Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Columbian refugees and learning from Chile’s past

This morning I met with Juan Salazar Fernandez who is the co-ordinator of PROSIR, a Methodist Church sponsored programme that works with refugees coming in to Chile. Most refugees come from Columbia, mainly farmers from poorer rural areas that have been badly affected by the conflict or drug trafficking there. They are therefore not professionals and have had little education and have difficulty finding work and integrating in Chile. Some are forced to hawk goods on the streets of Santiago, others have found work in the mines in northern Chile but many women are drawn in to prostitution.

The numbers remain small, with PROSIR working with around 112 people. Individuals or families are allocated up to $2500 which is used to support their subsistence as well as relevant education or training. 50% of this funding comes from the Government, the rest in the form of grants from the World Council of Churches and churches in the USA.

Indigenous communities are more welcoming to Columbians, but Chile is a predominately white society and there is an underlying racism amongst the Chilean majority that the Church is trying to challenge.

The Methodist Church may be small in Chile but it spoke out courageously during the years of dictatorship iafter the coup in 1973. I was taken to meet the daughter of a man who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1976. For decades he was one of thousands who disappeared, his daughter Viviana Dias and her family knowing nothing about what had happened to him. It is only in the last few years that she found out how he was tortured over an 8 month period, gassed and killed, tied to a metal railway sleeper and then thrown in to the Pacific Ocean from a helicopter.

Many others suffered the same fate, their names are recorded on a moving memorial in the city cemetery. The wall records the names of 1197 who disappeared and 2000 who were known to have been executed. Above the names is written the phrase “All my love is here and it extends from the sea to the mountains”. 4 sculptures lie in front of the wall, depicting the heads of a man, a woman, a child and an elderly person – the abductors and torturers did not respect age nor gender.

Viviana described how difficult it had been for her family during the years after the abduction of her father. Her sister lost her job and communities feared to offer them support. However she said that the clear voice of the Church was crucial in bringing to an end those dark days.

We were then taken to visit Parque por la Paz (Park for Peace) which has been developed on the site of the now demolished Villa Grimaldi. The infamous villa at the foot of the Andes on the outskirts of the city was where 4500 were tortured and 226 executed. Throughout the park are memorials made with mosaic tiles, as those that were brought here were blindfolded and those that survived remember being only able to look downwards to see the tiled floor of the villa.

The old entrance to the villa is now firmly closed and locked. The key has been given to a church minister with the intention that they should never be opened again, no one should have to walk through them again. The park contains a replica of a small shed in which 5-8 victims would be shut at anyone time, a small wall near a patio on which victims took it in turns to sit and support one another, and a tall water tower that was the place where 90% of those imprisoned there were killed.

A memorial wall records the names of those who are known to have died, shells around the memorial highlighting the final resting place of most. A rose garden remembers all the women who died in the villa.

It is a powerful and moving place to visit, but we reflected as we left that there are many such places around the world that are testament to the horrors that humankind can inflict, something we must keep reminding ourselves about as we seek peace with justice for all.

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