I was 9 years old and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the summer of 1992 when my mother announced that we were heading downtown to run errands.
It was an opportunity to escape the house, my grandmother’s nagging and my little brother’s jokes. Also, trips downtown almost always meant ice cream. I remember putting on a pink dress with a pink cloth flower over my chest.
In an hour, we were downtown. We reached the front patio of a bookstore when a thunderous explosion went off just down the block. The power was overwhelming.
“It’s a bomb,” my mother yelled, as she pushed me to the ground.
Things that normally go together, like smells, sounds and noise, were splintered. Glass exploded. A giant column of thick black smoke rose into the sky. People screamed. It culminated with the rumbling sound of the explosion itself.
When my mother pulled me up so we could run away, my world went dark, partly from dust and smoke, but also because I was having trouble breathing, and was starting to pass out. My mother shook me. She said later I had a blank stare and was as pale as a sheet of paper.
The blast devastated the Israeli Embassy, killing 29 people and wounding more than 200. It cost my mom some of her hearing. And it was also my first lesson in the terrible things that happen periodically in Argentina, but which rarely seem to get resolved.
My family had endured the Dirty War in the 1970s, when thousands of Argentines were killed or disappeared under a military dictatorship. It took decades before there was any real accounting of what happened.
The 1992 embassy bombing remains unsolved. And two years after that blast, 85 people were killed in an even larger bombing at a Jewish community center. Many believe the two bombings are linked and suspicion has fallen on Iran, which denies any role.
The second bombing, which is also unsolved, recently returned to the front pages when special prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and others close to her of plotting to absolve Iranians suspected in the attack in exchange for commercial deals.
The Argentine government denied the accusation. Shortly afterward, Nisman was found dead. Many believe, in the lexicon of Argentina, that “lo suicidaron,” or “they suicided him.”
For me, at age 9, the embassy explosion was so powerful, it shifted the way I thought. I couldn’t describe it back then, and the closest I could come was a strange feeling of being trapped.
As an adult, I realize this was the first time I became aware of death. More importantly, it was my first exposure to violence and the fact that it often goes unpunished in Latin America.
Events since then have taught me the lesson my parents had learned long before, during the Dirty War, when they saw friends vanish into thin air, never to be seen again.
Philosopher Santiago Kovadloff summed it up very well in a recent story that appeared in The New York Times: “Argentina is monotonous, it repeats its tragedies.”