Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: Personal Stories Bring the “Disappeared” to Life

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Aug 20 2009 (IPS) - Two Chilean women living in the United States were so moved by the plight of people who were detained and disappeared during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that they overcame the problems of distance, and wrote a book reconstructing the personal lives of eight victims through the accounts given by their closest relatives.

“Whenever we worked on the book, we wept,” Carolina Moroder told IPS. She and her mother, Sonia Martin, co-authored the book “Londres 38, Londres 2000. Biografías/Testimonios de la guerra sucia del Cono Sur/Chile 1973-2000” (Londres 38, London 2000: Biographies/Testimonies of the Dirty War in the Southern Cone/Chile 1973-2000), published by the Centre for Social Studies (CESOC).

Number 38 Londres (London) street was the address of a detention and torture centre known as the “house of horrors” in downtown Santiago, in the earliest years of the dictatorship. It is now a memorial to the victims it once held, a “house of memory.”

“London 2000” alludes to the date of Pinochet’s release by the British government on health grounds, after nearly 17 months of house arrest pending extradition to Spain for crimes against humanity. The former dictator returned to Chile where he continued to elude trial in numerous prosecutions brought by victims’ families and others up until his death, six years later.

The bridge connecting these two “Londons” is the injustice that prevailed in Chile, the authors of the book say.

The 190-page book, released Aug. 6, was written from half a world away and with very few resources, said the authors, who went into exile in 1976 without having personally suffered at the hands of the dictatorship.

The idea came to Martin, a writer, journalist and professor, when she visited the office of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) to donate copies of a book she was launching in the Chilean capital at the time.

Martin was deeply moved by a display of photographs of those detained and disappeared during the 17-year-long dictatorship of the late general Pinochet (1915-2006), who led the Sept. 11, 1973 coup d’état which overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende.

Mireya García, an AFDD leader, worked with Martin to select the eight people featured in the book: seven men and one woman. They drew up a questionnaire and provided blank tapes for Gabriela Zúñiga, another member of the organisation, to record interviews with the relatives.

The book contains the transcripts of those interviews, which include details as personal as whether those who had disappeared were born by caesarean section or normal labour, whether they were quiet or unruly in character, good at reading or sports, had a yen for politics or a vocation for service.

“The (relatives’) voices are so powerful. You can hear them crying, or telling jokes to steady themselves. It was so hard for everyone. I am so grateful to these people who agreed to relive their terrible grief all over again, to let us know what happened so that it would not all have been in vain,” said Moroder, who has a degree in journalism.

The first story is about Hernán Sarmiento Sabater, a seventh-year medical student at the University of Chile, who was 26 when he was detained on Jul. 28, 1974 by the Carabineros (militarised police).

In the interview his mother, Victoria Sabater, says they used to call Hernán “the quiet one.”

Aware of the needs at home, where he lived with his parents, uncle and aunt, five siblings and five cousins, Hernán was always saying: “Everyone keeps asking for things, everyone keeps talking, and I just keep my own counsel.”

The book also describes the life of Vicente García, seized on Apr. 30, 1977 at the age of 19, and tortured by agents of the now-defunct DINA, the dictatorship’s secret police.

His mother, Rita Ramírez, tells how Vicente, the youngest of her three children, had at one time wanted to go to sea. At age 13 he joined the Socialist Youth organisation. She describes him as modest, generous and a sports enthusiast.

Alfredo Rojas, a 34-year-old civil engineer with a wife and three children, was a socialist activist, and head of the national railway. He was the only son of Ana Rojas, a single mother, who says he was sweet, obedient, loving, respectful, committed to politics from boyhood, and with a strong calling to serve others.

He was arrested and tortured by DINA agents on two occasions, before disappearing forever on Mar. 4, 1975.

The story of 26-year-old Álvaro Barrios, who was studying to be a teacher and was an activist in the insurgent Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), is reconstructed by two friends and his wife, Gabriela Zúñiga, who carried out most of the interviews for the book.

They remember him as an intellectual who loved books, liked staying at home, an idealist, a keen observer and not physically robust. He was picked up by the DINA on Aug. 15, 1974, tortured at the Londres 38 detention and torture centre, and never seen again.

Another person featured in the book, Pablo Aranda, a 20-year-old third-year medical student at the University of Chile, is portrayed by his cousin, Marcelina Ceballos. An active communist and an only son with many rightwing relatives, Pablo was a born leader who stood out for his concern for others, she says.

He was seized on Sept. 17, 1973, at the San Juan de Dios Hospital, where he was doing his practical training.

Néstor Gallardo, a 25-year-old student of commercial engineering and a MIR activist, disappeared on Sept. 28, 1974. Like others described in the book, he was a quiet, studious and idealistic boy who never made any trouble, according to his sister Silvia.

As a student leader he visited Cuba, and his goal in the MIR was to “bring about changes in the country so that there would be equal opportunities” for all, and an end to poverty, she says.

His disappearance was part of Operation Colombo, a media ploy devised by the Pinochet dictatorship to cover up the murders of 119 opponents of the regime, which were presented as the result of alleged internal MIR purges taking place abroad. A judicial enquiry into the case is under way.

Juan Chacón, a 29-year-old veterinarian who was a member of the MIR, disappeared on Jul. 15, 1974. His wife, Verónica Martínez, portrays him as “a man blessed with the human touch, always concerned about others and willing to set his own needs aside.”

He was arrested at his home by DINA agents, and was seen at two torture centres. His name is also among the 119 victims of Operation Colombo, and so is that of Jacqueline Drouilly, the only woman featured in the book.

A third-year student of social work at the University of Chile, and a MIR activist, 24-year-old Jacqueline was three months pregnant when she disappeared. Her sister Nicolle remembers her as a charming, intelligent, independent woman who was very much aware of poverty and social injustice.

She was arrested by the DINA on Oct. 30, 1974. Her husband, Marcelo Salinas, was also a victim of forced disappearance.

Of over 3,000 people murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship, 1,197 were forcibly disappeared. Another 35,000 people were tortured and held as political prisoners.

“Nearly all the disappeared persons featured in this book had a social vocation, a commitment to social justice. They were all good-natured, kind-hearted people. Most of the torture victims I have questioned were good people who were without rancour and harboured no hatred, and the book shows this,” retired Chilean judge Juan Guzmán, who presented the book, told IPS.

Guzmán was the first judge to prosecute Pinochet, without success.

“The book is part of what we call historical recovery of memory, but from the human point of view, remembering each person with their individual characteristics and peculiarities,” AFDD’s García told IPS.

“They are widely known as victims, as ‘detained-disappeared,’ as names in prosecutions or trials, as facts, but we do not know them as individuals,” she said.

“Justice must be done in Chile,” said Moroder, who announced that the interviews will be converted to digital format and given to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights that socialist President Michelle Bachelet is to open in November.

On Aug. 11, the government launched an unprecedented media campaign titled “You live in us. You are in our blood,” to encourage the relatives of victims to donate a blood sample to the Forensic Medical Service, if they have not already done so, for DNA matching to the remains of the “disappeared.”

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