I believe that there are three ways of facing situations of great suffering. You can blot everything out, you can become a victim or you can do what oysters do, which is embrace the wound and transform it into a pearl.— Miguel Savage
Miguel Savage survived a war and he will never forget it. Read the story of how he faced up to his traumatic experiences and how he grew to embrace them. In 1982 Great Britain and Argentina went to war for two and a half months over the Falkland Islands – known as Las Malvinas in Spanish. Miguel was 19 years old and formed part of the South American country’s army due to the fact he was doing his national service stint. Without even knowing how to fire a gun, he found himself far from home, in the middle of a war and living day and night in a hole in the ground. Miguel is a survivor and he wants to tell you his story in his own words.
What comes to mind when you think about the first day that you set foot on that farm on the Falkland Islands?
Hyperthermia and malnutrition. We had six soldiers that shot themselves in the foot in a desperate attempt to return home. Four more died after they stepped on our own landmines while escaping to steal food. Then they sent me, five other soldiers and a sergeant to a little house that was on the other side of the River Murrell. The mission was to check the place out. We knew that they were putting us on the British lines. They were already there, ready to attack us. We were like ducks in a pond full of hunters. I found out years later that they did not shoot at us as they did not want to give away the element of surprise.
Did you speak English?
Yes, I had spoken English since I was a little boy. That is why they sent me on the mission, they sent me as an interpreter. The mission was to speak to the islanders and persuade them to check out the house. If they resisted, we would fight. We surrounded the house and I was thinking about getting myself some food and a coat, not about the danger. I was the first to go in. I went in shouting for them to come out. When I saw that there was nobody there, I relaxed and I began to take account of my surroundings. I started to sense smells that seemed familiar. The view out the window was amazing. The river flowing into the town was oblivious to the fact that a war was going on. Indeed, it was the last place I could have imagined being in the middle of a war.
At the same time, I was desperate to take off my wet clothes. I noticed a lovely-looking jumper on a dresser. I pulled it close and sensed the smells of cleanliness, perfume and of home. I had just been freezing in a smelly hole in the ground and it raised my dignity. I took off my clothes and put the pullover on and I felt stronger. I remember eating two pieces of bread with butter. I fed myself desperately, I ate like a dog. I started to feel something, like a presence. It was like there was someone inside the house saying to me: “Not long left, Miguel. You are going to return, you are going to live”. This was either the 5 or 6 of June and the surrender came on the 14. I had the idea one day of returning (to the farm) to see what it was. I was already planning on going back.
Many people flee from unpleasant experiences but you choose to remember them, you keep it with you. What can be learned from that?
I believe that there are three ways of facing situations of great suffering. You can blot everything out, you can become a victim or you can do what oysters do, which is embrace the wound and transform it into a pearl.
You opt for the third option?
No, I tried to keep it bottled up for 20 years.
What was the trigger that brought it to the surface after 20 years?
The social and economic crisis in Argentina in 2001. I had a business that I had built up through a lot of effort. I was very stressed as I was losing everything because of economic problems. At that point, I had my first nightmare about the war.
You had never dreamt about the Falklands before that?
Not until then.
It is an experience that you cannot erase from your mind?
No, above all it is the posttraumatic stress. It is instinctive to try and blot it out, but eventually you have to face it.
What did you dream about?
That I was in the hole with the dead and that the bombs were falling. Inside the dream a mobile phone was ringing. It was the bank manager saying to me: “I am closing your account because you have too many bounced cheques.” I woke up screaming and that day I want to therapy. After drama classes, running, healing cures, I came to rely on generous people. In the end, I realised that I had a hold of the reins. I had control, just like when we were in the hole and took decisions not to die.
You thought that you had control until 2001?
Yes and I had actually returned to the islands in 2000 and I was saying to myself: “This does not affect me, I’m facing everything.”
How did it go when you met with Sharon Mulkenbuhr, the daughter of the couple that had lived on the Murrell farm that you went into on the Falklands?
She lived in the town on my first trip back in 2000. It was an impressive meeting because firstly she expressed all of her anguish. She was still angry about everything and she wanted me to know it. I listened to her in silence and afterwards I told her how I felt. She understood that I had good intentions and we ended up hugging and drinking tea. We swapped addresses. I told her that I still had the jumper but that I had not brought it with me.
Is it correct that you had the jumper framed?
A friend had done it, just like you do when you frame a football shirt.
But for you it was not a trophy?
No, not for me. It was a beautiful reminder of a crucial moment in my life where I felt protected. During my second visit, in 2006, I returned the jumper with a thank you note. I gave to Sharon’s sister, Lisa.
When you look back, do you tell the story differently as time goes on?
The story is basically the same but I keep finding more messages of personal growth. The main thing is what happened to me when I got back. I entered into a state of being that I call the “euphoria of the survivor”. During the first few days, my body was undernourished. I had lost 20 kilograms and I was in this state of euphoria, which was the joy of just being alive. I would set the alarm clock to wake me early, even though I had nothing else to do other than live. Everything moved me. The simple things like music, family visits, the smell of freshly cut grass and even the colours of the television.
What happened when the feeling of euphoria started to fade?
When I returned they held a party for me at home. They were asking me things like if I had killed anyone. I wanted to tell them that I had learned how to listen, that I had learned the importance of human contact and the value of simple things. And they would say to me “well, now you have to look to the future.” They wanted to protect me but I wanted to tell them how I felt. People were just not prepared to listen. Have you seen the film Cast Away with Tom Hanks? When he returns from the island they throw him a party. Well, I felt exactly the same way that Tom Hanks does in the film. I felt like I was on another frequency. I went into the kitchen and turned on the hob. It was dark. I was totally lucid and I felt incredibly strong. And I said to myself: "You have to be strong because they cannot understand the depth of what you have been through".
Have you had contact with any British soldiers over the years?
Yes, with Terry Peck. He is the father of James Peck, one of the few Falkland Islanders to take out Argentine citizenship. He fought against us and I met him during my first trip back. It was remarkable. We went up to the battlefields together and we had something in common that only veterans can understand. Many people ask me how I can embrace the enemy and I say that he was a human being who was there with me in the hell. It is irrelevant of what country we were from. We made a toast for dead comrades. It was respectful, not glorified or jingoistic. We met in an everyday place where our countries had faced off in a stupid war.
Did he agree that it was a pointless war?
Did you talk about the fact that they were professionals and that on the Argentinean side there were many youngsters who did not even know how to fire a gun?
Yes, he could not believe the enormous difference between the two sides. They were trained soldiers, with a minimum of five years of preparation. We were civilians who had just left secondary school. We did not have any training or food.
You are now 50 years old. Is there anything in life that you still do not understand?
Jingoism. I still do not understand the warmongers who sit on the sofa and give their opinions about wars when they do not have the slightest idea about what they are about. I do not understand historians that say the Argentinean conscripts were not victims. We were but we decided not to portray ourselves as victims. There were not many things that we could have done but we kept ourselves united and we worked intensely to come out alive from the war. Simple things like cuddling up to avoid freezing to death. We knew that we could not depend on our superiors. We had three enemies - the cold, the British and our leaders.
What things do you understand now that you are 50 years old?
I learned from the period of euphoria that the most important things in life are not possessions. When I returned I saw a society that was chasing material things without time to listen to others. It was as if they had thrown a bucket of cold water over me and I had woken up.
What does the jumper mean to you?
It felt like being back home. I felt like my mother had put a coat on me.
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