The Miami Herald
Sep. 06, 2003

Torture victim looks back without anger

  Knight Ridder News Service

  SANTIAGO - Nearly three decades after Chilean secret police repeatedly beat and tortured him, Patricio Paniagua is surprised that the pain is not what he remembers most.

  ''What I remember almost with nostalgia is this tremendous solidarity that arises in human beings who are in situations where you are at the limit,'' Paniagua said in an interview this week. ``It is not the torture so much as how my companions received me after the torture. It wasn't the forced labor or being made to run at 3 a.m. What you remember is the craziness of how we survived, how we dreamed.''

  A film director and producer, Paniagua, now 51, returned to Chile in 1995 after 20 years of exile in France. He was a 21-year-old leftist student leader when Gen. Augusto Pinochet's U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorship seized power on Sept. 11, 1973.

  For a while, Paniagua lived on the run, from safe house to safe house. Secret police caught up with him on Oct. 30, 1974, when he was acting in a theater production. He slipped away in mid-scene but was caught boarding a bus. Nearly two weeks of torture followed, then months of detention at the Ritoque detention camp in central Chile.

  A new book of artwork by Ritoque's prisoners and the 30th anniversary of Pinochet's coup are bringing new attention to experiences such as Paniagua's.

  He vividly recalls the electric shocks -- on his mouth, genitals and elsewhere. Although he never saw the faces of his torturers, he remembers their voices and their
  shoes. The torture was always at irregular intervals, Paniagua said, so fear of the next ''session'' was incessant. Prisoners who were late for lineups often were set upon by the guards' attack dogs.

  Hope was the prisoners' weapon. ''We had a saying within the camp that if they see us depressed, they will have won for a second time,'' Paniagua said.

  Prisoners resolved that they lived in a free, independent territory and even appointed a fellow prisoner mayor of the detention camp.

  ''We declared Ritoque a territory free of Chile. Everybody on the other side of the barbed wire was imprisoned,'' Paniagua recalled.

  For Pinochet's opponents especially, there was some truth to that, he added.

  ''When you were outside, you were afraid that they were after you. You always had to be careful about saying who you were, where you were going, what car you would be in,'' he said. ``Outside is where people were disappearing, were tortured to death. So in a way we were the only ones free in Chile.''