared, tortured, and killed in Argentina during the dictatorship. Since she wasn’t a victim or related to anyone who had disappeared, Andrea’s testimony, or declaración, was very important. It was considered the least biased.

Andrea: Ese día me acompañó mi novio Alejandro. Antes de mi declaración estuve en un cuarto con familiares de personas desaparecidas. Ellos también iban a declarar. Fue bastante tenso.

Martina: When Andrea entered the tribunal, she realized she was in a room full of family members of people who had disappeared and various members of the press.

Andrea: Yo estaba nerviosa, sentada enfrente de todos. Cuando llegó el momento dije todo lo que vi. Sentí que la justicia que buscaba para esa mujer estaba llegando.

Martina: Berenice’s father, Rubén Chamorro, had died of a heart attack in 1986, before his trial. The ESMA was proven to be one of the most important secret detention centers during the dictatorship. Approximately 5,000 people were tortured and killed there.

Andrea: La última vez que vi a Berenice fue cuando teníamos unos 15 años, en un bar. Sentadas frente a frente en una mesa, la charla no fue fluida.

Martina: As they chatted, something seemed different about Berenice.

Andrea: Yo la veía diferente, algo había cambiado. La sentía lejos, vacía.

Martina: Years later, Andrea found out that Berenice had committed suicide. She didn’t even get a chance to go to her funeral. That’s when certain questions returned for Andrea:

Andrea: ¿Qué más vio Berenice cuando era niña? ¿Cómo era tener a un papá represor? ¿Fue Berenice una víctima de su padre?

Martina: 28 years passed between Andrea’s first visit to the ESMA as a little girl, and the second time she ever set foot there. It was march 24th, 2004, and the center was being inaugurated as a memorial to the people who had died there.

Andrea: Durante muchos años fue difícil para mí hablar de esto. Fui testigo del horror sin quererlo. Mientras yo jugaba o veía una película, ellos estaban torturando gente o llevándolos para hacerlos desaparecer.

Martina: Andrea now tells people that she didn’t ask for this. For the longest time she didn’t understand it or know how to process it.

Andrea: Pero fue el hecho que finalmente definió mi vida.

Martina: Today, Andrea Krichmar is a human rights activist. Her story about Rubén Chamorro and his daughter Berenice is now part of the museum of memory that was installed on the ESMA property. This story was written by Tali Goldman, a journalist based in Buenos Aires.

If you liked this story, we’d love for you to share it with others. At podcast.duolingo.com, you can find a transcript of this story and all of the other episodes. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode. With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro; gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from Domar1979 and Mmiron under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: Tali Goldman
Narration: Andrea Krichmar
Script Editor: Catalina May
Sound Designer: Claire Mullen
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro