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Villa Grimaldi, Chile

Chile, Santiago

concentration camp, monument, honor

In January 2007, I was bumping down a back road in the outskirts of Santiago, Chile with 14 other students from the University of Maryland and the celebrated Chilean author and activist Pia Barros. Our destination was hidden from the road by thick concrete walls, tucked away behind a rusty chain and an iron gate. We were headed for a place called Villa Grimaldi, a concentration camp that was Augusto Pinochet's main site for torture and interrogation during his bloody 17-year-dictatorship.


Now a Parque La Paz (Peace Park) maintained by the Chilean government, the site was surprisingly small, taking into consideration the number of people that had been held and tortured there (about 4,000 over a five-year period). It is designed to take the visitor around in a circle: past the Casas de Chile, small chambers where people were isolated; past the "Wall of Names", commemorating Chile's disappeared, past sites where people were hung, electrocuted, injected. All of the site markers are on the ground, forcing you to look down, as blindfolded prisoners would have been when led around the site. There is a preserved swimming pool, where guards and officials would bring their families to swim on the weekends, in the very water where prisoners were subjected to water torture. A tiny museum exists, where artifacts and pictures of the disappeared provide a visceral emotional link to the people who perished. Looming above all of this is "The Tower," where important prisoners were taken to be executed.


Pia Barros was a strong and willing guide, her forceful Spanish providing clear and gruesome pictures of the injustices committed on the ground where we walked. My classmates and I wandered around dazed, stricken, taking in the enormity of what had gone on at the camp. My thoughts strayed to the actual individuals who inhabited Villa Grimaldi: people in their early twenties and thirties, students, activists, people quite similar to me. I imagined being held and tortured for months due to my political beliefs or activities, wasting away in a tiny cell. I stood at the rose garden planted to remember female prisoners; I watched slips of paper bearing their names glow quietly in the hot Chilean sun.


Villa Grimaldi is a strange site, simultaneously sobering and uplifting. It is imbued with a sense of peace, due to the beautiful efforts to create the concentration camp anew as a place for reflection; there is also a sadness in the air, palpable and almost sinister. It is quiet, grassy, tiled in colorful mosaics with a beautiful fountain in the middle, as well as spaces for meeting and performance. A leafy Ombu tree rises, a testament to regrowth and regeneration. I left Villa Grimaldi feeling both deeply shaken and decidedly calm: the site is a fitting monument to those who were held there, as well as a beautiful and radical means of coming to terms with a dark chapter of Chile's history.


Further Information

Travel tips: nothing besides make the effort to see it if, possible. its definitely off the beaten path.
Must see/do at this place: entire thing

19 Jul 2007

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