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Chile preserves its tortured past in new museum dedicated to country’s victims of human rights abuses

By Pamela Morales

SANTIAGO, CHILE — Some 20 people stood silently in a small, black-walled room staring at a dozen television monitors playing testimonials from torture victims. One woman remembering bleeding from her nose, ears, mouth, vagina and thinking she would die.
Another recalling she, her mother and sister were all tortured in the same room.

The glare from the black and white videos changing from one to the next gives the room an eerie feel. The metal bed and wooden box housing wires connected to a rusty battery — equipment used to torture political dissidents at Chile’s National Stadium — a stark reminder of a dark period in Chile’s history.

The military coup of Sept. 11, 1973 ousted Socialist President Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet as head of a military dictatorship. According to government studies carried out after the dictatorship more than 3,000 political dissidents were killed or “disappeared” and another 27,000 tortured during Pinochet’s 17-year regime.

Bachelet at the Memory Museum.jpg

The Memory and Human Rights Museum, which opened on January 12, 2010, is dedicated to the victims of human rights abuses during the 1973 -1999 military dictatorship, the first of it’s kind in South America.

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet studies the “Wall of the Disappeared” at the Memory Museum. (Photo: Government of Chile)

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet – herself tortured during the dictatorship – promised the project would be completed before the end of her term. The suffering would not be forgotten, she said nor the demand for justice abandoned.

The US$20million project collected photos, artifacts and government documents, as well as, testimonials from victims for the museum displays. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classified the museums archives a “Patrimony of Humanity.”

Museum security guards said a crowd gathered an hour before the doors were first opened to the public and estimated 1,500 visitors a day in the first week.

The site is visually striking. A gleaming three-story cement and glass building with a sheen of oxidized copper stands contrasting the early 1900s architecture of the surrounding area.

A mural by artist Jorge Talca, inspired by the last poem written by Chilean folksinger and poet Victor Jara marks one entrance. Jara, a vocal Allende supporter, was jailed in of one of the soccer stadiums used to hold and torture prisoners. He was brutally murdered just days after the military coup. A fellow prisoner secreted his last poem out of the stadium.

A wave of natural light pours in on the stunning three-story wall of the “disappeared” – photographs of the more 1,000 people who were taken into custody and never seen again.

Photographs of people held face down by military police are displayed alongside government issued documents authorizing detentions. One case holds an order for the detention of a dozen people, next to it three death certificates matching names on the list.


José Guzman, visiting the museum for the first time recognized his friend Alejandro Iglesia Figeroa in a photo of Chileans seeking asylum at the Italian embassy.

An outdoor view of Chile’s Memory Museum, the first museum in South America to dedicated to victims of human rights abuses.

“He was a musician,” said Guzman. “I was able to visit him once in Rome, but he wouldn’t ever come back here. He died a few years ago.” Guzman, a civil service worker at the time of the coup worked across from the Presidential Palace at the Moneda and remembers being holed up in his office until the violence had subsided enough to sneak out.

The top floor of the museum is dedicated to temporary exhibits and currently displays art inspired by the dictatorship era.

A large woven piece is dedicated to Carmen Quintana and Rodrigo Rojas. The two were taken into custody by an army patrol on their way to a national protest in 1986.

Farmers found their bodies, covered with burns, in a ditch several days later. Quintana was 17 at the time. She recovered from burns that covered most of her body. Rojas, 19 and a US resident living in Washington D.C. was visiting family in Chile. He died from his injuries.

“We can’t change our past, we can only learn from it,” said Bachelet at the inauguration ceremony. Adding, “The museum is founded on our shared promise to never again suffer through the tragedy that, in this place, we will always remember.”


(Editor’s note: As a result of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake suffered by Chile on February 27, 2010, the Memory and Human Rights Museum suffered only minor damage to some of the installations that museum officials were able to repair. The building itself did not suffer any structural damage.)


Learn more about Pamela

Pamela was born in Osorno Chile but grew up gringa in Cleveland, Ohio. She spent many years working in publishing, both for publishers and a software developer catering to the industry.


After four wonderful years in Toronto she had a choice: stay on the corporate train headed to Phoenix, Arizona or get off. She (and her fantastic husband) closed their eyes, sold all their belongings, and jumped. She now resides in Chile, writing and reconnecting with her Chilean roots.

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