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"All I knew about Sweden was Olof Palme"

Published: 17 Jan 2007 18:05 GMT+01:00
Updated: 17 Jan 2007 18:05 GMT+01:00

Writer Claudio Tamburrini, whose life is portrayed in a new film, talks to Eddie de Oliveira about surviving torture, playing football and building a new life in Sweden.

On a wintry 25th June 1978 at the River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina lifted the World Cup for the first time, beating Holland 3-1 in a classic final. One player was notable by his absence that day.

Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest of all time, refused to participate in the tournament as a personal protest against the military dictatorship that had ruled Argentina since 1976. Despite allegations of corruption and interference by the junta, the victory was sweet for Argentinians who took to the cold, tickertape-strewn streets to celebrate en masse.

Among the cheering crowds was a 24-year-old named Claudio Tamburrini. It was the first time he had left his hideout in three months. Tamburrini spent 120 days between November ‘77 and March ‘78 in a torture house, denied any semblance of a human right.

“The thing I worried about the most in those first weeks of captivity was that my football club would release me on a free transfer,” says Claudio Tamburrini. It sounds flippant, a typically Buenos Aires joke, until he concludes “and then, of course, I realised there were other things to think about.” Never tell an Argentinian “it’s only football”.

I’m in Wayne’s Coffee on Götgatan in Stockholm, surrounded by smiling 20-somethings sipping lattes and cappuccinos in the middle of this mildest of Swedish winters. Sitting in the corner, tapping away on his laptop, cutting an unimposing and unassuming figure, is Dr. Tamburrini - philosophy academic, political refugee, torture survivor, writer and goalkeeper.

On 23rd November 1977, a year or so after the military junta seized power in Argentina, Tamburrini was kidnapped and taken to one of several clandestine detention centres in the capital, Buenos Aires.

Accused of being a “subversive”, Tamburrini was among thousands rounded up by the right-wing junta for having links, however tenuous, to leftist movements. He was held in a room at the Mansion Seré with other inmates for four months, until their daring and epic escape in March 1978. The men made their way out by tying bedsheets together and abseiling out of the window. A year later, Tamburrini arrived as a refugee in Sweden, where he still lives with his partner and two young children.

Some twenty years after his arrival here, Tamburrini felt there was enough distance from the experiences to write them up as a book. The title he chose for this harrowing account was Pase Libre, which translates as Free Transfer. At the time of his capture, Tamburrini was goalkeeper for Almagro, a second division team in Argentina, as well as a philosophy student at the University of Buenos Aires.

After the initial weeks of his captivity, concerns about his career at Almagro faded and, as time wore on, Tamburrini says he “became a pain in the neck for the other inmates.

"I was negative. But my fear was not that I’d be killed, it was that I’d never be released. I imagined spending 25, 30 years in that place. I couldn’t see the light.”

Tamburrini is in the spotlight thanks to a film version of his book directed by the much-lauded Uruguayan filmmaker Adrian Caetano, who has adopted Argentina as his work home. BUENOS AIRES 1977, which was nominated for the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a faithful adaptation.

“The important thing was that the director respected the spirit of the book,” says Tamburrini. “It’s not about the good guys and the bad guys. The story deals with greys, not black and white, which is far more interesting.”

The masterful Caetano directs his film in the style of a horror, with low angles, striking music and sharp lighting. It’s a well-chosen approach; what Tamburrini and the others lived through was a real-life horror, but Caetano is never gratuitous, preferring his audience to imagine the terror of torture rather than see it close-up, which, of course, makes it all the more frightening. For Tamburrini, the first screening was the toughest.

“I was right back in that room at the detention centre. The film brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of that place.”

Saturated as we are by images of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and executions, it’s easy to see stark parallels between the world of BUENOS AIRES 1977 and the climate of fear and detention procedures in place today. In a recent essay, Tamburrini suggests that “the world has not become a better place since the 1978 Cup. The detention practices to which I was subjected in my youth are now being overtly applied on a worldwide basis.”

After his unlikely escape, Tamburrini spent a year in Argentina, during which he says “I was literally looking over my shoulder all the time, and I lived in four different places.”

At the UNHCR in Brazil, he was given the choice of refugee status in either Sweden or Denmark. Soon after, in August 1979, he and his then-girlfriend and her daughter were touching down at Växjö airport. “The only thing I knew about Sweden was Olof Palme,” he says. Tamburrini was struck immediately by the vast forests. “We were driven to the refugee camp and I remember the road vividly, surrounded by huge trees.”

He began studying Swedish almost immediately and by 1980, after his relationship ended, he moved to the capital, lived in numerous sublet apartments and began studying philosophy at Stockholm University. I asked him if he ever felt afraid in the early days of his life in Sweden.

“Never. I felt like a tourist, discovering new things every day. But it was lonely. I’d go for weeks without talking to anyone. I phoned home a lot and wrote many letters. I have precious memories of that solitary time; I had time for myself, time to think.”

Tamburrini returned to Argentina in 1985 to testify at the trial of the junta. He ended up staying in his homeland for a year, becoming an integral part of the General Attorney’s team. The verdict, in December 1985, was a disappointment: the Commander of the Air Force, for whom Tamburrini’s kidnappers were working, received a four-and-a-half year sentence.

In 1992 Tamburrini completed his thesis in Stockholm, on the subject “Moral Justification of Punishment”, and his career became firmly rooted in academia. Fluent in Swedish, he took up a post at Göteborg University, commuting several times a week from Stockholm.

“Pase Libre was written on the X2000,” he says, a little wistfully. “I miss the train journeys, actually.”

A frequent visitor to Argentina, he has no desire to live there. He says he has never been ostracised in Sweden, and that this is his home. What is most striking about Tamburrini is, well, his philosophical approach to those four brutal months, and what has happened since.

“The moment I jumped out of the window, I left that behind me. I began to feel motivated by this story. My new life in Sweden is a direct consequence of this story. My career is, in part, down to my reflections on this story. Then there’s the book, the film - exceptional things keep happening that enrich me as a person.”

There are no pauses, no hesitations. Tamburrini is adamant and categorical.

“If you told me I could go back in time to Buenos Aires, 23rd November 1977, 11.30 in the morning, and asked me if I wanted to skip the next 4 months, I’d say ‘no, I’d live it again,’ knowing the outcome as I do. It hasn’t limited possibilities, it’s given me more possibilities.”

Tamburrini is currently working on the next part of his story, centring on what happened to the captives after the escape. He is attending film festivals and premieres to promote BUENOS AIRES 1977, as well as looking for a Swedish publisher for Pase Libre.

Thirty years after his abduction ended a footballing career in Argentina, Tamburrini still plays the beautiful game, albeit for an eighth division Swedish side. It’s futile to hypothesise, but I wonder if he might have become a goalkeeper for the national side. I ask him if, in his heyday, he was any good.

“I was the best,” he says. “And that's not a joke.”

Eddie de Oliveira

BUENOS ARIES 1977 is due to be released in Sweden later in 2007.

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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