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Interview: From Santiago to Scotland

Award-winning Gaelic singer Maeve Mackinnon speaks to Chilean coup survivor Lucy Concha 40 years after the events which changed her life

In just over a week’s time we’ll be marking the 40th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody military coup in Chile.

I was recently interviewed with Lucy Concha, a Spanish teacher living in Glasgow who lived through the coup, for a special music programme on BBC Radio Scotland which was broadcast last night.

For millions of people across the globe “9/11” is synonymous with the terrible events in New York in 2001.

But September 11 was also the date of the terrible atrocities and great loss of life marking the CIA-backed coup that led to the murder of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende, the incarceration of thousands and the “disappearing” of thousands more.

To this day many families in Chile and around the world are still seeking answers and closure for the events that unfolded that day.

Concha, a mother of three from Santiago, was arrested in the factory where she worked on September 11 1973 and imprisoned in the Estadio Chile for 10 days. She and her family were then forced into exile, settling in Britain. Years later she met my parents at a trade union reception in Glasgow.

As the anniversary approaches it’s important to look back to what happened and why.

You may remember the now infamous words of then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger on Chile from June 27 1970: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The reason for Kissinger’s alarm was the impending election of Allende, who became president of Chile on November 4 1970.

Allende’s election signalled a period of hope for the vast majority of working people in Chile. His many progressive policies included the public ownership of key industries as well as extensive land redistribution.

Concha remembers: “With a socialist government working-class people suddenly had access to food, health care, housing and educational opportunities that hadn’t been available before, because only the people with money could afford these things. And on September 11 1973 that dream came to an end.”

Allende’s public criticism of the rising power of multinational companies made him a marked man in the eyes of the US government.

Progressive thinker Noam Chomsky noted that “according to Kissinger Chile was a ‘virus’ that would ‘infect’ the region, with effects [felt] all the way to Italy.”

A day after Pinochet’s seizure of power the military arrested thousands and took them to army barracks, stadiums and detention centres. Many had no political involvement.

Concha, who worked at a nationalised factory, was taken to one of the largest detention centres, the Estadio Chile — now renamed Estadio Victor Jara in honour of its most famous victim.

“Inside the stadium we were in complete darkness,” she recalls.

“German machine-guns had been placed all around us and we were threatened not to make any noise or we would be shot dead.

“We couldn’t see anything and the noises from people being tortured in other parts of the stadium were unbearable.

“Every night I was taken away to be interrogated. I could never see their faces and every night they asked me the same question: where were the arms, which we had never had in the first place.

“Suddenly one day I was told I could go. I couldn’t believe it. As I was led out of the exit I thought I was going to be shot. Later on I found I had internal bleeding from when I was tortured by the army.”

Concha got out with her children and made her way to Scotland.

Being forced into exile from one’s homeland can be a deeply disturbing experience. Chilean author Isabel Allende described it as “being forever a foreigner.”

Life as political refugees meant hard adjustments for Concha and her family. They were allocated a house in Drumchapel, Glasgow, where they were offered support from local people and reciprocated by hosting dinners for new friends.

By this time Concha was a single parent. She remained active in politics while juggling full-time work and raising three children.

She laughingly admits it took them a while to settle into their new dwelling: “For two years I didn’t buy any furniture because I had this illusion we were going back to Chile.

“We used to keep our suitcases under the bed so we could be packed and ready to go at short notice.”

Even now closure for the events of September 11 1973 is a remote prospect — not least because of Pinochet’s successful propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the Popular Unity government and portray himself as the saviour of his country.

His brutal regime still has many defenders in the British media.

For Concha and thousands of others, however, the situation is clear.

“For the people who lived through the coup there will never be closure.

“Although there have been several court cases against the armed forces there are still many families waiting for answers about what happened to their loved ones.

“The problem is the right-wing element in Chile believe we should just forget about it and leave it in the past.

“Personally I will never forget and I will never forgive.”

In his final broadcast as the presidential palace was under siege Allende said: “Workers, I have faith in Chile and its destiny.

“Go forward, knowing that sooner rather than later avenues will be open along which free men will walk to build a better society.

“Long live Chile, the people and the workers.”

Forty years later his words still resonate in the ears of Chileans all over the world.

Listen to Songs of Courage: From Santiago to Scotland at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039g618 until Monday September 9.

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