Life under Pinochet: “We still don’t know what happened to my brother”

Gloria Elgueta's brother Martin was detained by Pinochet’s political police and held in Londres 38. Years later, a campaign is underway to turn the notorious house of torture into a memorial site.

Hardly a day goes by when Gloria Elgueta doesn’t think about how her brother Martin may have spent his final days. He was detained by Pinochet’s political police and held in Londres 38, a colonial building five blocks away from their family home. After years searching for justice, Gloria joined other relatives in a campaign to turn the notorious house of torture into a memorial site to remember those who lost their lives.

There’s one memory Chilean activist Gloria Elgueta will never forget of the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. Everyday for a fortnight she would walk five blocks from her family home in the centre of Santiago and stand and stare at an old colonial house known as Londres 38. The elegant façade belied the horrors taking place inside. This was one of Pinochet’s detention centres of choice: a place of torture and death. She suspected her brother, Martin, a student, was inside and there was nothing she could do.

In July 1974, members of the DINA (Pinochet’s political police) came knocking on their door and, simply, took him. They never gave an explanation for the arrest or brought any charges against him.

Almost immediately after Martin’s arrest, Gloria and her mother joined hundreds of others whose loved ones had been taken to unknown locations. It was a desperate pilgrimage to public offices, tribunals, and independent organizations, looking for help and information regarding the fate of their relatives.

“We knew we had to ask – we needed to know. We went to the health services and the morgue, thinking that we would find him dead. It was a pretty much pointless pilgrimage because we didn't get any response regarding where he was. Everybody in authority would constantly say that my brother had not been detained,” she said.

The first clue that Martin was being held in Londres 38 came from one of the few activists who survived imprisonment and been released.

“We know he was held there for around 15 days. We spoke to one of the other detainees and they had seen him inside.  We think that he was there until early august. After that we didn't have any other testimonies from people who were held with him. What we were able to establish is that during that period, detainees were transferred in groups, killed and their bodies, hidden.”

For many not knowing where there loved ones were or what was happening was a heavy burden to bear.

“I know relatives who went to Londres 38 and knocked on the door - but it achieved nothing – they were threatened. One woman even went with a priest to try and find out if her grandson was held there but they too were turned away. Knowing your loved ones may be inside and not being able to cross that door - it’s just unthinkable.”

Nobody knows exactly how many people were held at any one time in Londres 38. However, human rights organizations estimate that as many as 2,000 could have been detained during the time it functioned. At the time Chile was largely a country in denial.

“People around Londres and all other detention centres knew that things were happening there but people were afraid to talk,” Gloria said to Amnesty International. “There was a very clear fear amongst most people. My mother, , would talk openly about my brother and what was happening and people would pretend they were not listening.”

While the whereabouts of most of those detained are still unknown. Some did survive. Martin’s arrest was the second time her family had been targeted.

Two months before Martin was arrested, Gloria’s older brother, Raimundo, was also taken by the military and held because he had allegedly broken the country’s strict curfew. He was eventually released in November 1976 having survived torture and ill treatment. But for Gloria - not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about the fate of her brother Martin.

“I think the worse thing is the still not knowing. Even after 39 years we still do not know what happened to my brother. You think about the violence he may have suffered, his death, not knowing, not having all the information is something very complex for me. But the most difficult thing is the lack of justice in Chile.”

Gloria believes that even though some positive steps were taken in the past few years to ensure those responsible for the thousands of killings, disappearances and torture during Pinochet’s regime face justice, impunity is still the norm.

Her and her family still ignore what happened to Martin and where his remains are. No one faced justice for the crimes he suffered.

“I think the result of the search for real justice is failing. What we know is very general; we don't know the truth about each individual case. We know that they are missing and that they were killed but the full information required by the courts to establish who was responsible is lacking. There’s a veil of secrecy around all of that, facilitated by a lot of complicity. Even now we know there are archives of information about those cases.”

Since Pinochet was ousted in 1990, the notorious colonial building of Londres 38 has been turned into a fitting memorial for those who were tortured and lost their lives.

“It’s important to me and the other relatives of those detained in Londres 38 that they are not forgotten. By making this into a memorial it’s a way to turn the dreadful repression, persecution and horror of what happened into something positive. It’s a chance to turn our experiences into something we can share with others.”

This article is republished in partnership with Amnesty International

Martin Elgueta (left). Photo: Amnesty International
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.