Victoria Saavedra

SANTIAGO, CHILE (WOMENSENEWS)–Tears well in her eyes as she peruses the black-and-white photographs and listens to a familiar female voice singing a mournful song of remembrance.

“Where are the ones who were?” goes the refrain, sung by her friend, Isabel Aldunate.

Victoria Saavedra is among the tens of thousands of people who lost relatives during the military regime in Chile. Many of the ones left behind are women who have persisted in a long search effort.

Thirty-one years later, many are still searching for the bodies . . . and for justice.

Saavedra, now 52, was a university student when her brother, Jose Saavedra, then studying to be an elementary school teacher, was detained by the military in 1973.

Although his body has never been found, she is certain he was the victim of the “Caravan of Death” campaign–one of the many campaigns that left 2,000 dead, and almost 1,200 unexplained disappearances–during the regime of General Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.

Twenty-six men disappeared from her community of Calama, in Chile’s northern Atacama Desert, on October 19, 1973.

Digging in the Sand

The Chilean military is rumored to have buried their men in the vast desert sands around Calama. So their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, took out their picks and shovels, and began digging systematically, in search of their loved ones.

They have since come to accept that they may never find their remains. Instead, they’ve turned their search towards the courts. They want those responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones to be put to trial and serve time in jail.

Saavedra was reunited with many of the women from her community at the launch of a photo exhibit in Santiago. She is one of those who has since moved away from Calama, but she has kept in touch with these women, with whom she shared years bonded by grief and digging together in the desert sands outside her home town.

Saavedra can be seen in many of the photographs at an exhibit that documents the women’s pain-staking 17-year search, in what is considered the driest desert in the world.

These photographs are now being seen around the world as part of an international six-year campaign by Amnesty International, to promote awareness about violence against women. Currently in Santiago, the exhibit will move to Valparaiso, Chile, in December. Organizers expect to show it in Australia in early 2005. The photos were shown in Calama last month, for the 31st anniversary of the disappearances.

“There’s a kind of perpetual torture, mental torture and suffering that goes on for these women who continue to search for their men and for years and years after their men are gone,” says Paula Allen, the U.S. photojournalist who took the pictures on view in the exhibit. “It’s a big piece of violence against women, and I think that dictatorships use that particularly to affect women.”

She spent 15 years traveling to and from Chile, drawn by their tragic plight, which she discovered watching the documentary “Dance of Hope.” It became a labor of love, through which Allen developed a deep bond with many of the women.

Saavedra looks at the photograph of herself, sifting through the desert sand, with a plastic hand-held shovel, combing a site where the military was said to have secretly exhumed the bodies.

She remembers hoping that she could recover just one fragment of her brother. “When you lose someone and you don’t know where they are, you can’t have closure, or a true mourning,” she says. “That mourning is so important, because otherwise you continue to wonder ‘what if they didn’t kill him,’ ‘what if he’s still alive?’ And that uncertainty kills you inside.”

In a covert night-time operation in 1995, these women, and human rights activists believe the Chilean military exhumed the bodies buried beneath the desert and then incinerated them.

A gaping hole in the desert was the visible testament of their mass grave theory. But while that has never been corroborated by the military, the women nonetheless found traces of teeth and bone fragments, which they say are leftovers from the rushed operation and submitted them to the Legal Medical Institute of Chile for DNA tests. Forensic scientists were able to identify 13 men; half of those who believed to have been buried there.

Saavedra was one of the lucky ones. The women, as it turned out, had found a piece of her brother’s nose and forehead, with the bullet still lodged in place.

Search for Justice

She says it gave her piece of mind after years of searching. But the certainty of his fate didn’t bring her struggle to a close. After so many years of searching for the body, she began to search for justice.

Although it’s been 14 years since the end of military rule in Chile, 300 police and military officers are currently before the courts, facing various charges related to murders and kidnapping. But no one has ever served time for murders or torture, because of a 1978 amnesty law decreed by Pinochet, which covers crimes that took place between 1973 and 1978.

In early October, Chile’s Supreme Court concluded hearings in a historic appeal of that amnesty law based on the disappearance of political dissident Miguel Angel Sandoval. Their ruling is expected sometime this month. Lawyers estimate 500 people could face prosecution if the appeal is successful.

The justice system has even managed to touch Pinochet himself. He had his immunity revoked in May, was interrogated by a judge in September and faced a barrage of medical exams in October. Now, formal murder charges against Pinochet are said to be days away–a feat unimaginable just months ago.

Juana Sepedra, also from Calama, says Pinochet is the one ultimately responsible for the disappearance of her husband Manuel. She says while recent cases are bringing her hope, she doubts the former dictator will ever serve time.

Sepedra is skeptical that Pinochet will ever go to jail, yet she sees the potential indictment as a bit of justice.

“I want him to pay for what he did while he’s still alive, because I think that even if he never goes to jail, at least he’s living that condemnation now, in flesh and blood.”

Human rights organizations, which had shared the let-downs of so many decisions in the past, hailed the legal developments, as evidence of a building momentum, which is now bearing fruit.

“The work of human rights organizations and lawyers is the landmark of this decision,” says Sergio Laurenti, director of Amnesty International, Chile. “It proves that when people organize and work together . . . it may affect the course of justice; which is a big thing to be said in this part of the world because usually justice is on the side of the powerful.”

Meanwhile, Saavedra expresses a cautious optimism as she goes through yet another emotional rollercoaster ride. “The first time Pinochet was (detained in London and) stripped of his immunity, we had great hope,” she says. “We thought we’d get justice. But it wasn’t so. That’s why this time we don’t want to have any illusions. Over the years, we’ve acquired the gift of patience.”

Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist who returned to her mother’s homeland a year ago, to tell its untold, or under-told, stories.

For more information:

Amnesty International–Stop Violence Against Women
Flowers in the Desert Exhibit: