Long search for the disappeared

Observations on Chile

Calama is a quiet, provincial town 1,000 miles north of Santiago, the capital of Chile. It was here in the town theatre on 17 October that grieving widows, mothers, sisters and daughters gathered to bear witness to the men they lost 30 years ago.

The women's story starts where the men's story ends, on 19 October 1973. General Arellano Stark, under orders from General Pinochet, arrived in Calama by helicopter to consolidate the military's grip on northern Chile. Stark's mission, which became known as the "Caravan of Death", left 72 dead across four cities. Calama was the final stop on his schedule. Men were executed and their bodies dumped in the unrelenting dust of the Atacama Desert surrounding Calama.

The 26 men had little in common. Some were active in trade unions, others were affiliated to left-wing causes. Many who worked at an explosives factory in the town were accused of plotting to blow it up. The youngest, 17-year-old Jose Saavedra, was arrested simply for being the head of his high school student union.

For years, the women have searched for answers and bodies, digging in the desert with shovels, following leads from contacts in the military. Every anniversary, they walk into the Atacama and scatter carnations in the air. Their indefatigable search, stone by stone, across hundreds of miles of desert, has led Isabel Allende to call them Chile's "conscience". On one occasion, they were arrested for digging on an archaeological site; on another, they uncovered a mass grave, but the bodies dated to the pre-Colombian era.

Only once have the women come close to discovering the fate of the disappeared. In 1990, following a tip-off from a witness to the executions who no longer lives in Chile, a grave containing partial remains was uncovered. Five years later, 13 men were identified from the three cardboard boxes collected from the site. They included Jose Saavedra, recognisable from a part of his left cheek, a piece of his forehead, his nose and a foot in a boot.

In a country still struggling to come to terms with the era of military dictatorship, the women's search has come to stand for more than simply finding the bodies of their missing relatives. While Pinochet spends his final years in disgraced but comfortable senility, his henchmen find they cannot escape their former crimes.

The judicial system has only gradually opened up to allow for the trials of those involved in the Caravan of Death, protected by an amnesty in 1978. But since 1998, Judge Juan Guzman Tapia has been leading an investigation trying to pin responsibility on Stark and at least ten other high-ranking military officers.

For the women of Calama, however, the prosecution of the guilty has become almost incidental to their search. "At the beginning there was so much hate in me, but now I don't think that the assassins even deserve that much," Victoria Saavedra, Jose's sister, has said. "We are condemned . . . to live with the pain for the rest of our lives, but it would be easier to stand the pain if we knew the truth."