In 1973, Victor Jara was Chile's leading singer/songwriter, the local equivalent of Bob Dylan and more.
When Gen. Augusto Pinochet's coup came -- September 11th, 1973 -- tens of thousands of people considered threats to the regime -- activists, union organizers, teachers, playwrights, and many who had nothing to do with politics at all but were just rounded up by mistake -- were arrested. The country's biggest football stadium became a giant internment camp.
Less than 24 hours into the coup, Victor Jara was arrested in a mass round-up at the university where he was working. He was recognized by the guards and kept in a group of prisoners considered of special interest.
For three days, he was held captive and tortured, while around him fellow prisoners were beaten, deprived of food and sleep, and sometimes simply gunned down in fits of madness. Given the army's interest in him, Jara must have known he would never leave the building alive.
But to the end, Jara defied his captors, who at one point broke his hands, mocking him with orders to play his guitar. And still, Jara tried to rally his fellow captives' spirits -- at least once by singing, in full voice, from deep in the locker rooms turned into torture chambers, loud enough for other prisoners in the crowded arena to hear, still giving them heart with his voice.
On September 15th, he wrote what would become his last words, knowing he was soon to die, and that his loved ones were facing years of danger. Even with broken hands, Jara still found the strength to write one last poem, hoping that someday he might share even this, telling us that these things do happen, warning us, crying on our shoulders, communicating with people whose faces he would never see. The words are desperate and despairing. But writing them... was a final act of hope. For all of us.
Jara's final words, loosely translated:
How hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living, horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much and so many moments of infinity
In which silence and screams are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment...
And just as his poem turned toward renewal -- even now, turning toward hope -- Jara was picked out by guards. As he was taken away, he shuffled the scraps of paper to another prisoner, who eventually smuggled the words out in his shoe. Jara was machine-gunned to death moments later.
Last week -- almost thirty-five years later, and nearly two decades after the end of the dictatorship -- a Chilean court has found a retired colonel, Mario Manriquez Bravo, guilty in the murder of Victor Jara.
Unfortunately, they also closed the case, despite the clear involvement of numerous others. The Jara family's attorneys believe that the court is still protecting the rest for political reasons. Now come appeals.
Some justice may come in any case. The names of Jara's killers will be forgotten by history.
Jara's memory will live on.
Much more, including photos from my own recent visits to the football stadium and Jara's resting place, over at my own site.