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A walk with the ghosts of Chile's September 11



The cemetery was like a dreamscape. I wasn't sure that I was in the right place except that I had followed the cementerio signs from the subway and was standing at the gates.

Patio 29Inside was another, smaller, world. I was reminded of the China Mieville novel where the two cities coexist within each other. Through the gate I could see a miniature Santiago de Chile, complete with elaborate mansions, low rise buildings, wide avenues, back lanes, and throngs of people moving among the concrete, overgrown gardens, and dust.

I walked in warily. Cemeteries are sensitive places the world over. A few years ago, I stood near Bobby Sand's grave in Belfast nervously watching a police car pass by me slowly. These places are filled with emotion, shared memories, and conflicting versions of the past.

I knew that it was not going to be easy to find the grave I was looking for that afternoon. The sun sat high above the nearby mountains as I finished the last of my water. It was 2pm and I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Perhaps this was foolish, I thought, as I looked around hopefully for some kind of a sign. There wasn't one.

I don't speak Spanish but I knew that I had to try to ask someone. It wasn't an appealing idea. I felt like an intruder. The crowds of people roaming among the endless streets here were the bereaved. They were here to visit their loved ones, not help me tick a box on my tourist adventure.

However, I had little choice. It had been over an hour. I wasn't sure that I could even find my way back to the entrance. I stopped a friendly looking middle aged man.

'Victor Jara,' I said. 'Donde?'

He smiled and said a lot of things in Spanish while gesturing in a particular direction. I thanked him and headed the way he had pointed. It was hopeless. I took out my phone and typed 'jara grave santiago' into Google.


"I suddenly felt ridiculous. It was like writing down the name of a concentration camp and waving it around in a German city."


I didn't find a map but there was a reference to his grave in an article about the Pinochet era. It mentioned the proximity to the notorious Patio 29, where the general's victims had been dumped into unmarked plots. I shivered at the thought of one more staging ground for the regime's atrocities. I had already seen several.

So I had a number. I found a small metal sign in front of the nearest section. 420. Next to it was 76 and next to that one was 125. I tried to find some kind of order where none existed. I wrote 29 down on a page in my notebook, determined to show it to the next friendly looking person I saw.

A young woman shrugged before walking away. An old man seemed annoyed by the question. He pointed vaguely in yet another direction. I suddenly felt ridiculous. It was like writing down the name of a concentration camp and waving it around in a German city. Victor Jara and the events of 1973 were far from a comfortable topic in Chile.

Victor was a Chilean folk singer, associated with the Nueva Cancion movement of the 1960s. He had grown up very poor and identified strongly with the socialist politics of Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity movement. When Allende became President, Victor Jara was a well know supporter who played regularly at rallies. On 11 September 1973, Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet in an US backed coup. Thousands, including Jara, were rounded up and taken to a football stadium in Santiago. Victor Jara, along with many others, was tortured and eventually murdered. He remains one the best known of Pinochet's countless victims and an international symbol of the terrible toll of America's lousy foreign policy.

Chile remains a traumatised country. I was reminded of Cambodia. There is a desperate desire for some kind of closure while at the same time wishing to ensure the story is not forgotten. Fences now surround the Moneda Palace where Allende died on that day. The footage of its aerial bombing and the recording of the president's final speech from within it make for an eerie and no doubt controversial site.

But now I was hungry and my head hurt from too much sun and too little water. I started to think about leaving. A woman, perhaps in her 70s, approached me smiling.

'Victor Jara?' she said.

'Yes!' I said, 'I mean Si.'

She gestured for me to follow her and I did. Within a minute I was standing in front of a small stone plaque placed in a wall among many others. It was painted red and adorned with flowers and graffiti. It said, simply, 'Victor Jara, Septiembre 14 1973'. So much weight in so few words, I thought.

I thanked my rescuer with all of the Spanish I could summon. She smiled and walked away, leaving me to ponder Victor and September 1973. I took some pictures and left a guitar pick that I had in my wallet alongside those left by others.

When I turned to leave I found the woman who had led me to the grave still there. I smiled and thanked her again. She pointed across the road to a vast section of the cemetery that was overgrown and appeared neglected. The markers were all crosses made out of iron. I noticed that some had photocopied pictures of people attached to them.

'Two Nine,' she said, in English.

I nodded, realising I was looking at Patio 29. She said a few things that I didn't understand and I wondered if she knew someone that had disappeared. Of course she did, I thought. Everyone must have known at least one person who ended up here. I wish I could have understood her. But in a way, I guess I did.


Tony Thompson headshotTony Thompson is a Melbourne based writer and former teacher. His articles on education have appeared in The Age and he has written two books for teenagers which were published by Black Dog Books.

Topic tags: Tony Thompson, Victor Jara, Pinochet, Chile, 9-11



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Existing comments

Thanks Tony for reminding us of Victor Hara, who died September 14th 1973. At N.P.I in Melbourne in 1978 our directors Rosemary and Jim read us a poem which told of the torture Victor Hara experienced and the song he sang as he died. I still have the copy of the poem , yellow with age but still readable.This poem and the bravery of the man in fighting for justice has stayed with me over the years. Even though his grave may be untended the memory of that struggle still shines brightly in the cultural history of those who were exposed to details of his heroism.I am very grateful for those great educators like Rosemary and Jim, poets and writers like you Tony who keep telling these stories of inspiration. Let's certainly keep the stories alive.Rest in peace Victor Hara. God bless the people of Chile.

Celia | 14 September 2016  

"And in December 2012, in one of the most dramatic and emblematic of Chile’s unresolved human rights cases, Chilean judge Miguel Vasquez indicted seven former military officers and a conscript for the execution of the internationally renowned Chilean troubadour Victor Jara. The indictment provided new details on how Jara was shot forty-four times in the Estadio Chile sports stadium in the days following the coup. After the return to democracy in Chile, the stadium was renamed Estadio Victor Jara." Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (p. 499). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

Father John George | 14 September 2016  

Thirty-six years after his death, Chilean singer songwriter Víctor Jara had a proper funeral. A crowd of thousands[10000] of artists, public figures, fans and militants gathered on December 3 in Santiago [es] to pay homage to the musician, theatre director and activist who was murdered during Pinochet's military coup. The funeral was attended also by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Jara’s widow Joan Turner. User medrparada provided a video of the Chilean community marching in celebration down avenue Santos Dumont: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I00008kbRgWb1Iu4/fit=1000x750/PVH-Funeral-Victor-Jara-38.jpg

Father John George | 14 September 2016  

In 1964, Cheddi Jagan was dismissed as chief minister of British Guiana by the governor for refusing to resign after his party won a plurality of votes but a minority of seats. He was distrusted by the British for his Marxist-Leninist beliefs. There were riots. Nevertheless, he abided by the forces of circumstance for 28 years in legislative opposition, eventually exchanging Marxist-Leninism for a lesser socialism. He was elected president of now-independent Guyana in 1992 and died in office. His party won legislative majorities for 19 years and various party members (including his widow) occupied the presidency until 2015, a good political innings. Salvador Allende and Jara might have gone on relatively fruitfully to their natural ends, and other lives might have been spared, were it not for Allende's provocative brinkmanship. Death makes for revolutionary glamour and nostalgic history but the costs are high and people are still paying. The defeated radicals in Guyana opted for the stolid unromantic route of waiting for times to change (which, incidentally, is the non-liberation theology Christian route), at the end of which was success.

Roy Chen Yee | 15 September 2016  

Long may the name Victor Jara be remembered. Thomas Hauser's book "Missing" which was the basis for the film of the same name, supplies much useful background and analysis of the coup in Chile in September 1973. Sheila Cassidy's autobiographical account "Audacity to Believe" which recounts her treatment by the coup regime under Pinnochet is also worth reading. Joan Jara's book "Victor: an unfinished song" gives a more detailed personal account of the life of Victor Jara. And finally, like Celia, may I record my thanks to Jim and Rosemary, to Marg Woodward and other staff at NPI in 1979 for helping me to develop my education in social justice at an international level. Who could have imagined that I would pen these lines during a period of Australian history when our own government is guilty of the ill treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in breach of all of Australia's undertakings being a signatory to UN conventions.

Ern Azzopardi | 15 September 2016  

I was very moved to read about Tony's experience in Chile when he tried to find the grave of that wonderful Chilean musician and martyr, Victor Jara. Many years ago, I was the secretary of the Chile Solidarity Committee and worked with Chilean refugees who had escaped from the blood thirsty Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I had the opportunity to meet Joan Jara (nee Turner) in 1975 when she accompanied a musical group that Victor founded, Qilapayun. The group played many of Victor's songs and Joan recited the words of them in English - a very daunting task given that it was only 2 years after Victor's very brutal death. Joan and the group were inspirational. In 2004, I visited Chile with my wife and I felt very sorry for the people of Chile because they still did not trust their military and were afraid to play Victor Jara's political songs in public. As Tony said, the US played a dreadful role in Chile and Australia's ASIS helped with spying for the CIA. Dr Salvador Allende did much to ensure that the profits from Chile's resources were spent on the Chileans most in need. That is why he nationalised Chile's copper and the reason for CIA intrusion. The leadership of the Catholic Church was very courageous in supporting human rights in Chile. The only church organisation that supported Pinochet's brutal regime was Opus Dei.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 17 October 2016  

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