It´s been 40 years, but Frits still remembers that those three days at the end of June 1978 “were not pretty”: he didn´t have a good time, he was afraid, he “wanted to leave Argentina”. Frits Jelle Barend was a journalist and had traveled from Holland, his country, to the southernmost south of the American continent to write about the 78 World Cup. He had covered the 74 World Cup in Germany for the Vrij Netherlands magazine, and he would do the same with the 78 World Cup. Argentina, in addition, had something special: here there was a dictatorship. Frits and his colleagues knew it. “We could write that there really was a dictatorship in Argentina, a fascist dictatorship. We could feel it, we talked to people and I believed what those people told me. I trusted those who told me people had disappeared”, he says from his homeland.
The Dutch publication, one of several international media outlets that came to the country to cover the championship, had sent three correspondents: two journalists and a photographer. The journalist Henk Van Dorp was in charge of sports coverage. Frits was in charge of politics. “We knew what was happening” in Argentina, he says. The accusations made about human rights violations that the security forces were committing in the country had begun to cross the borders and spread slowly but firmly across Europe. Several media outlets from Holland, Sweden, France, and Great Britain also sought to take advantage of their trip to Argentina to interview the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in their rounds of protests in front of the Casa Rosada.
Frits chose the day of the opening of the 78 Football World Cup to visit the “Mad Mothers”. It was a Thursday. He still feels that the experience was “quite impressive”. The opening ceremony of the championship coincided with the time when the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo gathered around the Pyramid of Plaza de Mayo.
Sitting at his home in Holland, the journalist travels through time: “I was in the cinema near the Plaza de Mayo until 3:30pm and then I went there. You couldn´t believe it, it was totally empty. I felt a little insecure. I walked around until at 3:50pm when they started arriving from different corners of the square. I introduced myself: 'I am a journalist from the Netherlands; I would like to speak with you'. And they told me that one had lost two children, another a daughter, another her husband. They gave me a phone number, they gave me flowers”.
Frits recalls that minutes later the Plaza de Mayo began to recover the normal circulation of pedestrians and vehicles around it. He also remembers that at the end of his talk with the "crazy mothers", men in plain clothes approached him and started insulting him, telling him not to believe in those women who asked for information about their missing children. "They didn´t let me keep talking to them, they pushed me a little. Luckily a French camera team arrived” he says.
He returned to his hotel a while later. There he waited for his colleague Van Dorp, who was covering the opening ceremony at River Stadium. “I wasn´t scared, but I didn´t feel safe either”, he recalls. At the Monumental stadium, control personnel noticed that there was an empty place next to Van Drop that Frits should have occupied. "They knew I wasn´t in the stadium”, says the Dutchman, who had chosen to be at the Plaza de Mayo that afternoon in early June. That night he asked his colleague to share a room.
However, Frits overcame the feeling of insecurity and went a step further. He and photographer Bert Nienhuis were the only Dutchmen –in addition to the diplomats– who attended the official closing dinner of the 78 World Cup. It was a celebration that not even the orange team had attended, after the defeat in the final.
Frits and Bert went. They asked two Dutch players for their invitations and pretended to be two members of the national team to attend to the dinner. “The Argentines said they were happy that there were people from Holland. They thank us to be there”, recalls the journalist. No one there had realized that they weren´t players, except for the president of the Royal Dutch Football Association, with whom they shared a table. He was "quite nervous" about the deception.
The deception lasted “half an hour”. There was finger food, lots of chitchat and speeches by Argentine dictators. After the speeches, Frits believed that “it was time”. “I talked to the photographer. I took my little tape recorder and approached Mr. Videla” The dialogue, rebuilt 40 years later, went something like this:
–Hello, Mr. Videla. I'm from Holland. Can I ask some questions?
–Yes of course. Of course, of course.
–Congratulations on the World Cup.
–Are you happy?
–Yes, I'm happy.
–What happened to the disappeared people?
–What are you talking about?
–'m talking about the people who are disappeared. They told me there are 40 thousand.
–That's a lie, it's a lie.
–No, it's not a lie. I've talked to women, with the "crazy mothers."
Frits says that Videla was nervous and that a few minutes later security men separated him and his colleague from the side of the dictator.
A while later, the two slipped away, although it took them a few hours to realize they had left something important at the party.
They returned to the hotel, and were preparing to fly that same night to Santiago, Chile when the photographer noticed that he didn´t have his passport. “My colleague left all his belongings in his jacket and I was very angry. Passport, money, credit cards. They took it out of his jacket, he was left with nothing recalls Frits. They couldn´t fly that night. They couldn´t do it for the next three days.
“We had to wait three days before we could leave and those days weren´t nice”, says the journalist. We stayed together, we didn´t leave the room alone. We slept together and put a table behind the door so they couldn´t enter. We didn´t leave anything of value in the room, except for our clothes. In the streets people were pushing us, they were suddenly trying to touch us, and so we didn´t do too much. We ate near the hotel”.
They had asked for assistance from the Dutch ambassador, Dorone Van den Brandeler, with whom they didn´t have a good relationship. The Dutch journalist had learned that the ambassador had participated without permission in military parades of the Argentine Junta and had published it in a note. “He was very angry with us”, says Frits. Then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands interceded, also the flag carrier of the Netherlands, KLM. Finally they were able to leave Argentina.