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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.

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.