50 years since Pinochet’s coup in Chile

To mark fifty years since General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile, carried out on 11 September 1973, we carry this poem by Janet Sillett.

The disappeared

By Janet Sillett

Stooping women searching
in the arid sand of Atacama Desert
bone fragments meticulously cleaned
the loudest of silences

The baked earth releases
fossilised fish
Indian carvings
mummified remains from past brutality

Drained of moisture, the clear air
captures the light of dead stars
the women’s loss, as infinite as galaxies,
unbounded as the barren moonscape

Astronomers trace time and space
for echoes of our history
in the relentless wind
the absolute darkness of the night sky

On Christmas Day - the women
strew the land with red carnation flowers
they listen to the past as time stills
they hear the morning birds

Janet wrote this poem some time ago, moved by the events she describes below which explain the context.

The mothers, sisters and wives of 26 men murdered by Pinochet in the 1973 US-backed coup in Chile against the elected government of Salvador Allende travelled daily to the Atacama Desert to search for their bodies.

Their husbands, sons, and brothers had been executed on 19 October,1973. The women were never given back the bodies in their town in the far north of Chile. They searched for 17 years for a mass grave by digging through the sand.

The women finally learned where the 26 men were buried in July 1990, but the mass grave contained only crushed remains and bone fragments after the military dug up the bodies and disposed of them in the Pacific Ocean in 1975.

Over the next decades the women learned more of what happened as technology evolved and DNA testing allowed more victims to be identified. Some remains and victims have never been matched.

A 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light (Spanish: Nostalgia de la luz) by Patricio Guzmán, who also directed The Battle of Chile, addresses the lasting impacts of Pinochet’s dictatorship. It links the women’s search to that of the astronomers working at the huge observatory in the desert near where the women are searching.

The astronomers are searching the cosmos and dead stars for answers to the origins of life; the women are searching for answers about their relatives and to what happened in Chile’s recent past.

The film highlights their shared struggle to understand the past and to search continually for truth and meaning. Film critic Dennis West interprets the opening sequence of the film as a metaphor for shedding light on the past by exploring its visible traces in the present: the film illuminates “subjects often difficult to see [without] the light of truth, of knowledge, of memory, of justice.”

The documentary includes interviews and commentary from those affected and from astronomers and archaeologists.

One young astronomer, whose parents disappeared, says in the film: “Astronomy has helped me give another dimension to the pain and loss.”

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