"The memory of a community is not only made of photos, testimonies and documents, books and artwork; it is also made up of places of witness, walls impregnated with people and events; through irreplaceable areas where memory and imagination can evoke pieces of living history ..."
- Eliahu Toker, "Their names and their faces", Milá Editions, AMIA, 1995
On July 18, 1994, at 9.53am local time, a terrorist attack reduced the headquarters of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in the heart of Buenos Aires to rubble. The suicide van bombing left 85 dead and more than 300 wounded in the worst single assault on the Jewish community outside of Israel since World War II. After a lengthy investigation, hampered of senseless accusations, “lost” evidence and the death in 2015 of lead prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Argentina finally, formally accused Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran of executing and planning the attack. But 27 years later, there has still been not a single arrest – and not a shred of justice done.
This Sunday, at 9.53 am, a siren will once again sound in the place where the seven-floor building came crashing down. The high-pitched wail tears through the body, bringing on chills and tears to the eyes, casting onlookers’ minds back to that fateful winter morning almost thirty years ago. Pasteur Street, onto which AMIA’s main entrance used to open, is bustling today and full of shops. But on July 18, 1994, it was filled with dust and screams.
As every year, the Jewish community and the families of the AMIA bombing victims rally on this day to call for justice and accountability. They hold up the photos of the almost 400 people who were injured or lost their lives, each of whom has his or her own story.
One of them was Naón Bernardo “Buby” Mirochnik. On July 18, 1994, like every day, the 62-year-old Buby made his way from his home in the neighbourhood of Villa Crespo to the AMIA offices, where he had worked for ten years. He arrived at 6am sharp. It was a freezing cold morning and Buby went straight to the AMIA basement, where the kitchen was, to put on his beloved blue jacket. He was AMIA’s long-time waiter, and it was his job to traverse the seven floors of the building all day, bringing coffee to employees, always with a smile and whistling under his breath.
That morning, though, at 9.53am, everything went black. A massive explosion ripped through the building and brought it crashing down like a house of cards. Buby was making his way from the first floor down to the basement kitchen when the bomb exploded. Two of his colleagues had been saved from death by a pillar, but were trapped in the rubble, and later said they could hear Bernardo calling out for help non-stop for three hours. Then they heard nothing more.
Several hours later, Buby’s body was found under a door by rescuer Fernando Souto. It took three further days for his body to arrive at the hospital morgue, and for one of his sons, Omar, to be notified so that he could come and identify him. The magnitude of the attack was such that most of the 85 dead victims’ bodies took days to be safely recovered. During this period, tens of distraught families had no way of knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead.
Out of the Ashes of Terror, a Tango
Before the AMIA bombing, Buby was more than just an elderly waiter. His big passion was tango. After his death, his three children went through his belongings; Omar held onto a small black suitcase that contained the tango cassettes his father always used to listen to. Each one was carefully labelled – all bar one, which bore neither name nor date.
This unlabelled tape hadn’t caught Omar’s attention until several years after the attack. "One day,” he has since recalled, “I wound that cassette all the way back to one end. Suddenly the sound changed, and I thought something was wrong. And suddenly, it was my dad singing a tango... It was a surprise, a sentiment. The thing is the cassette didn't say anything – nor 'Buby's recording', nothing. I added that [to the label], so as not to lose it again.”
This year, the AMIA decided to honor the bombing victims with a new campaign slogan: "They will live as long as we do, because we remember them." It gained currency on social media over the past few months, and made Omar remember the cassette tape, in which Buby could be heard singing The Last Cup: a tango from 1926, whose lyrics were written by Juan Caruso and music by Francisco Canaro. He brought the tape to AMIA.
Immediately Elio Kapszuk, the institute’s current director art and production, took the initiative and created an audiovisual tribute called "Conversation Not to Forget" in honor of the 85 AMIA dead. "The voice of Buby Mirochnik,” Kapszuk told Infobae, “recorded more than 30 years ago, allowed us to generate an artistic event that denounces the open wound the still-unpunished attack against AMIA continues to be today, for all of society."
Buby's three children all appear in the video. His daughter Patricia wrote a testimonial read aloud by her sister Fedora Inés, which served as the script. Omar, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, plays the young Buby: still full of freshness and dreams to fulfil, which were cut short on July 18, 1994.
Osvaldo Pereda, an Argentine tango singer now aged 89 – the same age Buby would be today – also appears in the film, singing The Last Cup. His voice blends in with Buby’s, as it was recorded on the cassette. "When he sang tango,” Fedora remembers, “he got very emotional. He lived it, suffered it, I felt it in his soul, I think… There’s something special about tango. Something that unifies people.
How did the AMIA Bombing Happen?
The lack of resolution to the AMIA case is perhaps the greatest failure in the history of Argentine justice. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, investigations focused on Iran and Hezbollah, and it was determined that the cause of the explosion had been a car bomb. It followed the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which left 29 dead and was also attributed to Hezbollah. That initial swift advance, though, was then hindered by years of cross-accusations, corruption and cover-ups involving some of the most senior politicians in the country.
Iran’s primary motivation for ordering the AMIA attack was Argentina’s decision to stop supporting its nuclear program, and to reorient its foreign policy toward the United States (which included sending warships in support of the United States-led coalition in the first Gulf War). Another contributing factor was Syria’s anger at Argentina’s decision to end cooperation on a joint missile programme (which helps explain Hezbollah’s role in the attack). It was later determined that a special committee made up of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, and other high-ranking officials had met in Mashhad, Iran, in August 1993, to plan out and authorize the AMIA attack.
The bombing was carried out by a group of Hezbollah agents, aided by Iranian diplomats stationed at the embassy in Buenos Aires. Hezbollah envoys, led by Imad Mughnieh, had arrived in Buenos Aires with fake European passports on July 1, 1994. A flurry of phone calls from the airport traced them to Foz do Iguaçu in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Iran’s newly appointed cultural attaché at the embassy, Mohsen Rabbani, was in charge. Although he had been in Argentina for eleven years, Rabbani had only been granted diplomatic immunity in March that year. He was assisted by Ahmad Asghari, then-third secretary of the embassy and a member of the Revolutionary Guards.
Rabbani contacted José Ribelli, a corrupt officer in the Buenos Aires Provincial Police who ran a car theft ring, to procure a vehicle for the attack. Ribelli in turn used the services of one Carlos Telledin to find a suitable vehicle: a white Nissan Traffic. The suicide van driver was Ibrahin Hussein Berro, a Hezbollah member from Lebanon who had only arrived in Argentina on July 1 that year.
AMIA Bombing Victims’ Families Still Waiting for Justice
Following the AMIA bombing the Argentine government launched an official probe led by Judge José Galeano. From the beginning, the investigation did not have the necessary resources for such a mission, and nor did it fully support the Argentine government. Although Galeano eventually accused several people of being behind the attack, his investigation was largely ineffective. It was marred by so many irregularities that the largest and most important group of victims, named Memoria Activa, filed a complaint with the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in July 1999, accusing the Argentine government of having failed to prevent the attack. This in turn saw Galeano removed from the case as late as 2004.
Fed up with errors and setbacks, the victims’ families put forward a new name: Alberto Nisman. In 2007 this public prosecutor formally accused Iran and Hezbollah of being responsible and made a formal request the international capture of nine Iranians, all of whom were at large or in Iran. Almost 15 years have passed since that request was issued, and not one has yet been detained. Some of the accused, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, have since passed away.
“In Iran, there are men who ordered the killings of our relatives, and they are free because terrorist countries protect terrorists,” Sofía Guterman, who lost her daughter in the attack, has said. “The victims of the attack continue to die again every day through indifferent justice.”
Nisman’s investigation was cut short in January 2015 when he was found shot in the head in his apartment. Four days earlier, he had published a long text in which he accused former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of covering up the Iranian links to the attack through a “memorandum” signed with Tehran. Nisman’s devastating indictment is diluted every year that passes in which the perpetrators of the AMIA attack enjoy impunity.
Over nearly 30 years, the AMIA case has evolved into an intricate political conspiracy weighted down with lies, corruption, spies and murder. At the same time, the families of the 85 innocent people who died that day have continued to wait for justice as they commemorate their loved ones each year.
Buby Mirochnik was not only a casual victim of a shocking and repugnant attack. He was a much-loved colleague, a father of three, and a lover of tango. His life was cut short by the Islamic Republic of Iran in its never-ending, bloody campaign to silence its critics and advance its own nefarious goals.
“Everything is hidden in memory, the refuge of life and history”.
- Leon Gieco, “The Memory”, (2016)