The bus driver looked confused when I asked him if he was going past the “Parque de la Paz” (the Peace Park) until he realised that I was looking for somewhere better known by its former name, as Villa Grimaldi. He waved us off at the right stop and we stood, hesitating in front of the main gates.
Tucked away in a Santiago suburb, Villa Grimaldi had been a secret torture, execution and detention centre run by Chile’s military dictatorship, which seized control of the country and deposed (many believe murdered) President Salvador Allende in 1973. Over 4500 kidnapped people are thought to have passed through its gates, including many from neighbouring countries whose dictatorships also wanted them to be silenced. At least 239 people who were brought here were never seen alive again.
Yet Villa Grimaldi was just one of a number of similar places. At the time, Chile had a population equivalent to London today. More than 4000 people were executed or ‘disappeared’, hundreds of thousands were detained and tortured, and almost a million fled the country.
In 2004, Villa Grimaldi was turned into a Peace Park to remember those who disappeared and to ensure that the activities of the military dictatorship are not forgotten.
We stepped through the gates into a quiet and simply landscaped garden, fragrant with jasmine.
I wandered into the rose garden and on first glance it looks much like any other, with the names of the types of roses written on cards next to each bush. Except that the names are not those of the roses but of each of the women who were brought here and never seen again.
I cried in the rose garden when I realised this. And I am crying now as I describe it to you.
I studied a map of Chile, which until now has been no more to me than a guide to one beautiful landscape or another. But this map showed where the bodies of people who had been tortured and murdered at Villa Grimaldi were systematically dropped from aeroplanes, along Chile’s dramatic coast, to wash away the evidence. It takes considerable effort to make a body sink in these circumstances, so a system had been devised to wrap up and weigh down the bodies to make this more certain.
Pablo Neruda is one of Chile’s most famous sons – he is suspected to also have been murdered at the behest of the military dictatorship – and a poignant section of his Canto General is on display (see below). Written long before the coup in 1973, it remains as relevant as ever. Brazil’s President Rousseff has just been ousted in a coup and Venezuela is in turmoil.
Pablo Neruda, from Canto General (translation below):
Yo no vengo a llorar aqui donde cayerons:
Vengo a vosotros, acudo a los que viven.
Acudo a ti y a mi y en tu pecho golpeo.
Cayeron otros antes. Recuerdas? Si, recuerdas.
Otros que el mismo nombre y appellido tuvieron.
I don’t come here to cry where they fell:
I come to you, I turn to those who live.
I turn to you and to me and your beating spirit.
Others fell here before. You remember? Yes, you remember.
Others who had the same name and surname.
Almost hidden, in the corner of the park, is the Room of Memories. In a building which had previously been used to house guard dogs; torture prisoners with electricity; and manufacture false credentials for agents of the dictatorship; the families of those who disappeared from here, or who were executed here, have filled this tiny room with small, personal items belonging to their missing loved ones.
The displays are carefully put together to share a little of what was special about each person. There were photos and pairs of glasses, membership cards, books and baby clothes. Across the decades, the belongings spoke to all five of us about the day to day lives and personalities of some of the people who had ended up at Villa Grimaldi. We could talk about who was in the photos and what their hobbies were, why they liked those earrings or treasured that particular book.
We had thought long and hard about taking our children to this memorial, knowing that it could be shocking and frightening, and that they were likely to see us upset. But at the same time, we wanted our travelling to introduce them to more than jaw-dropping glaciers and southern right whales and to include some of the social history and politics which never made it into the lessons I had at school.
The families of those who disappeared say it best:
“The people who disappeared from here or who were murdered here loved, created, sang, prayed, cried, played, wrote, read and, above all, fought for a better world… In other words, they lived, just like you and the people you love do.”