I learned the facts about the dictatorship of Chile in school. I was born exactly a year after the coup making Augusto Pinochet president of Chile, and his junta the government. The dictatorship only ended when I was 15, in grade 10.
I spent my first month in Santiago simply wandering around, getting used to the city. One day, very near my apartment, I happened upon a stunning area of 19th century houses, made of two streets named Paris and Londres–after Paris and London, of course. Most of the buildings are now offices, hotels, and high-end cafes. I stood in the middle of the street that day admiring one lovely hotel, then turned around to look at the house across the street…and my brain blanked out. I didn’t understand what I was looking at. I saw cobblestones with people’s names and ages inscribed on them. The beautiful house was completely covered in rough, sprayed-on writing, saying “tortura”, “muertos,” “memoria.” It finally, sort-of clicked that, in this gorgeous, genteel enclave I had genuinely stumbled upon a site from Pinochet’s campaign of fear.
I got home, got on the internet, and looked up the address: 38 Londres.
I didn’t go back there until two days ago, and I’m leaving Chile today. First, I went to El Museo de Memoria y Derecho Humanos — the Museum of Memory and Human Rights — dedicated to showing what happened the day in 1973 when Pinochet and Chile’s military forcibly took over the country, and then what happened in Chile (and to Chileans outside the country!) until the dictatorship finally ended in 1990. It’s one of the best, most extraordinary exhibits I’ve ever seen, very effective, and affecting. It contains a bit of everything — video of newsfeeds the day of the coup, voice recordings of the president of Chile telling everyone goodbye over the radio, of Pinochet’s first address, of people recounting how they’d been interrogated, jailed, and tortured. Hundreds of photos, of people being detained, protesting, sites where “disappeared” bodies had been uncovered. Torture devices, a bent metal cross of an unknown victim buried in “Patio 29” of the General Cemetary, and pictures drawn by the children of people who’d been murdered, with “¿Donde están?” written again and again, “Where are they?”
Most of the inside of the house at 38 Londres is still empty: it’s clean, but there are holes punched in walls, exposed pipes. Near the one tiny bathroom detainees were permitted to use, a video plays, showing how a forensics team took samples–evidence–from every surface. The toilet has since been removed–everything else in the house remains exactly as it was when DINA–the army’s secret service–shut up the house and tried to hide it by changing its number to 40. The map I received explained what every room in the house had been used for. The entire second floor was for interrogating people for being “left-wing,” and then tortured. Being in that house, knowing what happened in those near-empty rooms… I can’t truly describe it. Unsettling. Moving. Overwhelming.
Just yesterday, I finally visited the General Cemetery of Santiago. The parts I most wanted to see were Salvador Allende’s tomb — which is lovely — and “Patio 29.” “Patio” in this case means “section” : the cemetery contains over 150 patios, and maps of the cemetery are marked in patios, making it easier to find gravesites. Finding Patio 29 was a bit difficult though — like 38 Londres, it appears the whole cemetery was renumbered in the past, possibly in part to hide number 29, which is now at the far northern edge of the cemetery, beside 156! They’re essentially pauper’s graves, all marked with the same bare metal crosses screwed into concrete. It’s become the site of marches by people angry that the immunity Pinochet gave himself and his junta is still in effect.
I strenuously suggest everyone visit every corner of Chile, which is mind-blowingly beautiful…and see what a dictator did this beautiful country for 17 years. It’s very, very illuminating, NOW.