From our special correspondent
For Elizabeth and Hilda, it’s a habitual gesture, a routine that’s always a little sad despite the years that pass by: like every time they have the opportunity to make their quest known, the two women hang on the lapel of their coat black and white photos topped with simple words: “Where are they?” » Elizabeth helps her friend stare at the portrait of Carlos, an eternally elegant young man in a suit and tie, hair slicked back. Below the photo, a date: January 18, 1975, the day of his disappearance, sixteen months after the coup d’état of September 11, 1973. Since then, Hilda has never stopped looking for him. It was her husband.
Elizabeth lost two of her brothers. Hector Ernaldo, the youngest, has not been heard from since his arrest at the beginning of November 1973, a few weeks after the military junta took power. “Our family was known, back home in Villarica, for its commitment to the left,” says Elizabeth. After the overthrow of Salvador Allende, a German family, Nazis who arrived after the war, led the soldiers to our home. » Hector Ernaldo was taken on board, for an unknown destination. As for the eldest, Hector Heraldo, who had gone into hiding, he had already fled, finding refuge in Argentina. Before falling in 1977 into the clutches of the Condor, the collaboration plan of the South American dictatorships against the “subversives”.
To escape the unhealthy atmosphere of Villarica, Elizabeth’s family ended up settling in the first large city in the north, Concepcion, on the road which runs towards Santiago between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range. Within the Agrupacion de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos, which brings together the relatives of the disappeared, his mother fought to find out what had happened to her sons, with the only help of the Church to break this solitude. Elizabeth ended up taking over. “From 1978, the families of the disappeared began to meet every Wednesday in this room of the archbishopric of Concepcion,” explain Hilda and Elizabeth. An incessant quest to extract every last bit of information. “We didn’t have time to cry,” Hilda says, shaking her head.
Despite the return of democracy in the early 1990s, this quest has never stopped. Long anxious not to offend the military – the dictator Augusto Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean army until 1998 – the State remained cautious, allowing a “pact of silence” to be established between the military in the hands of dirty. As time passed, lawyers and judges were able to take action and support the families, while the State remained largely a spectator. Of the approximately 1,500 people who disappeared during the regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) – in addition to the 3,200 victims of the regime – only 307 remains have been found and identified.
But is the tide finally about to turn? On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état, the government of Gabriel Boric announced a vast research plan financed by public funds, an unprecedented commitment by La Moneda to try to find those who were absent. “The only way to build a future that is freer and more respectful of life and human dignity is to know the whole truth,” declared the president in early September, launching this initiative during a ceremony organized near the palace. presidential.
The families were involved in the development of the plan, Hilda and Elizabeth met with the authorities. And a few days before the anniversary of the coup d’état, the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Luis Cordero, went to Concepcion to discuss this perhaps decisive turning point. “The region suffered greatly from repression,” explains Edgardo Carabantes, professor of history at the University of La Serena. It was a region marked on the left. The Revolutionary Left Movement, the MIR, sworn enemy of the military, was born at the University of Concepcion. » In November 1971, Fidel Castro, visiting Chile, stopped at this university to meet the students, and those of the MIR in particular. South of Concepcion, the towns of Coronel and Lota were centers of the mining industry and unions. In 1971, Salvador Allende went to Lota to announce the nationalization of the mining company.
The plan presented by the government aims to reconstruct the trajectory of the victims, after their detention and disappearance. Who stopped them? Where were they taken? Until now, the main obstacle to the search for the missing has been the lack of cooperation from the armed forces. Family associations accuse them of having all the information but refusing to give it in the name of a “pact of silence”.
Some want to hope that tongues will be loosened, especially as the death of the actors approaches, willing to ease their conscience. Others are counting on the government to break the silence. Or to break a deadlock: the secrecy surrounding the Valech report, dedicated to the approximately 40,000 people tortured under Pinochet. Published in 2004, it only includes the names of the victims. Their testimonies, with names and dates, had been placed under seal for fifty years. The government of Gabriel Boric, which bowed on the day of its inauguration in front of the statue of Salvador Allende, the socialist president overthrown on September 11, 1973, thought aloud about the best way to end this confidentiality – with agreement of the victims.
“The government can do a lot of things,” assures Hilda. In Concepcion, for example, bones were found twenty years ago. They are with the coroner, but no request has been made by the courts. » But for her, as for Elizabeth, time is running out. On Wednesday afternoon, fewer and fewer people are gathered around the table on the first floor of the archbishopric of Concepcion.