Allende Returns

The Ghosts of the Disappeared

Lucia Newman

On 50-year anniversary of Pinochet-led coup, Chileans are confronting national trauma of thousands forcibly disappeared. Tens of thousands of Chileans were tortured, executed or forcibly disappeared under General Augusto Pinochet’s rule following a 1973 coup.
Jeannette Avila takes out a white handkerchief atop Cerro Chena, a hill overlooking Chile’s capital, Santiago. Waving it up and down, she begins to dance to the music of Chile’s national dance.

The photographs of Chilean political prisoners who were forcibly disappeared decades ago and whose remains have never been found are laid out at her feet. Among them is Avila’s grandfather, whose face and name are emblazoned on her T-shirt.

“My grandfather, Roberto Avila, was a railroad worker and a protestant pastor, and we know that he was executed here with others,” Avila told Al Jazeera during a memorial two weeks ago to the more than 100 people who are believed to have been killed in this spot in the 1970s and 1980s.

“But their remains are still missing.”

Her grandfather was detained by Chile’s secret police nearly 47 years ago, shortly after Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet led a September 11, 1973 coup that deposed the country’s left-wing president, Salvador Allende, and his government.

One of the Chilean army’s most notorious interrogation and torture centres was on Cerro Chena–and the area has become a symbol for the mothers, widows, children, and grandchildren of the more than 1,160 people who were disappeared during Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship and never seen again.

“Their souls, and ours, continue searching for peace. My grandmother died without even a bone of her husband’s to bury to give her some solace,” she says, tears streaming down her face.

In the lead-up to the 50-year anniversary on Monday [September 11] of the coup that initiated Chile’s military dictatorship, four generations of Chileans are being forced to face a still-unresolved national trauma.

Tens of thousands of Chileans were tortured, executed or forcibly disappeared under Pinochet’s rule, according to two government truth commissions set up after Chile returned to democracy in 1990.

In the vast majority of the cases, the perpetrators of human rights abuses have not been tried and sentenced. Worse yet, for the families of the missing, the military has still refused to reveal details about what happened to them or their remains.

For years, defending the military regime’s human rights legacy–at least in public–was thought of as politically unacceptable. But as in other countries in the region, so-called “dirty war denial” is growing in Chile, sowing anger and division on all sides.

Late last month, the government of left-wing President Gabriel Boric unveiled a national search plan that for the first time makes the Chilean state responsible for uncovering what happened to the missing, who was responsible for their disappearances, and where their remains are buried.

But conservative opposition leaders have refused to embrace the proposal, even boycotting the ceremony at the presidential palace. They argued that the government was using the announcement for political gain.

Yet even as some Chileans prefer to not talk about it, and others deny it, the unresolved issue of the disappeared is a wound that continues to fester in the South American nation.

And against this backdrop, some survivors of the Chilean military regime are trying to lay their ghosts to rest by facing truths that were long kept hidden.

[Al Jazeera]

Back to Home Page

Vol 56, No. 13, Sep 24 - 30, 2023