As Chilean television shows the verdict, Sonia weeps with relief: someone finally is saying "no" to Pinochet

I'm in Santiago, Chile, to make a short documentary for BBC 2's Correspondent programme. On Wednesday, it seemed as if the whole of the country had stopped and was holding its breath as national television transmitted the first images of the Chamber of the House of Lords in London. I spent that moment with Sonia, whose husband Rene was dragged off on 16 October 1973. General Pinochet was arrested on the same date this year. Sonia sat watching, struggling to understand the exotic procedures of this far-away court. As the verdict sank in, she wept tears of grief for her dead husband, and of incredulous relief that finally, someone had said "no" to Pinochet.

It's ten years since I was last here and the city looks brighter and more prosperous. The smog, if anything, is worse. Santiago sprawls between the Andes and the sea, like the rest of this eccentrically shaped country, but in this particular spot air doesn't circulate so the murk lies like a brown blanket on the city. We drive round the foot of the Cerro St Lucia. It is a beautiful little hill in the city centre which has become indelibly associated in my mind with Manuel Contreras, the most sinister of Pinochet's secret service chiefs. Contreras set up Operation Condor, which was a kind of dictator's Interpol: if a Chilean fled to Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay, Contreras only had to call his cronies and the victim would be captured.

I once tried to find Contreras, to interview him for a book. I spent days pursuing one of his agents who, it was said, could fix it. When I finally met the agent, at an address on the fourth floor of one of Santiago's office buildings, he turned out to be a short, fat man who was wearing a vivid chestnut wig. The place seemed to be the secret police beauty shop - entirely full of short, fat men with startling and unlikely hair-pieces. It seemed an odd way to disguise themselves. The agent never delivered me his boss. Now Contreras is one of the few major killers of the regime who is in jail - at US insistence - for the killing of Orlando Letelier in Washington.

There is, it turns out, a rival topic of conversation to Pinochet. Santiago is suffering daily power cuts because the electricity generating industry decided to rely entirely on hydropower and now there's a drought. There are two hours of cuts a day when everything from traffic lights to hospital emergency services goes down. The result is chaos. The electricity providers are as high in public esteem as Richard Branson's train service, the government is trying to fine them for failure to supply, industrialists are talking of suing them for huge sums of money for lost production and television relentlessly reports stories of interrupted dialysis and surgical operations completed by candlelight.

Day three of the documentary and, in the usual way, disaster follows disaster. The cameraman has missed his connection in Paris and arrives 24 hours late. His equipment fails to arrive with him. The driver - a silent, worried-looking figure - drives first over a dog, at speed, then over the hired television monitor. Neither survive. Meanwhile the city is jumping with things we want to film and time is running out. I have a stab of nostalgia for the relative simplicity of print.

I have done the rounds of the pro- and anti-Pinochet demonstrations. The supporters are mostly military men and their families, organised by the Pinochet Foundation. They have been gathering each night opposite the closed windows of the Spanish ambassador's residence to shout their devotion to the general and to try and deprive the ambassador of sleep. A retired general with a megaphone tells me, with apparent conviction, that the army, being good Catholics, never killed anyone. The anti-Pinochet demonstrations have been organised by the relatives of the disappeared and the dead who march regularly in the centre of town with the photographs of their lost loved ones pinned to their clothes.

The most dedicated figures on both sides are now elderly women - on the pro-Pinochet side they rage at you about how Pinochet saved them from communism and how they suffered terribly under Allende. The other side tell dreadful stories of 25 years of searching for the truth about the fate of the husband or brother or child whom they've lost. One woman I talked to lost five of her six sons. None of them, she said, had ever been politically active, but the family had benefited from land reform and the landlord wanted his property back. These are the people who were left out in the political settlement that enabled Pinochet to write his own terms for leaving office. How they must be cheering now . . .

It seems that everyone I meet has a secret. Diego, a genial academic, turns out to have been a member of MIR, the radical left group. The MIR declared for the armed struggle in the 1960s, then took up arms just before the coup. Thousands were arrested after the coup, and the rest fled into exile. Today Diego is a member of the Socialist Party. It's one of the disconcerting things about Chile - things seem so normal, but the old hatreds are just below the surface. A left-wing deputy puts it down to hypocrisy. Chileans are so used to lying about how they feel, he says, that when they want to show that they mean what they say, they have to say it twice. So if you accept a cup of coffee, they say: "It's coffee. Coffee." In politics, he says, it's the same - where else would you find a party called the Union of the Centre Centre?

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family