September 11th – what’s in a date? Remembering the victims of the Chilean dictatorship and celebrating peace in the Horn of Africa

September 11th has come to symbolise to most people in ‘Western’ countries if not globally the date of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other buildings in the US by a group of terrorists in 2001, and has been remembered as such ever since. At these memorial ceremonies, the names of those who perished are read out, a powerful performance against forgetting. It is one of those events where many people the world over remember exactly where they were or what they did when they heard the news, and some of the iconic pictures of the day, not only those of planes hitting the twin towers, but also those of people who made it out, almost looking like statues covered in ash, I can still vividly remember.

Demand for justice by Chilean visitors at the Berlin exhibition opening of José Giribás on torture in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

And yes, I know where I was on the day: I was in the flat of friends who had moved away from Berlin but still had their flat, using this as a working space to finish the writing of my PhD that I submitted later that year. I got a phone call telling me ‘switch on the TV’ and I was a bit annoyed at first, as what could be so important to detract me from my research, and then it took me a while to figure out how to switch on the TV that was not my own. But when I managed I sat there in disbelief, a disbelief I shared with the millions the world over who looked at the same pictures as me.

But there are other September 11th dates that changed the lives of countless people from normal to horror, but have no yearly ceremony where names of those who perished are being read out. In fact, the fate of many of those who perished that day or in its aftermath remains unknown. I speak about September 11th 1973 in Santiago de Chile, where a certain General Pinochet, supported and encouraged by the United States, organised a brutal coup against the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Almost immediately following the coup, Pinochet’s henchmen, benefitting from the expertise of the CIA and others, filled prisons and transformed normal buildings into detention centres, including the National Stadium in Santiago, where so-called political prisoners were herded into. These were journalists, musicians, artists, union members, part of Allende’s bodyguard or sections of the army who defied the coup, but also simply normal people who were perceived as not supporting the right-wing coup that was to determine Chilean politics for more than a decade. Many were tortured and/or killed, including being thrown from aeroplanes into the ocean so no traces would be left– and all with active support and agreement of powers like the US.

To this day, many of those involved in torture and letting people disappear were never held to account, causing protest in Chile and beyond each year on the coup-anniversary. A recent project aimed at the preservation of historical memory in Chile was created by Berlin-based Chilean photographer José Giribás Marambio. He was one of those lucky enough to be able to flee after the coup, and under the German title Über Folter spricht man nicht (Don’t talk about torture) photographed survivors of the Chilean torture chambers as well as some of the torture sites. In a number of exhibitions in Cologne and Berlin, one in Berlin at the Bundespressekonferenz (the Federal Press Conference) building opened on 11 September 2018, the now elderly survivors of past torture and degradation look dignified at the spectator. Their presence reminds us that the perpetrators were not classified as terrorists or even criminals, but as noble servants of a legitimate state with Western support, not as the henchman of a criminal dictatorship that they in fact were. José also travelled to some of the buildings where torture and executions took place around Santiago and beyond. A few are museums or sites of remembrance in today’s Chile, like Villa Grimaldi that I once visited when it was just made into such a site, others have returned to nice-looking villas where people live (a normal life?), and others are in a state of disrepair and degradation that past victims try to ‘save’ and turn into sites of remembrance. José’s exhibition is a powerful statement not only against historical forgetting, but also of the duplicity of Western powers in acts that were truly terrorist in the real sense of the word, even if never described as such.

To end, and turning back to my own activities when September 11th, 2001 happened, when I was finalising my PhD on revolution and nation building in Eritrea, leads to yet another reading of a different September 11th as a potentially important date, this time hopefully a more celebratory one. Eritrea has for the past 18 years been in limbo, trapped in a no-war-no-peace conflict with Ethiopa that destabilised the whole Horn of Africa, a situation as such partly convenient for those engaged in the war on terror, but that is another story. Yesterday’s September 11th, the start of the Ethiopian Orthodox new year, also marked the celebration of, finally after all these years, the re-opening of the common border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, celebrated not only by both heads of state and local people, but equally soldiers from both sides of what was until recently a bloody divide. September 11th clearly is a date for true reflection on the state of the world more generally, and not least on the suffering misplaced power politics can cause.

José’s exhibition can be seen at the following locations:

Kunsträume der Michael Horbach-Stiftung | Wormser Str. 23, 50677 Cologne, 09.09. to 21.10.2018.

Haus der Bundespressekonferenz | Schiffbauerdamm 40, 10117 Berlin, 11.09. to 25.09.2018

Galerie Tapir | Neue Hochstraße 8, 13347 Berlin, 30.09. to 21.10.2018

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