After the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was displaced by violence on September 11, 1973, and replaced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the junta began to imprison, torture and murder the people whom they suspected of having participated in the administration of Allende’s government, had been important supporters of it, or whom they otherwise perceived as threatening to them. Thousands of people were arrested, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered. In the beginning, the persecutions were more indiscriminate but later, when interrogations and torture of arrested people gave the junta more information, they became more selective.
Chile is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Andes Mountains on the east, the Atacama Desert on the north, and icebergs on the south and therefore there was no easy way out of the country for those who feared losing their freedom or life. As the ropes around their necks began to tighten, they often had no choice but to try to find help from people they trusted and who might be able to get them out of the country. UNHCR opened refugee camps for those who lost their livelihoods, but to the misfortune of those who needed protection for political reasons, it gave access to junta forces to search for “criminals” from the camps. Soon foreign embassies were noted as safer hiding places for those forced to flee Chile – either with permission or by smuggling.
The US and its close allies did not offer help to those sought by the junta. Embassies of Latin American countries were soon filled with refugees. Cuba’s embassy was attacked and its personnel were expelled. All diplomats of Mexico left Chile. Other Latin American countries refused permitting travel and accepting the entry of refugees. In this peculiar situation, the staff of the embassies of a few countries, mainly European, faced a situation where they had to act or abandon those seeking help. Some chose the latter option, but several decided to help despite the risk of acting contrary to the laws and instructions of their motherland. Perhaps now, after 50 years, it’s time to remember some people who opposed the junta nonviolently and helped those in need.
Harald Edelstam (1913-1989). Swedish ambassador in Santiago de Chile at the time of the coup. Previously he had saved hundreds of lives as a diplomat in Nazi-occupied Norway. Prevented the occupation of Cuba’s embassy when it was under fire, helped its personnel to escape, and ensured that the premises of Cuba’s embassy were taken under the protection of Sweden. Secured those premises by moving there personally, and used those to provide asylum for refugees until travelling out of the country was possible. He was active and productive and didn’t hesitate to use publicity for his purposes with the result that he was expelled from Chile in December 1973. It has been estimated that due to his actions approximately 1500 people managed to get out of Chile.
Tapani Brotherus (born 1938) acted as a Finnish Chargé d’affaires in Chile during the 1973 coup. He and his wife Lysa Brotherus lived in a large house that was located a little further from other diplomatic residences and therefore was not immediately guarded by Pinochet’s security forces. In a few days, the house was filled up with refugees and Brotheruses found themselves at the center of events. The situation became increasingly difficult and Tapani, together with Deputy Counsellor Ilkka Jaamala, started to act against the official guidelines of the Foreign Ministry and Finnish asylum policy to help the people in need of protection. They operated with a low profile avoiding unnecessary conflict with the junta. Lysa Brotherus helped in arranging food and shelter for refugees. In the chaos after the coup, there were food shortages, and e.g. meat had to be ordered in large quantities by diplomatic mail from Argentina.
When DDR announced on September 24, 1973, that it had severed diplomatic relations with Chile – as all other socialistic countries minus China and Romania – DDR asked Finland to act as a protectorate for DDR. Most of the DDR embassy staff moved away, but Arnold Voigt stayed in Chile to lead the so-called ”restgruppen”. The ”restgruppen” may also have had other tasks, but it began in getting refugees, including extremely wanted persons, out of Chile. The East Germans had a school building in Santiago, which was also not carefully guarded by the junta’s services. That building became an important stopover for many refugees exiting. Brotheruses and Voigt cooperated in protecting people and helping them to leave the country. It has been estimated that together they helped approximately 2,500 people out of Chile.
Roberto Toscano (born 1943) was one of them who worked in Italy’s embassy in Santiago at the time of the coup. When people, who felt threatened gathered in the embassy, Roberto and others organized their living conditions and found them a way out of the country successfully. It has been estimated that roughly 700 people managed to escape through the Italian embassy. The night of November 4, 1973, was unforgettable for Roberto. The naked body of a tortured young woman was thrown over the embassy wall. She was Lumi Videla, a 26-year-old sociology student and political activist. The next morning, the embassy was raided by the junta’s forces, and the following day the regime newspapers wrote that the woman died during an orgy that took place inside the diplomatic headquarters. Lumi Videla had been arrested on September 21, tortured for a month and a half, and died from the violence she suffered. Roberto obtained documents, which proved that she had been murdered by the secret police. He revealed them to a journalist. From that moment on, Roberto understood that his stay in Chile could become very risky. A week later, at his request, he was called back to Rome.
These people mentioned were not the only ones who were important to those who needed and found a way to escape from a dangerous situation. Many wanted to act quietly and nonviolently. We may not be faced every day with a violent coup d’état, but we are faced with acts of violence in all forms, economic, religious, psychological, loneliness, political, physical, etc., and like these few faces we have choices to make in daily bases, giving direction to our own life. Hope these short testimonies will present the possibility of favoring peace and nonviolence.