I MADE the final stage of my journey home in July 1982 by "Norland," a North Sea ferry requisitioned during the war. The civilian crew still showed signs of shock on having found themselves caught up in a war. They, and the small British naval party on board, were weary from the long months at sea.
For the last few days, the ship had to be "blacked out" because Argentina had not, and still has not, declared a formal end to hostilities. My husband had preceded us by Hercules aircraft so only my two daughters were with me to watch the Falkland Island dawn. Before light we had looked in vain for the lighthouse at Cape Pembroke; we hoped my father would be there to see us returning. He was there when the invading forces arrived a year ago. Then, in the frosty first light, we could see the lighthouse abandoned and dark. We later discovered that the area was mined. We sailed in through Port William and into Stanley harbor, both now sheltering more ships than we normally would see in a year.
From the distance and in bright winter sunshine, Stanley looked relatively unchanged, except for the dozens of helicopters overhead and scores of military vehicles parked in the streets. Our fellow passengers--600 Queen's own Highlanders coming to garrison the islands for six months--looked on the town from two main points of view. Those recruited in the cities asked, "Where is the rest of the town?" Those from the highlands compared the scenery with that of the Scottish islands.
We were taken ashore in an ex-Argentine "prize," the young Royal Navy crew justly proud of their fast, West German-built gunboat.
Stepping ashore showed my first impression had been wrong. The jetty was splintered and buckled, the streets inches deep in mud and filth. The gutters still held clips of bullets and other pieces of equipment and personal property dropped by the Argentine soldiers as they retreated through the town. Buildings bore scars of shrapnel from the British shelling, and bullet holes from the machine guns of nervous Argentine soldiers who imagined British S.A.S. men in the shadows at night. Huge guns stood abandoned between the houses. Some houses had been damaged by British attempts to knock out these big guns. Other buildings were burned down by the Argentines during their last hours in the town. We were told that the town had not been completely cleared of booby traps so we must avoid walking on grass and gardens, staying on roads and paths.
We met our family and other people. All were pale, with heavily shadowed eyes, still weary and shocked a month after liberation. Many had not expected to live. They were tired and strained but happily surprised to be alive. I had lived with them in my imagination through long nights of shelling. They told us what it was like when the British Vulcans bombed the airport, of their joy and excitement at the first Harrier jet raids and on hearing that South Georgia had been retaken.
What I did not know about, and could not have imagined, were all the small incidents of living under curfew 16 hours a day. We have heard only some of the stories, but they build a picture of humor and patience as well as stress. My mother tells of "running the curfew," going from her house to my brother's, where my parents and sister spent the long nights. My mother is perpetually late and often the bread rolls she was baking still were in the oven at 4 p.m.--curfew time. Rather than leave them to spoil, she would wait and hurry down the hill later, hoping that the smell of new bread would not alert some hungry Argentine soldier to the fact that there was a curfew-breaker. My brother soon was stopped from taking his daily run up Sapper Hill and was not allowed to run in the other direction because that took him toward the airport.
His house was searched four times--he probably was on the list of 600 "politically suspect" islanders that the Argentine intelligence people drew up. This must have been particularly harrowing for my sister-in-law, who was expecting their first child at the time. However, apart from confiscating their diving equipment, the searchers did not find anything to warrant their intrusions. So inefficient were they that, in spite of taking up floor coverings, they did not search the shelter which Peter had built under the floor.
They would use this shelter when shelling was particularly heavy, or machine gunners even more nervous and "jittery." The house belonging to the Roman Catholic priests next door was badly "shot up" one night. Only the fact that Monsignor Spraggon was not in his study, bedroom or bathroom but in the back of the house saved him from probable injury. The same night a branch was shot off the tree outside Peter and Frances' bedroom window. My father declined to shelter under the floor, preferring to sit in the kitchen drinking coffee: He said, probably correctly, that a shell or bullet destined for him would find him just as well under the floor as above it.
One of the most striking features of everyone's recollection of the occupation, recounted to me on my return, was the compassion they all felt for the young Argentine conscripts. Everyone I spoke to had a different story to illustrate their plight; the soldiers often were underfed and brutally treated. They had been told that the water in streams was undrinkable, probably poisoned; many went to the islanders begging water and food. Some stole food and if caught by their officers were severely punished. Some were so young that they wept and begged to go home. The "Norland" carried some of the prisoners to Argentina and the crew confirmed that the youngest was believed to be only 13 years old with many others 16 and younger. Most were undernourished, filthy and suffering from various ailments associated with the conditions they had endured on the islands. They all appeared to the "Norland" crew to be delighted to be going home and surprised at being well fed and kindly treated.
Within a few days of our return I was busy in school helping to get the pupils back to full-time education after months during which a few informal sessions were held privately in teachers' homes. The junior school which my daughters, Miranda and Rosalind, attend had first had to be cleaned and thoroughly checked because a booby trap had been left under a loose floorboard and another explosive device left by the road crossing outside. The senior school where I work had been cleared by heroic efforts of the R.A.F. and others of the layer of excrement that covered the floors. It still smelt odd, as did the whole town, because of the unsanitary habits of the Argentine soldiery, but was usable. We had to share it for some months with British soldiers but were pleased to do so, particularly because "our" men were members of the Royal engineers' "bomb disposal" team. They recruited children as "deputy bomb disposaleers"--the children had to promise to report immediately any suspicious objects they found and never touch them. Both my daughters are proud owners of "bomb disposal badges."
Some of the pupils had been in Stanley throughout the occupation, others were sent out to what their parents hoped was the relative safety of the "camp." Some were among the 114 people held in the Goose Green community hall for a month. All showed remarkable resilience and a mature attitude to all that had happened. Naturally they had much to tell me of the events so fresh in their memories. I often was deeply moved by the clarity and simplicity with which they described their experiences. One girl told of lying on the floor during the early morning of the invasion while bullets flew through the flimsy wooden house, of her terror when her small sister, not understanding the danger, stood up and started stumbling around the room. Miraculously none was injured in that house. Few mentioned the death, shortly before liberation, of their needlework and art teacher, Susan Whitely--it was too painfully close.
For some, the unpleasant months of April, May and early June were forgotten, a nightmare pushed to the back of their minds. They spoke of happier things. For one boy, the greatest day was when the British paratroopers arrived at Goose Green to free him and his companions. For another girl, the most memorable moment was when Gen. Jeremy Moore walked into the West store, where many people were sheltered on the night of June 14, and told them the fighting was over.
Now the school is running normally, but the playground still is cracked and the roads outside slowly subside under the weight of the heavy military vehicles they were not built to withstand. Lessons are quite regularly interrupted by the roar of Phantoms overhead. We pause until the noise subsides, smile and continue the lesson. Less often now the windows rattle and the building shudders as another heap of mines, shells or other explosives are blown up. Most children jump, then laugh. A few become pale and watchful, then, satisfied that the "Argies" are not back, they laugh with the rest. These children probably accept more easily than some of their elders the changes necessary to guarantee our security and freedom. We recently have celebrated 150 years of permanent settlement in the islands with, among various sports, dances and parades, a fireworks display. Sadly, some of the youngest children were afraid. They have in their few years heard enough bangs and seen enough "real" fireworks to last them a lifetime. That these were supposed to be for fun was not a concept easily grasped by someone who has lived through invasion, occupation and war and not yet started school.
In Stanley, children's accustomed freedom is restricted by the fact that they may stumble upon an antipersonnel mine or unstable ammunition. Within the last week some grenades were found within a few hundred meters of our house. Fortunately, the finders resisted the temptation to try them and reported the discovery instead. In spite of these dangers and consequent restrictions, things are much better than we believed possible six months ago. Large areas are being cleared and it is possible, after carefully consulting the latest "minefield situation" map, to walk on Sapper Hill and parts of Stanley common that are "green" areas. Last April my sister-in-law wrote that there would be no tea-berrying in 1982; now in 1983 we have tea-berries and diddle-dee berries. British soldiers are astounded at the sight of "kelpers" crawling around damp grass with jam jars picking berries--something many feared they never could do again.
We have lost the use of our nearest sand beaches, miles of white sand mainly between the airport and Cape Pembroke, for the forseeable future. The mines laid on them are constantly moving with the shifting sand. My father cannot return to his beloved lighthouse. He was taken down to see what damage had been done and came back appalled. The brass, polished daily by generations of lighthouse keepers, was blackened, the antique light not working, most useful articles stolen and the normally spotless interior unrecognizable.
The invasion had a disastrous effect on the three closest farms to Stanley: Mullet Creek, Murrell and Moody Valley. Mullet Creek lost all its buildings and most of its stock; all lost fences, ripped down for firewood by Argentine soldiers trying to keep warm. Then large areas were mined and the farmers taken off their farms and not allowed back to shepherd their flocks. Worst hit was the Murrell farm north of Stanley, where many animals were killed or maimed by stepping on mines. The owner, Claude Molkenburgh, has been unable to gather all his sheep for shearing because some are in mined areas. He has had to enlist the help of a sharpshooter in an army helicopter to shoot some of the injured animals. He has lost many of his cows and horses through mines. He was diversifying his stock by breeding pigs; when the British forces managed to get him back to his farmhouse he found that the occupying Argentines had left his best sow shut in without food or water. It died shortly after he found it. Other breeding animals had been slaughtered for food. In spite of the devastation of his stock, he is determined to start again and build up a new future at the Murrell for himself and his family.
The dairy in Stanley also suffered, with many milk cows being slaughtered by the Argentine troops for food. Fuel is another problem. Some people's supplies of peat were burned by the Argentines. Other people, including my father, are unable to cut peat at their own peat bogs this year because they are in "red" areas. Some, like him, manage to borrow another peat bank. Others are having to rely on relatively expensive imported fuels.
Carcass Island, like many other outlying settlements, was not occupied by the Argentines and undamaged by the war. The McGill family, which lives there, endured the weeks of waiting in almost complete isolation. After the British landing at San Carlos, they watched in horror the Argentine jets that flew in from the west, clinging to the hillsides and "island hopping" to avoid radar detection. They experienced the helpless frustration of knowing that even if they were able to contact the task force, their warning would be too late for the ships and men at San Carlos--just a few minutes away by Argentine Mirage or Skyhawk jets.
Because the islands are large and many birds leave in winter, our wildlife was not too seriously affected by the invasion. Apart from a noticeable scarcity of larger birds in the Stanley area last July--some must have fled, alarmed by the noise and activity, others were probably eaten--I've noticed little change. The only other aftereffect is that the logger-ducks in Stanley harbor appear to have had an unsuccessful breeding season. These large, nearly flightless ducks, paired for life, and in the breeding season, fiercely defend their territory, a few hundred yards of shoreline. Normally they produce six or seven young and most pairs raise at least two or three in spite of raids by gulls, skuas, cats and rats. Of eight pairs I've observed for many years, only two pairs produced any young and only a couple ducklings survived. Fortunately this only seems to be a problem in the now extremely busy Stanley harbor. Outside, birds should be able to carry on as usual.
Now, a year on from the invasion, many signs of war still remain: Shell holes, wrecked helicopters, airplanes and vehicles. Most live ammunition in the Stanley area has been cleared, although we still find some near hastily abandoned dugouts, along with fast-fading sleeping bags and items of clothing. The dugouts themselves are interesting to see. In the absence of trees for roofing and camouflage, the Argentine troops used slabs of turf and an extraordinary mixture of building materials purloined from the Stanley area. They built a whole range of positions, from small, smelly, waterlogged foxholes to complex well-constructed shelters with two or more escape routes. Patterns of shell holes show how narrowly some were missed. Others were hit and destroyed. Until a short time ago these had shallow graves near them, some marked by primitive crosses, some only distinguishable by their dimensions or pieces of tattered uniform or boots sticking out. Most of the Argentine dead are now reburied with correct ceremony at Goose Green. Just last week another body was found when another area was cleared. They may find more as they move into other uncleared areas.
The minefields, now clearly marked, are likely to be with us for some time, a bitter reminder of last year. These are mainly around Stanley but also around several of the larger settlements. No entirely satisfactory method of mine clearance has been devised--none of us want people killed clearing them. Sadly, British soldiers have been injured by mines, and some were killed while clearing enemy positions.
New installations are growing to defend us and to house the troops who will man them. We hope they will be with us as long as is necessary. In spite of all the problems resulting from the invasion and the vast amount of rebuilding and readjustment needed, most of us are optimistic that we can build a happier future. We are adapting to the larger population and noisier environment with the practical stoicism that always has been part of the Falkland Island character. We welcome our invited friends, the British troops here to defend us. We accept the change they bring. We always have been hospitable to friendly visitors. Sadly, those who first arrived a year ago were neither welcome nor friendly. They shattered our peaceful existence and brought weapons and violence with them. They only left when defeated and many people haddied. The broken machinery of war still is scattered around. The minefields are a threat to our children and those who came to free our homeland.
Many times in the early weeks after my return I had to lift my eyes from the destruction and squalor in the streets to look at the hills, still there, more beautiful than ever, seemingly untouched by the sorrow of last winter.