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The ghosts of our Falklands foes who found peace... at last

The radio message was conveyed in the brusque, demotic language of the British squaddie. ‘We’ve found a stiff on Mount Longdon, Sir. In the middle of a minefield. What do we do?’

It was the body of an Argentine conscript, probably killed during the final, chaotic retreat into Port Stanley as British forces closed in, supported by intense artillery fire.

There had been no time for burial, or probably even for prayers as his comrades bolted for cover. 

Little more than a boy, he wore no dog tag and carried no obvious identification. Just an abandoned unknown casualty of war. 

On the other end of the line was Geoffrey Cardozo, then a young captain in the Dragoon Guards operating from a converted school in the Falklands capital.

The bitter war for control of the islands had finished a few weeks earlier and he been tasked with looking after welfare and discipline issues in the aftermath of victory. 

Argentine prisoners collect the dead in the aftermath of the Battle of Mount Longdon in 1982

But as everyone else was at lunch that day, he decided he must respond to the call.

It was the beginning of a remarkable journey of detection and discovery that would lead to Cardozo’s nomination 39 years later for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

It would take him into political as well as actual minefields, see him forge a deep partnership with a man on the other side of the conflict and bring some closure to grieving Argentine mothers whose sons had been killed in action.

‘We were all soldiers,’ Cardozo says. ‘We do the same job, laugh at the same jokes, know what it’s like to have a chum cop it next to you. English, Argentinian, there’s no difference really.’

Cardozo’s own forebears were of Portuguese origin, establishing themselves in the London tea trade from the 17th century.

‘When I left for the Falklands I got the most incredible hug from my mother. The sort of long, tight hug I hadn’t really had from her since I was five or six years old. Nothing was said but I guess she knew full well there was a chance I might not come back.

‘I didn’t think a lot of it at the time but it came back to me when I saw that first body on Longdon. He had a mother, too.’

Armed with a grid reference, Cardozo interrupted a helicopter pilot’s cigarette break and a short time later he was being lowered into the minefield by rope.

Geoffrey Cardozo, pictured in 1982, brought closure to grieving Argentine mothers and earned a nomination for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize in the process 

The Argentine army had buried explosive devices on most of the main approaches into Stanley, often in a haphazard way. Clearing them was a Herculean task, completed only late last year.

‘I got down and prodded around for a bit with one foot, to check it was safe. And there he was. A youngster 18 or 19 years of age. I had to be careful he didn’t have any grenades ready to go off but then I saw his face.

‘The cold had preserved him so he seemed almost alive. And so young. I just thought of my mother. And his.’

That was the moment Cardozo decided to take responsibility for gathering, recording, reburying and doing everything to give a name to every Argentine serviceman killed in action.

His commanding officer, Major-General David Thorne was immediately in favour and gave support. But it was gruelling work. ‘They just kept on coming until there was a proverbial tsunami of dead bodies being found.’

Some had simply been left in the open, or were discovered in recesses between crags. Others had been buried in shallow roadside graves. And there were mass graves in Stanley, mainly of soldiers killed by Vulcan bombers, naval gunfire or artillery barrages.

‘We knew we had to dig them up, give them a decent burial.’ But how and where?

The politics on both sides were toxic. The Islanders, understandably still deeply embittered by the invasion, didn’t want a shrine to the enemy in or anywhere near their own cemeteries in Stanley.

Royal Marines guard Argentine prisoners during the Falklands War in 1982

The Argentine government didn’t want them back, either. Although General Galtieri and most of his junta had been deposed, there was still a sense of deep national humiliation over the defeat.

A procession of coffins being unloaded at Buenos Aires would only serve to compound it — and emphasise the terrible human cost of that failed hubristic venture.

The idea of ‘repatriating’ the fallen also raised hackles. As far as Argentina was concerned, the dead were already on home soil.

Returning them to the mainland, nationalists believed, could weaken their claim to sovereignty.

So having embarked in good faith on a humanitarian mission, Cardozo found himself in the middle of a diplomatic nightmare.

Eventually two things broke the impasse. First, Buenos Aires gave permission for their casualties to be exhumed where necessary and buried together on the Falklands. Secondly, a farm manager named Brook Hardcastle offered some land near the settlement of Darwin as a possible site for a cemetery.

Considering Hardcastle was under arrest throughout the conflict, it was a magnanimous gesture.

Darwin was an appropriate location, the site of the first real land engagement and a tranquil backwater with a raw, Hebridean beauty.

Things started to move quickly. Within two days a representative of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission flew out, inspected the site and approved it.

By mid-December 1982, Cardozo was back in London (having exchanged his muddy fatigues for a shirt and suit borrowed in a hurry from the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly) selecting potential undertakers and gravediggers from a list drawn up by the MoD.

And so it was that on February 19, 1983, 220 Argentine servicemen were formally laid to rest with military honours on a gentle peaty slope outside Darwin.

General Thorne attended, along with Cardozo and a detachment from the Royal Hampshires and Royal Engineers, who cleared and built the cemetery.

An Argentinean relative of a victim from the war attends to the grave of a fallen loved one 

Led by the Vatican’s representative on the Falklands, the ceremony was one of sombre reflection and deep respect. A volley of salute was fired over the graves by a ten-man firing party and the bugler sounded The Last Post.

This was one group of soldiers honouring another — in the knowledge that but for the grace of God, their positions may have easily been reversed.

The white crosses in grid formation brought to mind World War I cemeteries across France. The epitaph on 114 of those crosses was also eerily familiar — An Argentine soldier known unto God.

Cardozo had suggested those words, which for him had particular resonance. His grandfather had been badly wounded on the Western Front in the same 1915 engagement as Rudyard Kipling’s son John, whose body was never found.

Kipling travelled to France in a fruitless search for news of his son, and his haunting poem ‘My Boy Jack’, though not directly about him, echoed the grief and incomprehension of all parents who had given their children ‘to the wind and the tide’.

More significantly, it was Kipling who came up with the inscription ‘A British soldier known unto God’, inscribed on the graves of those killed in the 1914-18 war but whose bodies were too badly mutilated or buried too deep in the Flanders or Somme mud to be identified. They were simply, the missing.

Cardozo was determined that those of his Argentine charges who could eventually be given a name, would be.

‘I was sure these boys would be claimed and exhumed in the near future, so I thought we must preserve them as best we could,’ he says.

‘Each body was laid out, wrapped in a white cotton shroud, then in three body bags inside one another and finally the coffin.’

Crucially, Cardozo kept a meticulous log of everything about where each body had been found, where it now lay and everything that was known about it.

For the many who had not been wearing dog tags or other identification, any clues were pieced together from letters or other personal effects recovered through often gruesome searches of the remains.

His final report is a model of painstaking and detailed scholarship. But he still felt his job was only half-done.

‘When I was leaving the islands in a Hercules [aircraft] I first thought, Geoffrey, you did your best. Seconds later I realised that with half the bodies still unidentified, I hadn’t done my job. It was as if I’d been hit with a hammer.’

Fast forward a quarter century. Cardozo had ended his military career a colonel, and was working for a veterans’ aid charity.

A fluent Spanish speaker, he was asked in 2008 if he would interpret for an Argentine veteran researching the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on those who fought in the Falklands.

It was almost divine serendipity.

Julio Aro had been a 19-year-old conscript during the conflict and a few weeks earlier had visited the Darwin cemetery in a bid to ‘find the Julio I had left behind’. He was shocked to find 122 crosses there (eight more had been interred since 1983) bearing no name.

He returned to Argentina and asked his mother how she would have felt if he were one of those unknown soldiers. She replied: ‘I would have searched for you until the end of my life.’

Aro determined to discover as many identities as he could. DNA testing was by now well-established, so if he could trace close relatives and persuade them to give DNA samples, the problem of identification could be solved.

It would involve exhumation, for which all sorts of permissions were required. But it was possible.

One might have thought tracing the families of missing servicemen to be a fairly straightforward business. Check the official list, locate the addresses and make contact.

Not in Argentina. If an official list existed, it was certainly not being made public. The war was still a painful memory and neither the government, military, or even human rights organisations wanted to know. These men and their families were being quietly airbrushed from memory for political convenience.

There was another major problem. Aro had no grid-map of the Darwin cemetery and no information about the occupants of individual graves. So even if he could obtain a DNA sample, checking it could involve digging up dozens of bodies at random. Would that really be acceptable?

Then, in perhaps the most extraordinary moment of this remarkable story, while Aro was detailing these seemingly unsurmountable difficulties, the man sitting next to him and translating his words was also the man who held most of the solutions.

In the airport terminal at Heathrow, Cardozo handed Aro a copy of all his research. He would later also give him a video of the 1983 Darwin funeral ceremony, to show the dignity and honour his fallen comrades had been accorded by the British military.

It was the catalyst Aro needed. He went on to set up an organisation whose English translation is ‘Forget Me Not’ and with the invaluable help of journalist and former war correspondent Gaby Cociffi, he set about tracing families with new vigour.

Most were suspicious to begin with, as Gaby explains. ‘People manage pain in different ways. These mothers felt they had been forgotten and that nobody cared much about them or their sons. So they wondered why we cared after all this time.

‘Some acted as if their sons were still alive, keeping their rooms the same, their bicycles, talking to them, even setting places for them at Christmas dinner. Maybe they didn’t really want proof he was dead. Others felt they had cried so much and for so long, they couldn’t cry any more.’

But eventually most came around, in no small part because the 1983 video and Cardozo’s cemetery plan quashed conspiracy theories that the Darwin graveyard was a sham and that bodies had been unceremoniously dumped in mass graves.

In 2016 London and Buenos Aires sanctioned the Red Cross to carry out exhumations and DNA checks. In another twist, Gaby enlisted the help of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, whose own father was among the missing presumed dead at Anzio in World War II.

While on tour in Argentina he successfully lobbied then-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to lend her support.

Cardozo’s assiduous record keeping and foresight in treble-wrapping the bodies made the job of identification infinitely easier than it would otherwise have been.

‘In 2017, when the Red Cross did finally disinter them, I was amazed to find that while the coffins had disintegrated, the bodies inside the three bags were almost intact.’

Two years later, 89 relatives of the missing walked together along the pebbled path to Darwin cemetery to finally put names on their lost sons’ graves. Some stood weeping in silent remembrance, others spoke to their sons, brought gifts, told them all the family news they’d missed.

‘They arrived with such a leaden step but they left with their heads held high and perhaps with a new sense of pride,’ Cardozo says. ‘They didn’t want their children to die of course, but at least they now know how and where and that they died for their cause.’

A further ceremony took place the following year and others are being planned for after the Covid emergency.

Just seven bodies are now still unidentified. Typically, Aro, Gaby and Cardozo, though pleased their work has produced such heart-warming results, believe it will be incomplete until every cross has been given a name.

The Nobel Peace Prize selection process is shrouded in secrecy, but it’s understood the final shortlist will be drawn up (by an unnamed panel) in the next month.

Choices are highly political and sometimes controversial. Cardozo is naturally thrilled by his nomination, but he’s not holding his breath. He has his reward.

‘To see a mother put flowers on her son’s grave for the first time 36 years after losing him is an incredible moment.

‘On the way out of the cemetery, one mum turned towards me with tears in her eyes, and I reached out to dry them, which she let me do. It was an incredible moment.

‘There is no prize — including the Nobel Prize — which is greater than that.’

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