“I was kidnapped at work. I worked as a chemical engineer and one day I got called to the admin office to sign some expense forms – I had recently returned from a work trip down south. When I got there, some men (Pinochet’s secret police) overpowered me, blindfolded me and took me away to Villa Grimaldi interrogation camp. It was 1974, I was 26 and my life as I knew it was over.
My ‘crime’, I think, was that while on my work trip, I witnessed a man being beaten up and killed. When I returned to work, I told some colleagues about it.
My family thought I was dead. They visited every morgue, hospital, prison, but there was no sign of me. Coincidentally, the night I disappeared, there was a shooting in the apartment block I lived in, so my family thought I’d been killed there.
I was taken to a 60cm by 60cm concrete cell which I shared with two or three other guys. There was no room to lie down. The day I got there, a group of us were taken out in blindfolds and one of us was shot in the head at random, to show they were serious. It was a 19 year old Mapuche guy.
Every day we were taken out to the toilet or to be tortured. They killed us at random, and I knew I would soon be killed. The worst part was not knowing when. In order to survive you become insane, an animal. The 60 by 60 cell was so small and you had to give priority to the guy who had just come back from a torture session.
Six months went by in that way. Then, against all my expectations I was moved to a concentration camp. It was heaven by comparison – a paradise where I could sleep on the floor. My family could visit me and I found a reason to live in my son, who was a toddler.
I lost a lot of my life in those 6 months. I had to rebuild it all. I lost the purity of life; the naivety of life – its joy. The funny thing is, nobody committed suicide in there, even though they had the opportunity. Those who did, did so three or four years later in a beautiful European capital like Paris.
I was in the concentration camp for 2.5 years, and then, one day in 1977, I was expelled from the country. But in order to be expelled, I needed a visa for somewhere else. My grandparents had emigrated to Chile from Palestine, so I was told I could apply for residency in Syria. Just 2 hours before my visa was ready, Arafat invaded Syria and my visa was cancelled.
Then I got lucky, British prime minister James Callaghan granted me a visa (with help from the UN refugee programme), as a graduate to continue post-graduate studies in the UK. I went from the concentration camp to the airport and on to London. I started a phd at Imperial College and made a home there for 16 years, before returning to Chile.”