This week the United Nations will convene world leaders to discuss topics from global warming to the spread of nuclear weapons. Among the meetings will also be the United Nations Human Rights Commission of which our South American neighbor, Chile, is a member.
Last month I was privileged to go to Chile with a small delegation from Human Rights Watch. Very often the delegations visit countries in which there are ongoing situations of human rights violations, like the wrongly named Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan or Angola to name a few in Africa. Or perhaps Kosovo, Mexico, Burma or Sri Lanka. This organization covers the world, and by focusing international attention where human rights are violated, gives voice to the oppressed, while holding the oppressors accountable for their crimes.
Our visit to Chile was an anomaly in that Chile has a very good record in human rights following the awful days of the Pinochet regime in which many people lost their lives and were "disappeared."
We had appointments and met with the Ministers of Finance, Economics and Foreign Affairs. We had a spectacular luncheon with President Michelle Bachelet . We discussed Chile's involvement in the U.N. and the stability of their country.
But the visit that made the largest impression on me was a trip to the feared Villa Grimaldi.
This detention and torture center was created and used during the Pinochet regime, and became one of the most frightening places in Santiago - a place where rape, torture and disappearances were common. Beginning around 1974, the Villa was used first as a headquarters for the Pinochet Intelligence Brigade, and then as its operations center. Operatives would bring prisoners there for initial interrogation, and then, use devices specifically designed for various types of torture. Besides electric shock, the interrogators used to submerge a prisoner's head in water, or hang them from a bar. Boiling water, beatings and occasionally drugs were also used to gather information.
The Villa administrators took our delegation for a tour and Gabriele Salazar; a survivor who managed to endure capture in this place joined us.
Gabriele stood before us, a small sight woman with a thick black braid that hung down the length of her back. We stood around her in front of a model of the Villa under glass. Gabriele's story began with the detention of both her and her husband on Dec. 31,1975 after they came home from celebrating the New Year. Blindfolded, she was put on a bus. As the bus bounced along, her blindfold slipped a bit, and she could see the massive gates in front of her and knew that, as she feared, the Villa was her destination.
As soon as she arrived she was stripped, raped and taken to one of the torture rooms. She said that rape was common --a lmost an initiation. All women were raped upon entering, and she was no exception. Then she was taken to a torture room, placed on a metal bed and given electric shock treatment. Next, she was taken to a tiny cell.
" They concentrated on various political groups. Immediately you were tortured and put on a metal bed and electricity was applied until you collapsed. Then they threw you down into this swimming pool and put your head under the water again and again. In the bottom of the tower, they held you down and strung you up like an animal. People were kept in little houses or towers. You could hear what was going on, even if you could not see. The guards ran over people in cars. They tortured them for 3-4 hours. Normally, you did not know what happened to people."
During the first two weeks, the guards brought the prisoners beautiful lunches, but she refused to eat. It was too contradictory. They took her to a hospital when it appeared she might die from malnutrition and gave her intravenous feedings until she regained her strength. She argued about this. And said, "Why? The faster I don't eat, the faster I die."
As she gave us a tour and showed us the where the cells, the tower and rooms had been, she wept. But she said that the few guards who had shown some kindness were the ones who made you believe in humanity.
Around us, the birds chattered constantly, telling their version of what they had seen. Of the 4,500 people who came through the Villa, 25% were women.
Gabriele said that over time some prisoners would find ways to illustrate their stay. They would draw stars, birds, and trees to remind them of freedom. She said they could often smell the roses outside through small cracks in the walls, and it was a harsh fact -- relief for some and pain for others. When asked how she managed to sustain torture, she said, " You don't know how you are going to be. You just do it one minute at a time. It's not in your head. It's in your heart. There is no ideology that will sustain you -- just heart.
"I come every time people ask to this place because of them [the ones who died] -- because I am alive. I owe my life to them and all who fought. I knew as many others did, that because of your work [human rights] people knew we were here, and alive. We knew eventually there would be accountability. We knew we weren't forgotten. Human Rights helped keep us alive. It is very important. In the end, it changed me. I am whom I am because of what happened. "
Gabriele had two years of psychological treatment after she was released. She is witness for at least seven people who died or disappeared.
As we left through the main gates, the ghosts of the disappeared and departed swirled among us. It was cold. We could feel their spirits. We will remember.