On March 23rd 1976 I was on a train to Posadas in Northern Argentina.
I had been staying with friends of friends in Buenos Aires. They got a phone call the evening before which convinced them that the long expected coup against the government of Isabelita Peron was definitely coming this time. They suggested I get on a train the next morning and get as far away from Buenos Aires as I could. Meanwhile they went away to do what they could for themselves.
In the morning I got an early bus to the train station and had no difficulty buying a ticket to Posadas in the far north of the country; it was where I was planning on going anyway. I had breakfast, put my backpack in the van and found a decent seat - the train was quite empty. When we got to the Parana River the train was loaded onto a ferry and we spent five hours steaming upriver; I sat on deck but there was little to see. The train continued on into the evening in the Entre Rios district, and there were plenty of birds to look at in the swampy pools beside the track. I took dinner in the restaurant, dull food but there were people to talk to. When I got back to my carriage they played martial music on the radio and people said that the coup had come.
We spent all night at the station in Concordia. There was another train on the opposite platform, going the other way. We were not allowed off the train and the doors were kept locked. Military men in long black leather boots walked up and down crunching their heels into the gravel on the platform. We moved off after it got light, and people in the carriage, an Argentine family and a Brazilian circus-worker, said the frontiers were closed. All day we made long slow progress through the increasingly swampy country. I read most of the time. After it got dark, near the town of Santo Tome, we stopped again and the lights were turned out. Soldiers got on and went through the carriage shining torches in the faces of the passengers. I quickly took my Finnish hunting knife from my shoulder bag and hid it under the seat. I was singled out and taken off the train into the open and my rucksack was found in the van. I was pretty frightened as was everyone else on the train I think. I was taken in front of a machine gun and bright lights as soldiers went through my stuff. When they found my paracetamol, they shouted "drogas, drogas" and called the capitan. He was a real SS type, with greying hair and dark glasses. He shouted at me and went through my stuff again. There was another person who had been searched before me and I saw him being loaded onto a truck. However they couldn't find anything on me and eventually let me get back on the train.
The train moved off and later there was another search but not so intimidating. I caught the eye of the family at the other end of the carriage when they finally turned on the lights and we started a little laugh with relief. They told me that they had not expected to see me again when I was taken off the train. We got to Posadas at 1.30 in the morning, over twelve hours late, and I remembered to retrieve my knife. I walked into town and was able to find a hotel, not too cheap and full of cockroaches - I was back in the tropics.
I don't know who the group was that searched me. I know that various paramilitary groups crawled out of the woodwork during the first day or two after the coup, but these people might just as easily have been the military, and the capitan just a particularly nasty example. They were suspicious of foreigners, perhaps going back to the Chilean coup four and a half years before. Most travellers had been searched and some had been briefly detained in the weeks before the coup, so my treatment was perhaps normal. Of course we know now that more than 10,000 people were killed in the Dirty War that followed, perhaps many more. Any threat against people like me was insignificant. My friends meanwhile in Buenos Aires were OK, although I was concerned for them and it was a few months before they surfaced.
View Posadas in a larger map