Chile's museum of terror and survival

SANTIAGO, Chile — “I’m not ready for this,” the 10-year-old boy said to his mother as she showed him around a hallway full of photos, press clips and videos testifying to Chile's 17 years of terror and repression during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The woman nevertheless took his hand gently and led him along the recently opened Memory and Human Rights Museum, explaining that the tens of thousands of documentary, film and photographic archives and art pieces, which to him were just history, represent a vivid and painful past for older generations.

The museum was inaugurated by President Michelle Bachelet in January, her last and probably greatest legacy in preserving Chile’s historical memory from oblivion before she leaves office in March.

The $24 million installation, located in a low-income district near downtown Santiago, houses donations from individuals, organizations and institutions that decided to hand over their artifacts for future generations to learn about Chile under military rule.

Juan Pablo Maldonado, a 25-year-old informatics engineer, said he found things there that he had never seen before. “Some people say that it’s best to forget the past, but I think it’s important we all know what really happened. I didn’t experience it myself, and I need to know more, I want to have as much information as possible. I want to be able to explain to my baby daughter later on what Chile was like then,” he said.

Handcrafts made by political prisoners, unseen footage of the first years following the 1973 coup, letters and drawings from children to their imprisoned parents, tools for torture, filmed testimony of human rights victims, legal documents, posters, clandestine publications and much more are displayed in two floors of the 62,000-square-foot building. A third floor will be used for temporary exhibits, seminars, talks and film showings. An underground hall, still in preparation, will hold a documentation center open to the public.

Monica Mesina traveled from her home town Valparaiso, 75 miles away from the capital, with her entire family to see it. The 44-year-old elementary school teacher was visibly shaken after touring the museum. She was a child at the time of the military coup, and a politically active teenager in the 1980s, when the first protests and strikes against dictatorship began.

“It was like going over my own past. I spent my teenage years fighting to recover democracy. It also made me remember the coup, the tanks on the streets, my parents burying things in the backyard, the sound of machine guns, soldiers raiding homes in our neighborhood,” she recalled.

Her children had no notion of any of this. “They were able to actually see the times in which their parents grew up, and I went around explaining them things. My eldest daughter was very shocked, she was near tears after reading the children’s letters,” she said.

Like Monica, thousands of people have flocked to the museum with their whole families, from babies to grandparents. By mid-February, the museum had received more than 45,000 visitors, according to its director, Romy Schmidt.

“This museum reflects the need of Chilean society to know, to see, to understand what happened between 1973 and 1990. We want to show the facts so people can develop their own opinion about what went on in here, without any ideological bias or distortion, just showing things as they were,” said Schmidt.

One of the first things visitors see on the first floor is television footage — part of it censored at the time — of the coup itself, the interior of the destroyed presidential palace and the repression that ensued. Dozens of people were glued to those screens, and in low whispers asked one another: “Where were you that day? What were you doing?”

Another video shows a heartbreaking interview with Joan Jara, the British-born wife of famed folk singer Victor Jara, shortly after his murder in September 1973. The young widow seems hypnotized by her own words, recounting her husband’s death and the enormous solidarity she and her two small daughters were receiving abroad.

Nearby, a collection of posters from all over the world testify to the broad international solidarity movement with Chile, followed by an exhibit of old passports stamped with: “Annulled: only valid for exiting country.” Those were the exiled.

A memo signed by secret intelligence chief Manuel Contreras requests that a Chilean man in exile be stripped of his nationality for “slandering” the regime. A visitor explains to his young daughter who Contreras was and that he is in prison now.

A metallic bed spring and electricity box with prongs used to torture prisoners dominate one corner of the museum. Above, a dozen screens rotate filmed testimonies from torture victims.

A wide-eyed woman watched clandestine video news reports from the time showing the military shoving blindfolded prisoners up trucks, throwing them on the ground and walking on top of them. “What happened to all those people? Just imagine — they could be your father, grandfather, uncle. That’s why this doesn’t ever end,” she told her companion.

On display are the personal objects of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, killed in a car-bomb attack in Washington, D.C., in 1976 ordered by Contreras. His family donated a notebook, a pen and the watch he was wearing at the time of his murder.

Artwork made by political prisoners includes an embossed sheet of copper depicting a pair of hands gripping the bars of a jail cell, made by Bachelet’s father. After the coup, Air Force Gen. Alberto Bachelet was jailed and tortured by his former subordinates, dying months later of a heart attack in his cell. His widow donated the handcraft to the museum; before, it had always hung on a wall in her apartment.