Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Day of Remembrance, A Cry for Justice

I am going to be upfront and say that this is a really difficult blog post, at least for you to read. But I need to speak, to give voice, to everything that I have seen and heard and been processing for the last day, and this is the best form of catharsis that I know.

Yesterday my study abroad group and I went to Santiago for an excursion in remembrance of human rights violations in Chile. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the recent political history of Chile, here is a brief summary. In 1970, Chile democratically elected a socialist president, Salvador Allende. This was the first and only time this has happened in any country in the world. His term was revolutionary yet politically unstable, and this environment precipitated a military-led golpe de estado (coup d'état) on September 11, 1973. This day marks the beginning of Agusto Pinochet's 17-year-long dictatorship, which was repressive and marred by human rights violations. During the dictatorship over 2000 people died or disappeared. Of the over 33,000 people detained, more than 27,000 were tortured.

In case these facts are not arresting enough, I will share some eerier details. For example, the reason that Chilean parties last until 5 or 6 in the morning is the curfew imposed during the dictatorship. If you were found outside after dark, that alone was reason enough to be beaten, detained, or murdered. Another is an article from El Mercurio, the oldest and most widely circulated newspaper in Chile, which declared that the corpse of a woman which had washed ashore was the victim of a crime of passion. In reality the secret police had thrown her tortured body (and countless more) in the ocean in hopes that the remains would never be found. By the way, the documentary "El Diario de Agustín" which describes this and other ways in which El Mercurio justified and covered up the events of the dictatorship was not shown in movie theaters in Chile because the owners of the newspaper used their power and wealth to prevent its screening. This was in 2008, long after the dictatorship had ended.

It is one thing to learn about what happened. It is quite another to hear the voices of the victims, to walk through sites of torture. The point of yesterday was remembrance, and I can quite honestly say I will never forget.

I will never forget hearing Verónica De Negri speak at the opening of a new exhibit and the Museum of Memory. She was detained on seven separate occasions before fleeing with her family to the United States. Her son Rodrigo, an amateur photographer, returned to Chile when he was 19. He was taking photos of a political demonstration when the police seized him and burned him alive in the street. I will never forget the bitterness in her voice when she talks about the anger that has been tearing her apart internally for the past 40 years.

I will never forget hearing touring Villa Grimaldi, one of thousands former sites of torture, with Valkiria, a woman who was tortured in that very place. She is a social worker by trade and she worked actively in the countryside during the agrarian reforms of Allende's regime. She was also a member of MIR, the Revolutionary Leftist Movement. Because of this, Pinochet's regime targeted her. She went into hiding for a period, but nevertheless was found and detained.

I will never forget Valkiria describing the sound of the thick chain being unwound to open up the entrance gate, signifying that new prisoners were entering or dead prisoners were leaving:

I will never forget her describing the vulnerability she felt when she was stripped naked, when her eyes were forced closed with Scotch tape so she could see just a bit of ground beneath her feet and no idea where she was, when she was forced to walk in a line between her fellow female prisoners. That is why today at Villa Grimaldi all the placards are placed on the ground, and the trees are planted in lines:
"OLD ACCESS POINT- Through here began the prisoners' march. This gate will now remain locked forever."

I will never forget seeing a recreated version of the confinement cells which measure 1 yard by 1 yard and which contained 4 women for days on end (although some men say that there were 6 to 8 of them in their cells). Two of the women would stand while the other two sat because there wasn't enough room to lie down. I will never forget stepping inside, shutting the door behind me, and seeing the one tiny spot of light coming from the tiny hole in the door.
Valkiria (in the purple scarf) in front of a recreated cell
I will never forget seeing one of the metal bed frames to which prisoners were restrained while electric shock was sent coursing through their ears, noses, mouth, and sexual organs. I will never forget Valkiria describing the odor in the confinement cell after torture, with the menstruation brought on by having electric shock sent through their wombs, their unwashed bodies, the human waste that would accumulate on the tiny floor because they were only permitted to use the toilet once a day. And at the same time the sweet floral scent that would drift in from the rose garden outside the door, how completely senseless and foreign that smell was in their place of suffering.

I will never forget her outrage that justice still has not been served. That the military and government continue to deny that they have evidence of what happened, despite the fact that she and every other prisoner who entered Villa Grimaldi were photographed, and their vital information and dates of entry and exit meticulously recorded. That the teenagers with whom she works in poor neighborhoods have to go to jail for 5 years after a few repeated incidents of theft, but that the government officials and police and military members who are known to have tortured and killed walk free. That the few who are imprisoned live in luxurious prisons with private tennis courts and are allowed to leave to go to family events. That the Constitution guarantees the indemnity of all crimes committed during certain years of the dictatorship. That the businesses which funded the golpe de estado continue operating without penalty.

I will never forget reading the story of Michelle Marguerite Peña Herreros, a woman who was also tortured and murdered in Villa Grimaldi when she was 27 years old and 8 months pregnant. I will never forget the tears which surged to my eyes when I saw the toys that she had left with her family members, which were intended for her unborn child:
I will never forget leaving a red carnation at a memorial in her honor.

I will never forget hearing about one guard who was secretly left-leaning, who would sneak medicine to the prisoners when they were severely injured and who would whistle a classic revolutionary song on his round. I will never forget seeing the grove of trees where he was brutally murdered for being a traitor.

I not only have experiences which I will never forget, but also questions that will probably never be answered. How can people do this to other people? How does Valkiria live with these memories stored inside her every day? The Bible says we are to forgive- how is it possible to forgive the torturers? How can individuals and families and nations move forward after such horror? How can they not carry bitterness and hatred in their hearts every day, emotions which can do nothing but tear them apart? What is the fair treatment for the aggressors? For if we torture them too, is it not true that we are no better? And yet shouldn't they have to experience the pain which they caused others? Why did the United States government help orchestrate the golpe de estado, and why were we in general (with a few exceptions such as Senator Ted Kennedy) approving or silent during the entire dictatorship? Why does the US government continue to do the same thing today with so many regimens that are similarly unjust? 

I suppose I can only say two things for sure. One is that I have a new resolve to speak out against and advocate for those whom are repressed. The other is that I pray that our God who is ruler of all will bring justice and restoration.

1 comment :

  1. Thank you for sharing the power of the pain these people experienced. It seems that power and control can be twisted into great evil, and the need to be "right" can create a different version of history. Mom