It was a brutal campaign of political repression coordinated by military dictatorships in South America in the 1970s in which tens of thousands were made to disappear. Operation Condor was spearheaded by the head of the Pinochet regime’s secret police and involved the security forces of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. And nearly four decades later, a court in Buenos Aires has begun an investigation into these events.
This week two Chilean women testified before the Argentine court. Both had siblings who had fled Chile after their country’s brutal 1973 military coup, only to later be arrested by Argentine security forces in 1976 and never seen again. One of these women is my friend and colleague Odette Magnet, and I am reprinting a speech she gave at New York University in 2004 about the effect her sister’s disappearance had on her family.
Good evening. Thank you for coming.
I never thought I would be here in front of you tonight. Never, not in my worst childhood nightmares, did I imagine I would accept the invitation to speak in New York City about the desaparecidos in Chile and Latin America.
Tonight I want to talk to you about a young couple: María Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini. They were both kidnapped from their apartment in calle Córdova, Buenos Aires, at dawn on July 16, 1976. They disappeared in the dark, surrounded by silence, leaving no trace. Both had escaped repression in Chile after the military took power through the fierce coup of September 11, 1973.
This is the first time I talk about them in public.
María Cecilia was my sister. The eldest of six siblings, she was 27 years old at the moment of her disappearance. She had been a member of the MAPU, a party that supported the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), the political coalition that was the backbone of Allende’s government. She had a bachelor in Sociology from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and, later studied Economics at the University of Chile, in Santiago.
Her husband, Willy, as everybody called him, was an Argentinian physician and a member of the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria). Separately, they both left Chile at the end of ’73 and traveled to Argentina. They were married in January, 1974, in Buenos Aires.
But the repressive wave turned out to be contagious in the region. In March, 1976, the Argentinian military took power with the full force of their tanks. Only four months later, Cecilia and Willy would disappear as victims of Operación Condor, a hideous but efficient net woven by the secret police of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay that would be responsible for the death of thousands and thousands of men and women. In each one of these countries, the military shared one purpose and the same obsession: exterminate the enemy. The enemy was the opposition, the dissidents, the terrorists at the time.
After eight years of military dictatorship, Argentina had 30,000 desaparecidos. 40 of them were Chileans.
I remember it was raining that afternoon in July when the phone rang at my home in Santiago. I lived with my parents then. I answered the phone. A woman with a frightened voice asked to speak with my father.
-Dad, it’s for you!-I shouted through the hallway.-
My father picked up the phone. I was by his side. My mother was in her bedroom. I remember he turned very pale, stuttered a couple of words, asked what kind of accident, said something I didn’t grasp and then he was silent, with the earphone in his hand. The woman had hung up on him.
My father flew to Buenos Aires as soon as he could. The atmosphere of terror took his breath away and tension was in the air. They had broken into their apartment, kidnapped Cecilia and Willy and stolen their belongings, food, everything they could get hold of. They left the books.
My sister’s wedding ring was later found under their bed.
The neighbors, paralyzed by fear, refused to talk. My father was advised not to go near the apartment. He could only find out that Cecilia and Willy were taken out of their home around 4 A.M. A young man witnessed how they were forced into a car, apparently, their own car. According to this source, Willy had shouted out his name and had been shot during this episode.
My father did everything within his reach at the time to find María Cecilia, her whereabouts and her husband’s. At the end, he tried to find an answer to a question that still haunts us. ¿Dónde están? Where are they?
Several days later he returned to Santiago empty handed.
From then on, like in many other cases, the versions of what happened were contradictory and confusing. During many years, we buried and unburied my sister and brother-in-law, according to what different sources had to say. There was this rumor that this doctor had found a message in a cell written by my sister. Supposedly, it said: “Tell Willy Tamburini that I am OK.” And then one day the rumors stopped and there were no more versions. None. As far as we know, there are no testimonies of other detainees having seen them in a torture camp.
But I do know that from different points of the Andes Mountains, many of the desaparecidos were launched into the vastness of the ocean, in the middle of the night, with their stomachs full of stones so they would not come up to the surface again. The executors of Operación Condor made no distinction of nationality, sex, race or religion. The enemy was only one. You are either with me or against me.
The Rettig Commission, created in Chile, in 1990, by President Patricio Aylwin, stated that, according to the information gathered, Guillermo Tamburini and María Cecilia Magnet disappeared because of human rights violations, and that Argentinian agents participated in their disappearance. The report also said that there were no elements that could lead to believe that agents of the Chilean state were responsible in this case.
During many years now my family has been waiting for compensation on behalf of the Argentinian state, as proof of their acknowledging the kidnapping and disappearance of my sister and her husband.
A presidential decree in October, 1989 pardoned 39 army officials that should have had a trial in a civilian court for those crimes committed during the “dirty war”. On December 29, 1990, Carlos Menem pardoned the leaders of the Military Juntas in Argentina, among other high ranking officials that were in jail because of their participation in several crimes. Former army general Carlos Suárez Mason was one of the officials pardoned by Menem. He had a trial pending and was accused of 39 charges of murder related to human rights violations.
Suárez Mason was one of the many people my father met with in July, 1976. He was then jefe militar de plaza en Buenos Aires. He told my father that his daughter was not in any list of detainees.
Twenty-eight years have gone by since my father received that phone call. I have seen many rainy days after that, and many things have changed. Nevertheless, the pain is still here, intact, raw. It has been said so many times that the wound is still open. It has become a cliché, I know, but that does not mean it is not true. The wound is still open. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. I did not ask to come and show you my wounds or talk to you about my pain.
Nevertheless, I am here for several reasons. First, because I believe that sharing is always gratifying and soothes the soul. Because it is here, in the plural form, in the invitation to listen and to be heard that one understands that we are not alone in our solitude, in our loss, in our profound grief. And that one can be useful, one can build bridges, stretch out a hand, speak for those who have lost their voice, their hope, their faith and joy.
I am also here because I have memory. I treasure memory more than my passport. A person without memory has no face, no history, no identity or past. No learning is possible if there is no lesson to be given. Only amnesia. And amnesia is right next to madness, to the vacuum, la nada.
I can’t help being suspicious of those who talk, almost obsessively, about the need to “look towards the future”, to “move on”, to “forget and forgive”, and preach about the inconvenience of “stirring old wounds”. As if pain, loss and memory could be controlled by merely giving instructions or showing traffic signs. Stop. Yield. No U turn. No outlet.
In my case, as in many others, memory kept me alive, away from despair, total abandon, suicide. The desire to remember, the will to turn to memory is a gesture of healing. Memory is our DNA, our fingerprints. It has to do with recovering balance and the sense of belonging. Memory is the homeland, the landscape that we recognize as ours, the mother, the sister, the friend. Memory has the taste of loyalty and stubborn love.
You cannot come back if you don’t run away first. There is no tomorrow if there is no yesterday. In order to have dreams as a nation and as human beings we must first embrace what we left behind. Dive into memory and, if necessary, into pain. The door to peace and reconciliation is not oblivion. You cannot forgive somebody for something you don’t remember.
This is not about being morbid, revengeful or spiteful. This is about understanding that if we turn our back to the past we will be left empty handed like my father when he returned from Buenos Aires.
It is not an easy option. For people or for countries. Chile has serious problems with memory and pain. We are afraid of conflict and we don’t know how to say what we want to say. In a way, we are a bit like diplomats. Do you know the story? When a diplomat says “yes”, he means “maybe”, when he says “maybe”, he means “no”, and when he says “no”, he is not a diplomat…
In this feverish eagerness to make progress and leave the Third World behind us, we avoid looking back because the past divides us. Only the uncertainty of the future allows us to dream that someday we will be a united country, with one common history and purpose. We won’t admit it but many Chileans believe it is better to sweep the dirt under the rug or do the laundry at home. As the saying goes, los trapos sucios se lavan en casa.
But then we must also acknowledge that we have matured as a country. Democracy has been good for us. We are learning to do things differently. We are beginning to recover our trust in our institutions, our authorities, our political leaders, our judges and soldiers.
We are starting to understand that globalization is not only about successful economic indicators but also about having access to truth, justice and memory.
The ruling of the Chilean Supreme Court, on August 26, that lifted Augusto Pinochet’s immunity and opened the door for him to face trial for his responsibility in Operación Condor is a tremendous leap in that direction. But the experience of the past is painfully fresh in our memory and so we hold our breath because it is too good to be true.
Yes, we are cautious, but memory and hope still moves us. Only a few days ago, on September 10, the Magnet- Ferrero family presented a criminal lawsuit against Augusto Pinochet and those responsible for the illicit genocide association and kidnapping of Maria Cecilia Magnet. We had to wait almost three decades for this to happen. And even though I was not there, I shall remember that day for the rest of my life.
It is very unlikely that Pinochet will spend one day in jail. Maybe the judges of my country will disappoint me one more time. But I will not spare them the shame that sooner or later will fall upon them because of their lack of courage. Maybe we will not embrace justice and truth, but our search will continue. And we will fight against oblivion, amnesia and indifference. We will not give up our right to mourn and bury our loved ones.
Because we have memory. And I remember. I remember Cecilia’s golden eyes, like pure honey, her big smile, the warmth of her skin. I remember she was bright and generous, sarcastic and witty. She was particularly proud of her legs and was always on a diet. My sister enjoyed eating, drinking and dancing. She was good at languages. She loved to read and travel. And men. She was, definitely, good at flirting.
Cecilia was charming at times, unbearable, at others. She was special, full of gifts and dreams. And, at the same time, so ordinary, so common. She believed she had some authority over me because she was seven years older. So she didn’t apologize when she borrowed a book of mine and never returned it. She would use my make-up and forget to give me my messages. She would give me instructions that I never asked for. My sister called them suggestions.
In 1972, she wrote to me from the south of Chile, from the mining towns of Lota and Coronel, one of the poorest zones in the country. In a letter dated May 7, she wrote: “I have been working hard these weeks and learning a lot from all I see. The working conditions are quite harsh, it rains a lot and the mud is knee high since it can rain for weeks in a row. But the pobladores are very organized and have a fighting spirit. You just have to keep up with them.”
She went on: “People here have gone through a lot of suffering and the work they do must be among the toughest in Chile (…)I have seen settlements that one or two years ago were empty fields, and today they are an example of organization where people share the little they have. The women are particularly cool. I’ll soon tell you about some experiences.”
I saw her for the last time in the summer of 1975. We all went to pick her up at the Pudahuel airport in Santiago. She looked beautiful, happy and skinny. A couple of days later we walked by the seashore and giggled like two little girls. She wanted to know about my boyfriends and my dreams. She thought it was so absurd that I could be studying Journalism in Catholic University, so very much under the control of the military. Like always, she flooded me with questions but also told me about Willy and her new life as a married woman.
My sister believed in commitment with others, with society, not in charity, often saying that when charity starts at home, (“La caridad empieza por casa”) –as the saying goes- it usually stays there. And she was right, only I didn’t admit that to her because I was tired of her being right.
Her curiosity had no limits. I have the suspicion that the first word she learned as a child was “Why?” I also believe that it was her last question before facing death.
Today, I have no other tool but the word. Memory is my only jewel. With one in each hand, I have come before you tonight, believing that, maybe, just maybe, my wound will heal after all, and any day now, I will wake up with a scar that I will wear with pride.