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"Thirty Years Later, I Walk the Streets of My Hometown Fearing That I May Run Into One of Them"

Chile: the Ghosts of Torture

by TITO TRICOT

The night became darker that precise moment when the room exploded into a thousand sparks that burnt your flesh, making your bones and your fragile certainties shudder. For being there, naked and blindfolded, at their mercy, there were neither smiles nor turquoise oceans, nor carnations or pink sunsets. All of a sudden life had become only a frail instant suspended in a thick and desperate breath of air, mercilessly pierced by electricity. The world was painfully reduced to that tiny space between our eyes and that filthy blindfold, a permanent reminder that our world was shattered early one cloudy morning when the Chilean military took over power and did what the military do: kill.

And kill they did, but also arrest and torture myriads of men and women whose only crime was to think differently. Thinking became dangerous to this modern age inquisition that allowed no criticisms and declared the obsolescence of happiness. But brave and stubborn people decided to think and smile and even try to be happy amidst all the horror around them. We were convinced that life could conquer death. Besides, many of us could not really believe what we heard from friends or what was being talked about in the streets, for, how could human beings commit such atrocities? How was it possible that something like this was happening in Chile? Where did the snowcapped mountains go, the beautiful rainforests, our kindness and solidarity?

We just did not want to believe that Chileans would do that to other Chileans, to their friends, neighbors, relatives. But they did and now, standing naked and tied up in the middle of my hometown marines’ garrison, the full scope of the military coup struck me. As did the electric shocks applied to different parts of my body, making me shake and scream with such force that your veins seemed to explode amidst the pain. You can’t tame electricity, it tames you; you can’t fight electricity, it dominates you. You can’t ignore electricity, it takes over every corner of your body. It burns your flesh, your heart and your soul. Above all, it makes you scream so loud that butterflies and pelicans stop their flight to look over their shoulders raffled by the disturbing yelling. It’s like someone else shouting, a guttural sound that comes out of your mouth, but it’s not your mouth. A metallic blow that takes you by surprise every time, because no matter how prepared you think you are, the fulminating lashing reminds you that you are not in control.

And they know it, the torturers know it is them who are in control and they rejoice at their newly found power. Then the lashing comes again to make one shiver with the freezing coldness of death whilst they laugh at your suffering and bewilderment. As they probably laugh when they take their children to the local square to play or when they kiss their girlfriends after making love. It’s the horrifying reality that torturers are ordinary men and women who lead ordinary lives by day, but become monsters at night, because they have power. And they used it to kick and punch you, to shout at you, to frighten you. They had been deprived of all their humanity and tried to deprive us of all our humanity. However, in the overwhelming loneliness and darkness of our cells, we could still smile and cry, remember our loved ones and dream of freedom. We refused to be dehumanized, for no one had the right to think for us, to breath for us, to transform us into mere ghosts. This, we could not allow to happen, so, whenever we could, we would force a smile or stand up and walk even if our entire body ached. It was our own revenge in the face of the military’s brutality.

The military were waging a war against an unarmed people, but we were waging our own war: the war for survival. It wasn’t courage or heroism, but simply the basic instinct to live. For that we needed to smile, to believe that there was a future after hell. They could take away our clothes, but never our dignity; they could take away all of our belongings, but never our capacity to dream. We had to convince ourselves that one day this madness would be over, that sooner rather than later our country would recover its sanity. It was the only way to bear the permanent shouting, the constant crying, the pain and the anguishing tears of those defenseless women raped by naval officers. I could only whisper a word of support and solidarity for them, although, I knew that nothing would save them from their horrifying ordeal. I wish I could’ve done something else, but I couldn’t; I wish I hadn’t been there, but I was. I wish the military had never overthrown a democratically elected government and installed a dictatorship for seventeen years, but they did. I wish I had never been tortured, but I was. I wish torturers had been brought to trial to pay for their crimes, but they weren’t.

So, thirty years later, I walk my hometown streets fearing that one day, around any corner I may run into one of them. And this, too, is another form of torture.

TITO TRICOT is a Sociologist and Director of the Center for Intercultural Studies (ILWEN) in Chile. He can be reached at: tricot@ilwen.cl