THE WOMEN OF CALAMA
The story of the courageous women in Calama begins in the north of Chile, in the center of the Atacama Desert. On September 11, 1973, the democratically-elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende collapsed under a violent coup staged by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the United States Government. In the days and months that followed, thousands of people began to vanish from cities and villages all over Chile in a process that has come to be known as “disappearing.”
One month after the coup, five soldiers, under the command of General Sergio Arellano Stark, boarded a military helicopter and began a journey that was later called the “Caravan of Death.” They traveled to four northern cities, stopping long enough to murder a total of 72 people. On October 19, 1973, the Caravan of Death made its final stop in the city of Calama where 26 men were executed. Their bodies were buried in a secret desert grave.
During the first few years after the disappearances, many of the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers of the 26 men met secretly. Frustrated by the official unwillingness to provide information about their relatives’ fate, the women set out into the desert with their shovels to find the bodies of their loved ones.
I first learned about the women of Calama from a film called “Dance of Hope” by Deborah Shaffer. I was deeply moved by one scene in particular that showed the women walking into the desert and blanketing the sand with hundreds of red carnations. I traveled to Chile in December 1989, took the 26-hour bus ride to Calama, and walked into the Atacama Desert for the first time, with six of the women, on Christmas day.
In July 1990, after 17 years of searching, the women finally learned of the location of the mass grave that contained only the crushed remains of their men. It took another five years to positively identify 13 of the men from the body parts found at the gravesite.
In 2008, 35 years after the men were disappeared, a five- year investigation of the case of Calama was completed and the women finally began to learn some of the truth about what happened to their relatives. Through witness accounts, it was determined, that in 1975, the military returned to the gravesite, carelessly dug up the men with heavy machines –leaving only fragments behind – loaded them into a transport plane and threw their dismembered bodies into the sea.
It took three more years for more families to receive the identifications of their loved ones through a more sophisticated process of DNA testing now available in a laboratory in Austria. In November 2011, my 22nd year of traveling to Calama, I sat in a crowded court room while, one by one, eight of the families were told that their loved ones had been identified. Some of the families were presented with tiny pieces of their men. Others were told that their men’s bodies had been in the mass grave but they would receive nothing because the pieces of bone had dissolved in the DNA solution during the identification process.
As of January 2012, there are 49 pieces of bone still in the laboratory in Austria and the women are waiting.