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The Disappeared

Santiago, Chile

sunny 20 °C

I am trying to keep up with the archetypal grave digger as he hobbles at speed down Bernard O'Higgins allee at the General Cemetery in Santiago. I thought I was making progress with my Spanish, but his Chilean accent is broad and fast and I have trouble understanding him as he motions onwards. I have to trust him as he leads me further and further into the labyrinth.

My guidebook says that there a several notable graves in this cemetery but there is no map at the gate and the man on 'reception' flails his hands in a general direction when I ask him where they are. So, when the grave digger approaches me "Victor Jara?", I nod and follow. It's an enormous sprawling cemetery the biggest I've visited in south America and the usual mix of family tombs, graves and niches for ashes.

We walk through fields of new graves festooned with balloons, plastic windmills, football flags, streamers and flowers. Judging by the graves the Santiago support is equally divided between: Club Universidad de Chile and Colo-Colo. We arrive at Victor's original niche which is covered in graffiti. He is a guitarist who was tortured and killed by Pinochet during his coup d'etat in 1973 and reportedly his right arm cut off. We carry on to his new resting place - a magnificent tomb built when he was re interred in 2009. Here people have left guitars, spliffs, woven bracelets and messages, it's all very reminiscent of Jim Morrison's grave in Paris.

The grave digger is letting me take photos under his supervision although the man at the gate said no photos. There is an implicit understanding that I will tip him well and he will square it with his compatriot diggers. We move on to the monument to the Disappeared, this is in two parts: a massive wall with all the names of the people who were disappeared under the Pinochet regime and a vast area of metal crosses with no names on, one for each person. The latter I find most moving as the crosses are rusted and stand in in a field of yellowing long grass, and in turn this field is adjacent to the new graves. They are billowing and waving and streaming in the wind as the crosses stand unadorned bearing witness to the atrocities.

In international human rights law, a forced disappearance occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person's fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law. In Chile during this time 28,000 were tortured, 2,279 were executed and around 1,248 continued as Disappeared. In addition around 200,000 people have suffered exile and an unknown number (hundreds of thousands) would have gone through clandestine centers and illegal detention.

We find Salvador Allende's monument, the democratically elected socialist president that Pinochet deposed and who died during the coup. And not too far away is the Pinochet family tomb. Both Allende and Jara are both important figures in contemporary Chile as reflected in their new funerary monuments. Pinochet, on the other hand, was cremated in Concón in 2006, on his request to "avoid vandalism of his tomb,". His ashes are deposited in one of his personal residences as the armed forces refused to allow his ashes to be deposited on any military grounds.

We meander back at pace to the front gate of the cemetery. The grave digger stops short and looks at me. Our eyes meet and I know this is the moment that I reach into my wallet and hand over a large bill to thank him. Then I stop short as I realise that I only have a 20,000 Chilean Peso note worth 25GBR and that I can't possibly ask him for change even if I was able. I hand it over and am rewarded with the biggest smile I've seen in a long time...

Posted by AlisonLeahy 03:36 Archived in Chile

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