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DAVID SILBERMAN, GENERAL MANAGER OF ONE OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST COPPER MINES

"The shadow of those events in Chile has followed me all my life. With the years we lost hope of getting justice, and finding out what really happened. The arrest of Pinochet in London suddenly brings it all back... We shall continue to tell our story, to people like you, longing for tolerance and hoping we can raise our voice against horrors like this, that are still happening today, in different parts of the world." (The son of David Silberman, 27.10.98)

Some weeks ago, I came upon an article that the youngest son of the late Chilean civil engineer, David Silberman, had written about his father.[1] For days I was haunted by my memory of David as a College student, younger than his own son is now. Unlike many "disappeared" people, David had the luxury of a judicial trial and he was eventually authorised to leave his legal jail, not a secret dungeon, and fly to Israel with his family. This was the plan, the mirage presented to his family and to the world, an anomaly that was soon to be corrected by the secret police. They wanted him dead, and just before his expected release, on 4th October 1974, David was kidnapped from his cell and "disappeared".

I met David more than 30 years ago at the University of Chile's Students Union, Santiago. A tall, enthusiastic young man, intelligent and earnest, he was an authoritative polemicist on the political issues of the time. The great majority of the students believed socialism was the only way to develop the country, complete an agrarian reform and redistribute wealth in an equitable way, so as to improve education, health and democracy. But the debate was intense and we were always involved in acute arguments. Some were influenced by the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, other followed the path of the traditional Marxist working class parties of Chile, while an emerging minority was inspired by Che Guevara's revolutionary ideology. Immersed in this effervescent atmosphere, David championed the peaceful road to socialism.

Only years later, as young professionals we had the rare experience of witnessing and participating in social processes about which we had been theorising and dreaming as university students. Our generation contributed to the triumph of the Christian Democrats in 1964 and the Popular Unity in 1970. David was disillusioned by the former experiment, but was ready to take responsibilities with the latter. When the copper mines were nationalised during Allende's first year, the Government appointed David head of the largest, Chuquicamata.[2]

On 11th of September, 1973, the Chilean road to socialism was violently interrupted. The armed forces took over, bombarding La Moneda Palace in Santiago, arresting thousands of people and taking many to the National Stadium - the only place big enough to contain crowds of prisoners. In the North of the country, where the large copper mines are situated, the circumstances were not better. Some of the workers fortified themselves within the mines, but the army sent troops and many people were killed.

David and his family managed to escape. Shortly afterwards, responding to a national call by the military, he decided to give himself in, knowing he had committed no crime. He did what many other people with responsibilities in government, including ministers, local authority officers, heads of national services or institutions did. They thought there was no reason for hiding or seeking asylum, when they were harmless civilians, had only occupied lawful positions and were not involved in anything illegal. Any investigation would necessarily clarify matters and soon enough they could go back to their families and try to adapt to the new situation.

What they did not know was that for the military this was a war, and that for them they were enemies to be annihilated. David's son tells us that his father was submitted to a court martial, without the right of defence, falsely charged with stealing 13 million dollars from the state and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Similarly, Mariana, David's wife lost her job and became a "marked" person - nobody was prepared to hire her. She and her three children aged 6, 8 and 10 respectively depended on a small sewing workshop owned by her mother. They were followed by the secret police on a daily basis. Humiliated in the streets by soldiers many times, Mariana could have been also arrested at any moment.

Twenty five years later, the youngest of David's children writes: "Later we would learn how lucky he was to have a trial; once on the records, the army wanted to keep him alive, as proof to the world that the justice system in Chile still existed. His friends were not so fortunate: many were killed in the first days following the overthrow. My mother was allowed to visit my father once a week, accompanied by one child. Physical and mental tortures became part of his daily life: he was beaten until he became unconscious, walked around with a black sack over his head until he vomited on himself, had electric shocks applied to his genitals."

Mariana, in spite of the daily surveillance and harassment, began writing letters to people in positions of power all over the world, trying to raise a public demand for her husband's release. At the end of 1974, an official investigation declared illegal the whole Silberman trial, and her husband was granted amnesty. "We were offered a deal by the military regime: my father would be released and the whole family would be sent off immediately into exile. My mother sold the house and car and bought the airline tickets. She told her in-laws, living in Israel, that within days our whole family, including their son David, my father, would be reunited with them."

What followed was typical of the abuses that occurred under Pinochet's rule. The all powerful DINA, the army secret police had already taken control and would not tolerate that a mere judicial decision was to impede the physical destruction of those who had been in a position of power during the previous democratic regime. The Junta had declared on TV on the very first day that they would "excise the Marxist cancer" and soon afterwards Chileans learned this was more than a simple metaphor. On the day that David was kidnapped from the Santiago penitentiary, he was supposed to be the last time that his wife Mariana would visit him in jail. When she arrived she was told that he was no longer there. He had vanished. He had entered the growing group of the "disappeared" ones.

"We never saw our father again" continues David in his article. "Life became even harder: we had no clue where he was being kept. My mother spent most of her time writing letters, appealing to the Supreme Court and trying to gather any information she could. The only knowledge we occasionally had of his whereabouts came in rumours and messages from people who had shared a cell with him for a few nights, or from a soldier who out of compassion would risk his life and contact us."

"In 1976, during the process of torture, my father was rushed to the military hospital. His right arm had to be amputated to save his life. Ironically, this became his death sentence. Once crippled, the military junta could never release him, as he would be a living proof of the kind of tortures and human-rights violations they committed. His execution was now only a matter of time."

Many efforts were spent trying to obtain an answer from the authorities. The futility of these endeavours was summarised by Heinrich Buchbinder[3], during the Fourth Session of the International Commission for the Investigation of the Crimes of the Military Junta held in Helsinki in March 1976, when he stated: "All steps taken to find engineer Silberman by his relatives, by Church authorities, by various governments and personalities have been useless, without any result. These efforts have even reached Pinochet himself who has gone as far as to say that he, Silberman had been kidnapped by an extremists' commando".

A year later, in February 1977, after receiving word that the head of the family was no longer alive, the Silbermans left Chile for good. They settled in the state of Israel. David describes the dreadful predicament affecting the life of the relatives of a disappeared person: "With no official word of my father's destiny, an illogical hope was always burning in our hearts. Maybe there's been a mistake; maybe we will wake up one morning and see it was all a nightmare. Without knowing, we couldn't rehabilitate our lives; my mother never even thought of getting married again. We had no grave, no body to mourn."

"It wasn't until 1991 that the new, very fragile democracy in Chile gave us a partial answer, finally taking responsibility for my father's disappearance. Only then did an official committee nominated by the new government verify our suspicions: his abduction from jail had been a sophisticated operation planned and performed by the DINA - the Chilean secret police. We even received a symbolic sum of money, as compensation. But we still do not know what circumstances he died in, or where his body is."

Today, David lives in Boston, USA, with his wife and child. He has not forgotten, he is not settled in this respect. "The shadow of those events in Chile has followed me all my life. With the years we lost hope of getting justice, and finding out what really happened. The arrest of Pinochet in London suddenly brings it all back. The past 10 days have been very difficult for us, trying not to hope too much, trying not to be carried away, knowing the politicians will not rest until they find a way to release this criminal, so they don't risk their political and economic investments in Chile. But our struggle will only grow stronger. We shall continue to tell our story, to people like you, longing for tolerance and hoping we can raise our voice against horrors like this, that are still happening today, in different parts of the world."

References:

  1. One Chilean's story, The Guardian (UK), Tuesday 27.10.98.
  2. Chuquicamata, a copper mining and smelting centre, in the Antofagasta province, northern Chile. In the early 70s its production was 500,000 tons annually, more than half of the national output.
  3. Heinrich Buchbinder, a Swiss human rights expert. The above quoted excerpt comes from his paper "Disappearance of Detainees", published with other contributions by Finlandia House under the title "Arbitrary arrests and detentions in Chile".

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