The Falklands overcome the past with prosperity

Twenty years after British forces rebuffed an Argentine invasion, the tiny Atlantic islands thrive.

Twenty years ago this month, Carol Enyon was a prisoner in her own town. After a tense night glued to the radio, she awoke on April 2, 1982, to the sloshing sound of footsteps in her garden. The platoon of British Royal Marines had been ordered to defend the Falkland Islands against a surprise attack from Argentina.

For the next 74 days she and her neighbors were trapped. "We couldn't even go outside to feed our hens without waving a white flag," recalls Enyon, who runs a diving shop with her husband. "For many years after the war I had nightmares, and not until this year could I talk to an Argentine without chills going up my back."

Two decades later, remnants of the lopsided war that restored Great Britain's reputation as a military force and helped tumble a bloody dictatorship in Argentina still abound. Littering the coastal plains outside Stanley, the capital of The Falklands, are some 25,000 unexploded landmines. Just last month a farmer discovered a downed Argentine Pucara plane.

But despite these physical memories, for most of Stanley's 2,000 residents, life has moved on. Though only 300 miles off the coast of Argentina, it is worlds apart. While Argentina struggles with an economic crisis that has no end in sight, the Falklands are thriving.

"Although we won't forget what Argentina did, especially while it keeps reiterating its sovereignty claim, we can't keep dwelling on the past either," says Stuart Wallace, director of Fortuna, a local fishing company. "And the truth is, the war probably was responsible for helping us gain our economic independence."

Before the war, Britain allowed this former colonial outpost to languish. Unemployment surged, causing a huge increase in alcoholism, and younger generations deserted the islands in search of better prospects abroad.

Today, the 2,400 Falkland inhabitants – "kelpers" (seaweed gatherers) as they like to be called – are among the wealthiest in the British Empire. Since the end of the war, the islands have been transformed from a semifeudal sheep-farming society to a modern economy driven by a skilled workforce well versed in the ways of global business.

Young islanders still leap at the opportunity to go abroad, but now they're also eager to return – as doctors, marine biologists, and schoolteachers. Indeed, the Falkland economy, powered by a booming fishing industry non-existent before the war, has left the islanders and their government flush with money.

Although Stanley still lacks many modern-day amenities, such as a movie theater or Internet cafe, luxurious four-by-four vehicles fill the nearly 400 miles of roads built in the past decade – compared with a five-mile network before the war.

At the same time, traditionally white Stanley has now become multiethnic, thanks to the welcomed influx of large numbers of immigrant workers, the majority from Chile, and the British-controlled island of St. Helena in the Middle of the Atlantic.

Despite the many changes, however, erasing the past completely is difficult. Residents say they'd rather forget the war. And as proud of their accomplishments as the kelpers are, for those who lived the war up close, no amount of success can ever completely erase their bad memories.

At a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of the start of the war, Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde announced: "The Malvinas [Falklands] are ours. We will get them back." Most kelpers have heard this before from other Argentine leaders. They're just happy the war turned out the way it did. "You've built a successful country out of unfavorable circumstances, and then someone says that one day it'll all be theirs," says island councilwoman Jan Cheek. "How would it make you feel?"

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