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Chilean Women Preserve Nation's Painful Memories

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  • Dan Clore
    Title: LATIN AMERICA-CHILE:Women Preserve Nation s Painful Memories // WOMEN AS LEADERS SERIES // By Alicia Sanchez SANTIAGO, May 31 (IPS) - In just six days,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 3, 2000
      Title: LATIN AMERICA-CHILE:Women Preserve Nation s Painful Memories


      By Alicia Sanchez

      SANTIAGO, May 31 (IPS) - In just six days, Carmen Vivanco lost her
      son, her husband, her brother, a sister-in-law and a nephew.
      >From August 4 to 10, 1976, her family members were detained and
      subsequently disappeared under the dictatorship of August
      Pinochet (1973-1990).

      >From that moment on, all streets led her to the morgue, to the
      detention and torture centres and to the Vicarage of Solidarity to
      inquire about the fate of her relatives. She followed the same
      route for many years, but to no avail.

      Vivanco is one of the widows to whom world-renowned British
      singer Sting dedicated the song Ellas Bailan Solas' (They Dance
      Alone) in 1987. His words rang true, but Vivanco had met other
      women who shared her loss. They created an organisation under the
      Chilean Roman Catholic Church and Vivanco became the Vicarages

      In October 1976, she joined a group of women who planned to
      march through the streets of Santiago. They were the future
      members of the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared
      (AFDD), a movement made up mostly of women, arising from their
      need to find their loved ones, denounce those responsible and
      demand justice.

      "We carried signs to tell people that the disappeared were not
      imaginary and that we never again saw our spouses, children or
      parents. As a result, the press interviewed us in the middle of
      the military regime," Vivanco told IPS.

      The image of women in mourning became a permanent fixture of
      the dictatorship years. The womens signs bearing pictures of
      their family members and the words "Where are they?" can
      still be
      seen today as they continue their search for justice.

      As a result of their public protest, some members of the
      movement were imprisoned and mistreated by the police. Vivanco
      herself chalked up 15 arrests.

      In 1976, some 400 women were part of the Vicarage of
      Solidarity; all were wives, sisters, grandmothers or daughters who
      sought clues to the whereabouts of the disappeared. They needed
      companionship, solidarity and comfort. At that time, however, they
      began discussing the need to create an organisation of their own.

      Vivanco already had experience in organising groups from her
      participation in the Labour Federation of Chile and the Womens
      Emancipation Movement.

      Her childhood in the saltine communities of the countrys
      northern region made social contradictions painfully evident, but
      she also discovered that political activism could help end such

      As a girl, Vivanco saw her father, a saltine worker, arrested
      for the first time. Years later, after her family members
      disappeared, she did not hesitate for one second before launching
      her search for them and for other victims. In 1978 she learned
      that her son and her husband had been held in Villa Grimaldi, the
      dictatorships largest detention and torture centre.

      "It was the last I knew of them and so far I have not found
      their remains," Vivanco told IPS. Does she have any hope of
      finding them? "No, and that is terrible because it means permanent
      grief. If I had found their bodies I could go to the cemetery and
      place flowers by their graves."

      Finally, in 1984, the 400 women who had originally met in the
      halls of the Vicarage officially created the AFDD. Their first
      president was Sola Sierra, who led the organisation until she died
      last year, serving as a role model for many women, including

      "My work with the AFDD has given my life strength. I was alone
      for 12 years. They were years when I went from my house to the
      AFDD and from the AFDD to my house. There was no other possible
      route. At times I would cry at the walls and ask them, where are
      they? It hurts to think that at the time of their arrests, my son,
      my brother and my husband needed me. That was my misery. The next
      day I would arrive at the AFDD and meet with others who had been
      through the same thing. That daily struggle has alleviated the

      She says that her strength comes from her family because she
      wants to know what happened to them, wants those responsible to
      face trial and acknowledge what they have done.

      Though the work of this group has been defined by the search
      for the detained-disappeared, the members also work to ensure that
      these events "never occur again in Chile, so that other mothers do
      not suffer like we have, so that there is justice and a fight for
      a better life," explains Vivanco.

      The AFDD is now a part of the Latin American Federation of the
      Detained-Disappeared and the womens hands holding photos of their
      family members high in the air appear each time a clandestine
      burial site is discovered or whenever a chance to demand justice

      Some of these women have passed away, and most are getting on
      in years - Vivanco is 83. But their legacy lives on as Chiles
      Medical Legal Institute has created a genetic data bank to
      preserve blood and hair samples in hopes of using them to identify
      the remains of the dictatorships victims, should they ever be

      Beyond their personal searches, Vivanco and her 'compaqeras' at
      the AFDD have kept the memory of the nation's tragic past alive
      for the Chilean people. (END/IPS/tra-so/as/ld/sm/00)
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