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Human Rights Tour

Last Saturday, we woke up bright and early for what turned out to be a very powerful day.

Saturday, we had our IFSA Human Rights tour scheduled, a tour that I had been looking forward to since I saw it on our calendar.

This tour covered a very sensitive topic in Chilean history: the dictatorship and human rights during the dictatorship. As many Chileans still remember the dictatorship and it still affects Chilean society today, this is a very touchy subject and is very hard to cover. Some Chileans (such as my family) still ardently support Pinochet, while others (such as one of my professors) believe supporting Pinochet is equivalent to supporting Hitler. As our director explained to us, we waited until the end of the semester for this tour, because she wanted us to have a better understanding of Chile before handling this topic.

The tour was led by our director (who studied History). She tried to give us both sides of the story while adding in her opinion when appropriate.

We started the day watching a video from the Pinochet Foundation. Although the Foundation has been closed since about 2008, the video still exists. This video is obviously heavily biased in favor of Pinochet, but still offers a historical perspective of the events leading up to the Coup d’etat in 1973. It also made it easier to understand why my host family still loves Pinochet. After the video, Isa explained what we’d just seen and we discussed the video a bit before moving on to our next stop.

Our next stop was the Cementario General. We toured graves of many political and military leaders, and at each stop, Isa told us about how each leader had contribute to Chilean history as well as a bit of the background surrounding their deaths. We also saw Salvador Allende’s memorial, which has since become his tomb and the tomb of Pinochet’s parents. Before leaving, we stopped at the memorial for those missing or killed during the dictatorship.

Our last stop was called Villa Grimaldi. This was once a villa-turned torture site that has since been turned into a memorial garden. We started out our tour (Isa is also qualified to give their tours) with an explanation of the site. Next, we went to the gate where the prisoners entered, a gate that now remains locked, and followed the prisoners’ path through Villa Grimaldi.

The really interesting thing about this camp is that every site had been beautified with symbolic mosaics and artwork to represent what happened there, but also to represent a cleansing. At the first site, there was a fountain of sorts with a beautiful mosaic. We were told that this was where the prisoners were tortured and dehumanized upon entering the site. The water from the fountain is now a symbol of cleansing as it washes the blood from the earth. Similarly, the place that was once cells has been turned into a grid, each block holding a birch tree. The grids represent cells, while the trees represent prisoners. Birches were chosen due to their skin, they stand tall but show scars. At this site, we were also able to all fit into a replica of a cell. There were two types of cells, one that measured 2×1 meters and another that measured 1×1 meters. Up to eight prisoners could fit into a cell. They were taken out multiple times a day for electric shocks or to be hung from trees in uncomfortable positions. The rest of the day, except for their one meal, was spent in the cell. I was horrified.

Similarly, each site left me with a new sense of horror. We learned about the prisoners, the torture techniques used, and the varying rumors still surrounding the camp. We saw replicas, drawings, and things that had once belonged to the prisoners. However, the last stop hit me the hardest. We entered a room with one glass-covered table filled with oxidized objects. These objects, we were told, had been excavated from the ocean and were further evidence of the awful things that had transpired here. These pieces were pieces of railroad that had been tied to people. These people were then placed in bags and dropped out of helicopters into the ocean. No one knows if the people within the bags were dead or alive.

I had been trying to spend the day seeing both sides of the argument, but that did it for me. There is no justifiable reason to go to such lengths to torture and dispose of people. I was moved, but also horrified at how awful this story actually is. I was especially shocked, because while there are still remnants of this discussion today, the Chile I know is worlds away from the Chile that existed 30 years ago. This became especially clear during the tour.

While I can understand logically why people supported this movement (it did result in more structure within Chile), I am not able to comprehend how, after hearing about these camps and seeing the evidence, this kind of behavior could still be accepted.

There are things about humanity no one will ever understand. This day proved that to me even more.

My host family doesn’t know what I did that Saturday. I’ll probably never tell them.

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