Chilean Chronicles, Part 98: On Angela Bachelet Jeria and Bearing Witness

Michelle Bachelet hugs her mother Angela Jeria at the Villa Grimaldi compound where they both were detained during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Michelle Bachelet hugs her mother Angela Jeria at the Villa Grimaldi compound where they both were detained during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Bearing witness is the call and burden of the trauma survivor, but not all choose to accept it.

Angela Bachelet Jeria has done just that, though, for nearly 40 years.

The trained archaeologist’s life was changed permanently and fundamentally by the Pinochet coup in September 1973.

Her husband Alberto, an Air Force general, stayed loyal to President Salvador Allende and the Constitution.

For that decision he was detained and tortured for several months. In 1974 he died of heart problems that Judge Mario Carrozo said were caused by his torture.

The death of a husband at the hands of his former comrades and friends would have been more than enough for many to bear, and her troubles were just beginning.

On January 10, 1975, along with her daughter Michelle, a popular and politically active student, she was blindfolded and taken to the notorious Villa Grimaldi compound, according to the website ThisisChile.cl. It that was the largest of the network of such sites run by the DINA, or Pinochet’s secret police

Mother and daughter were separated.

Both endured interrogation and torture.

Michelle Bachelet was confined to a cell with bunk bed with eight other female prisoners.

Angela Bachelet Jeria was held in “the tower,” an infamous area within the camp that is located near a pool where the torturers’ children used to play. She was kept for nearly a week without food or water.

Both women were transferred to the Cuatro Alamos detention center, where they stayed until the end of January, the web site said.

After being spared death due to their connections with high-ranking military officers, the pair were released and lived in exile Australia, and East Germany.

Jeria, the widow and torture survivor, worked from abroad to bring about the demise of the regime that had robbed her of her husband and the country of a democracy.

She has continued that fight through Pinochet’s defeat in the 1988 plebiscite, through the restoration of democracy, through her daughter becoming the nation’s first elected female president, and through the flurry of memory-related activity around the fortieth anniversary of the coup in September.

I first saw her at a memorial event that she attended at Villa Grimaldi in September with her daughter. The former president’s emotions were visible as she wiped a tear from her eye, even as a bevy of cameras recorded her every move.

Looking fit and trim, with a full head of brown hair, Dr. Jeria seemed less visibly impacted by her latest return to the place where she had suffered so much.

But I wondered what was happening within her.

On Monday, I got a chance to learn the answer.

I saw Dr. Jeria, who had been erroneously introduced as the mother of the president, not ex-president, at the launch event for the 2013 annual report of the National Institute for Human Rights. Established during her daughter’s term as president, the institute issues an annual review of the state of human rights in the nation.

The event had had an uneven cadence.

Director Lorena Fries had delivered a frank assessment of the problems that still remain in the country, with the treatment of indigenous people, the practice of torture on those who are incarcerated and the issue of abortion heading the list.

President Sebastian Pinera arrived late, received a copy of the report and appeared ready to head off the stage before being asked if he would like to deliver some remarks.

He pulled a sheath of paper from a suit pocket and proceeded to deliver a nearly hour-long list of his administration’s accomplishments in the area of human rights as well as his top legislative priorities. This included lengthy sections on abortion and the nation’s indigenous which just minutes before had been among the chief topics in the report that he had praised and whose leader he had approved for another term.

A steady stream of whistling, heckling and banner raising accompanied the president as he spoke. He appeared to take note of the disruption, looking up at times from his paper and raising his voice, and generally he ploughed forward, seemingly unperturbed, if not openly indifferent.

The large security men in dark suits and neatly coiffed hair seemed far more uncomfortable, looking actively torn between restoring order by forcing the offenders to leave and exercising a restraint based on their knowledge that to do so would go even more directly against the event’s mission than the presidential appropriation of the stage he had been given.

Pinnera’s address ground on and on before he concluded with a call for everyone to remember that they were all Chileans and should not let differences stand between them.

The applause he received was tepid at best.

Dunreith and I moved gratefully into the reception area. I secured and gulped down a wine glass full of orange juice.

Then I saw Dr. Jeria.

Well dressed as always, this time in a brown pants suit.

I walked over and introduced myself, explaining that Dunreith and I had been in the country for five months and that I was at the tail end of a stint as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Diego Portales.

I told her that I had seen her at the Villa Grimaldi commemoration, that I admired her courage in being able to go back to the place that had been a site of such intense suffering for her.

She smiled, revealing a row of clean, white teeth that sat atop unreceded gums.

What had that been like, I asked.

Unlike the concentration camps of Eastern Europe, the camps here were destroyed by the perpetrators, she explained in a smooth, deep, melodic voice.. By going, we say that it happened and shouldn’t happen again.

We do this even though returning means that the memories of that dark, distant time are triggered anew.

Going there meant that she had to “revivir,” she said.

To live again.

I told her about our family’s history in Germany, how we had lost family members in the Holocaust, but also how we had returned with Dad in May of last year.

I let her know how much it meant to us that Dad had found it within himself to go back, to put himself back in that zone and time of memory and forgetting, how he did it in large part for us.

Dr. Jeria listened, nodding sagely and answering again in that even voice. For a minute I felt young and small, like I was talking to a grandmother who understood everything.

She asked me for a card and read it after I handed it to her.

More people were gathering around her to hug and embrace, to gain strength from her unbowed generosity and clarity of purpose.

I caught her eye again and told her it was good to meet before we left.

She smiled again and we squeezed each other’s hand.

Angela Bachelet Jeria was in the process of fulfilling her duty of memory and truth for the day.

More awaited.

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