Today was the most difficult day of my summer abroad thus far.
Today was a tough day, not because of culture shock, language barriers, or getting lost, but rather because of the things I heard and saw. Our outing today was to Villa Grimaldi, a memorial park that exists on the grounds of a former torture center that existed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
During the Pinochet era of reign, many Chileans (and foreigners) who were suspected of holding leftist political views (toward the sentiments of socialism or communism), were abducted, beaten, taken to Villa Grimaldi and tortured in the hopes of gaining information about anti-Pinochet movements and political leaders. Those who were picked up by DINA (Direccíon de Inteligencia Nacional) agents faced violent physical abuse that included beatings with the hands and/or the butts of assault rifles, electric shocks of varying durations, rape, solitary confinement, and much more that I simply cannot recall in this state of shock. This place was an absolute nightmare come to life for many people in this nation who once had the right to hold political opinions, but what truly made my experience today difficult was the fact that the man giving us a tour of the site was himself tortured during the regime.
Without breaking down once during the tour of Villa Grimaldi, this man whose name I’ll leave out of my blog, replayed his experiences and observations of his days and weeks at the camp. He recalled the horrors of hearing screams of those enduing torture sessions, the scraps of food on the tray he was given to eat from, and the smells of fecal matter mixed with urine and water that some captives were submerged in for continued abuse. This man told not only his own story, but the stories of many who were brought to the center. Some were tortured alongside their loved ones, hung from trees by their hands, feet, or genitals, and still others were tortured to the point of death. Not everyone survived the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse and even among those who were brought out of the center, not everyone made it back to their families. Overall, I was stunned to hear about the details of the abuse, especially from a survivor, but to my dismay the day was not to become more joyful.
After leaving Villa Grimaldi, our guide led us to the Cementerio General de Santiago, the burial site of Salvador Allende, Orlando Letelier, and millions of other Chilean people. Our group began the walk through the cemetery on the side of Letelier’s grave and headed in the direction of Allende’s shortly after. Paying close attention to the design and layout of the graves, the man giving our tour and informing us about the history of the cemetery pointed out what I had been ruminating on during those first few minutes – the cemetery was separated by social class and financial means. One region was host to the tombs of past politicians, businessmen, and aristocrats, while the following section held tombs of the less wealthy. The farther away we went from the main entrance of the cemetery, the more clumped together, the more unkempt, and the less identifiable the graves became. Some stones had illegible handwriting on them rather than names carved in stone. Other graves had metal crosses covered in rust over them to simply signify that a body lay unknown beneath them. The site of the economic disparities among the dead, as if they were not debilitating enough during the lives of these people, was heart wrenching for me.
We ended the tour shortly after seeing the poorest areas of the cemetery, but I cannot remove the stories and images from the forefront of my mind. The shock is partially why I felt so compelled to write this entry – I believe everyone should become aware of occurrences similar or identical to this one in other areas of the world. The man who shared his heart and soul, his stories and memories, his love and his pain, with us today challenge me to reconsider my understanding of travel and exploration today. His bravery is what stuck with me as well as the history of a people that I would have never cared to know prior to this experience. Despite the sadness that came along with today, I cannot help but feel grateful for what I have learned.
Hopefully tomorrow will be a brighter and more joyful day, filled with reflection and conversation. Regardless of what tomorrow does hand me, I hope that I can continue to take, not only the information I’ve amassed, but also the feelings and connections I have experienced and established with this wonderful country and its people, into my service and learning experiences moving forward.
Signing off from a better place than this afternoon,
(PS – I wish I had more pictures to offer you all, but due to the type of things I witnessed today, along with the connotations they’re associated with, I felt that it would be disrespectful to those resting or directly impacted to take photos)