Our stories

IssueSeptember - November 2002
Feature by Roberta Bacic

Jaime Huenun, an indigenous Chilean poet, has quoted from an old wise Mapuche called Manuel Rauque, "When we recover our past, the earth will open its secrets."

Let me briefly introduce you to our recent Chilean history, and then let some of the protagonists tell us their stories from their own perspective, to help us make sense of what happened and to build our own image of what resistance has meant for us and how it has shaped our culture and identity.

On 11 September 1973 General Augusto Pinochet led the junta that overthrew the socialist civilian government which had been democratically elected in 1970. His dictatorship lasted seventeen years by brutally repressing his opponents.

In her book Unspeakable Truths, confronting state terror and atrocity (2001) Priscilla Hayner states: "The regime espoused a virulent anticommunism to justify its repressive tactics, which included mass arrests, torture (estimates vary from 50,000 to 200,000), killings, and disappearances."

Promptly, as transition to a democratic government took place - after Pinochet lost the plebiscite which he himself had called, with the hope of being confirmed - the new president, Patricio Aylwin, created a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Being a lawyer himself, he was fully aware that he could not nullify the amnesty law (for perpetrators) that had been passed in 1978, and which had been ratified in the 1980 Constitution, written by Pinochet's regime. Thus the mandate of the commission was "to investigate disappearances after arrest, executions, and torture leading to death committed by government agents or people in their service, as well as kidnappings and attempts to the life of persons carried out by private citizens for political reasons". Nine months later the commission issued a three-volume report and President Aylwin, with an emotional statement, released it to the public through TV, radio and newspapers. That was 4 March 1991.

Speaking on behalf of the state, he asked for forgiveness from the victims and stressed the need of reconciliation. He also asked the armed forces to make gestures of recognition of the pain caused. The names of the perpetrators and those responsible for giving the orders were not to be publicised.

What did this reality mean?

From the perspective of survivors, human rights workers and activists, this meant that the perpetrators continued to enjoy impunity.

Pinochet responded to the report by expressing fundamental disagreements and stressed that they had saved the freedom and sovereignty of the homeland by carrying out the coup in 1973.

To fast-forward a bit, in 1992 legislation was passed through parliament - law 19.123 - to establish a follow-up body to the commission, the National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation. Justice again was not amongst its aims. Truth would not have that consequence. Its mandate was very specific: "to search for the remains of the disappeared, resolve cases still left open, organise the commission's files so that they could be made public, and institute the reparations programme".

I worked for this organisation for four years, until its mandate expired in December 1996. Clearly the consequences of what was investigated were in no proportion to the huge amount of truth that came out. There was a public acknowledgement of the horror, which means a lot, but it did not help to overcome the despair, anger and frustration of many of us. The mechanisms of impunity were still in place.

Bill Rolston (from Northern Ireland) editor of Volume 44 of Race & Class, entitled "Truth?" (July-September 2002), says in his foreword "in spite of the restrictions, it is clear that victims do not easily give up the struggle, and continue to push the boundaries of what the new liberal world order regards as comfortable and appropriate... They tell their own story in their own words so that eventually everyone will hear them. And they demand inclusion when the new liberal regime would prefer to ignore such rough reminders of a sordid past." In the same journal, Elizabeth Stanley (who is at the WRI Triennial in Dublin) says: "In exposing a `view from below' by detailing the stories of those who formerly held no officially recognised perspective, commissions take on the versions of reality dictated by past regimes... Symbolically resonant truth-telling procedures place individual experiences at the centre of public discourse."

Let us now examine how different people have lived, and how they feel and think about impunity.

I sent out short questionnaires to different people in Chile, Britain and Argentina, who are some of "the voices and views from below". It seems an almost impossible task to try to put their responses into such a small space, so that what has been lived and experienced really comes through.

I recognise myself in most of what I have extracted and also in what I could not fit in. It is an invitation to all of you to see how events are lived and experienced in different ways and how there is no one answer how to repair, if it is possible at all, what has happened.

Guillermina Reinante Raipan

Guillermina is an indigenous Mapuche woman. She is the sister to her three "made to disappear" brothers Ernesto, Modesto and Alberto.

Alberto, Ernesto and Modesto Reinante were indigenous foresters who lived high in the Andes mountains, in the Southern part of Chile. They were from a small village called Liquine. The workers there had taken part in the agrarian reform which began in 1966.

At the time of their arrest she was 32, a widow with two children. Her life was to take care of her father, brothers and children. She did not know how to read or write. She and her old father moved to Valdivia some years later.

Life continued and I always wanted to find out about them. So many stories I heard. I did not know what to believe. They were very good men, worked a lot, they always supported the ones who were poorer. They liked to sing and play the guitar at parties. They also liked to play football with my father. After 11 September they became silent, they did not sing anymore, they had predicted that something bad would happen. They had dreamt it. When we lived up in the mountains we had to remember in silence, it was dangerous to speak. Once in Valdivia we started to look for justice. My father died - runover by a taxi in front of CODEPU, the NGO that has helped us all in our search for justice. I have cried for him, as well as my brothers and keep on with the search for their bodies. Now I know much more about the events, but the bodies are still missing. Now I can remember without feeling controlled. I still think that my youngest brother, Modesto, could be alive as there are so many stories about him.


Extracts taken from a written and oral interview with Jimmy Bell, a Chilean exile living in Britain, June 2002:

As part of the on-going movement to counteract the campaign of "institutionalised amnesia", human rights groups have come together to set up the Ecomemoria project (http://www.ecomemoria.com), which aims to encompass both the human rights and environmental violations perpetrated by the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

This project has its germination in the campaign waged by the Chilean exile community to have General Pinochet extradited to Spain, to answer for his crimes. During this long campaign, which lasted 503 days, the exile community together with other groups and individuals committed to universal human rights developed a series of nonviolent actions aimed at bringing to public awareness the true extent of the crimes perpetrated by the military dictatorship. Part of the strategy of impunity being implemented by Pinochet in Chile - and later on by his apologists here in Britain - was not only aimed at eradicating the actual evidence of the dictatorship's crimes, but also eradicating them from our communal memory and remit them to oblivion. At the heart of this project is the creation of a forest of native trees that will represent all of the victims of the military dictatorship. We propose to plant a tree for every political-executed and "disappeared" person in Chile and across the world. With this symbolic act of union, ecology and memory (Ecomemoria), we propose to create a "living memorial" in homage to the victims and as a living testimony for future generations.

a tree for each memory

each memory for a life,

a life in each tree,

reforesting the planet sowing a new conscience...

To plant a tree as part of Ecomemoria thus goes beyond a simple ecological act, as it links communities through their shared memories and their shared concern for the environment. Through the sharing of memories we initiate a process of communal awareness, which in turn will lead to a process of resistance to the indiscriminate environmental destruction and violation of human rights.

To plant these trees in memory of individuals that have been described as "little people" by the powers that be, is not only an act of solidarity with those individuals, but also a process of regeneration of our communal memories and diversity of thought and aspirations. Memories, like trees, should be sowed across the planet, in an act of defiance and resistance, against those who today want to force a cultural, ecological and economical uniformity across the planet.

The first tree was planted on 2 February 2002 in Brill, Britain, in memory of Diana Aron. The second British planting will take place at the Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes, on 12 October and it will in homage to Ernesto, Modesto and Alberto Reinante Raipan. We hope their sister Guillermina - interviewed for this article - will come to the event, thanks to the invitation of a group of Peace and Justice organisations from Milton Keynes.

Nicole Druilly

Nicole lives in London and is the sister of Jacqueline Druilly, who was "disappeared" in Chile.

RB: Nicole, we have known you since I came to Britain, can you see any progress in the struggle against impunity over the last five years?

ND: Yes, in Chile the slow wheels of justice are turning, which is producing arrests and sentences in a small number of criminal cases. Internationally, the Pinochet case has established a precedent for international jurisdiction and the creation of an International Court is very promising.

RB: Does your involvement in Memoriaviva havean impact on you as Jacqueline's sister? Can you explain this?

ND: http://www.memoriaviva.com is the biggest archive on the web of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile. For me, to work every day in establishing the presence of the victims in the world, for their life and suffering to be widely known, is gratifying and also very sad. It is a work of remembrance and, at the same time, a clear obstacle to the concept of impunity, which requires, for the criminal, the crimes and the victims to be forgotten.

RB: Does it help to work amongst Chileans who have lived, suffered and struggled for similar aims? In what way?

ND: I am committed to preventing the past being put aside without justice, truth and retribution taking place. By being part of a small group of Chileans motivated by the same aims and values, we are able to achieve much more than any one of us could dream of. It is also very important to have moments of cultural and political identity where we can relax and drop the continuous struggle - which is to survive undamaged in a society that doesn't want us.

RB: Has your struggle against the impunity around your sister's disappearance had an effect on you and your family?

ND: The crime against my sister, her husband and their unborn baby, has been devastating to our family and has divided our lives both before and after. But the crimes against her were amplified by the fact that these were not crimes acknowledged by the whole of society. Therefore we did not enjoy any wide sympathy or solidarity. We felt isolated, vulnerable and hurt. There are many ways to deal with the realities of these feelings. I do believe that working against impunity and to keep Jacqueline's memory alive, as well as to try to apply this to the rest of the victims, has kept me relatively sane. This is also true for the rest of my family. Jacqueline has not been put aside in our memories, to spare us pain; on the contrary, she is always present in our lives.

José Araya

José lives in Valdivia Chile and has worked for years at CODEPU, a human rights NGO.

RB: How does CODEPU (Comité de Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo) focus on the struggle against impunity?

JA: When CODEPU struggles for truth and justice, it not only focuses on the victims or their relatives, it also looks at society and the democracy needed so that these things do not happen again. The struggle against impunity is, in this context, the issue of punishing those responsible (through legal actions) and giving reparations to the victims. The latter can be achieved by the promotion of social initiatives or symbolic reparations. It is also important to promote and strengthen the democratic system and generate conditions for a culture that respects human rights.

RB: What is the obstacle to most judicial actions?

JA: It is the power that the military still retain. This is also possibly due to the control that the political and economic right-wing have over institutions. That group supported Pinochet. The amnesty law and the Military Tribunals also seriously obstruct judicial actions. Miguel Angel de Boer Miguel is an Argentinian psychiatrist who lives and works in Comodoro Rivadavia, in the far South of Argentina. I have known Miguel since he took a web course on extreme traumatisation in which one of my writings was one of the modules. So, after he approached me and we had discussed what could be repaired after such traumatisation, if anything, I decided it would be great to have his testimony. I received a moving, strong and powerful reply. I will try to share with you how it links to impunity and the need for justice.

RB: Miguel, I know that you have worked with survivors of torture. Can you tell me what is the impact of this experience at personal, family and social levels?

MB: Not only as a professional, but having lived personally that sinister experience, I can testify that torture is one of the most traumatic and severe events a human being can go through. Its effects have consequences in the short and long term and have an impact on society as a whole. The other important point is that it achieves what it is aimed at from the point of view of the perpetrators - the experience of fear placed in society, which physically and mentally destroys the victim.

RB: What is the impact of the lack of justice in the social projects people are involved in?

MB: Impunity and forgetfulness are traumatic elements for direct and indirect victims. At the same time they induce new similar crimes as they become legitimised by the lack of punishment. It produces a loss in the reference parameters, like justice, morals, etc. It produces insecurity, lack of trust, vulnerability, etc. It makes people feel out of society and history, both being basic elements to secure identity.

RB: How have you lived impunity?

MB: In connection to what I said before, I must tell you that I have lived and live impunity in my country with great anger, sadness, opposition andhumiliation on the one hand and also with the strong willingness to resist it and struggle to break it.

Lack of closure

I have found no way to close this open space for story-telling, where victims and human rights activists from Chile and Argentina have opened up to us to share their views and feelings about what they have lived and experienced. I take it as a contribution towards understanding and struggling for a better place where we can live.

Topics: Culture
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