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Chile's museum of terror and survival

A new museum preserves Chile's painful past so future generations can learn about the years of military rule.

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.