The city planning in Chacabuco is diabolically precise. Founded by a British mining firm looking to pick up slack in the sunset of the Chile nitrate boom, it's a model work camp, an imperial gem with a place for everything, and everything in its place. The remaining evidence of Chacabuco's existence as a concentration camp is the most obvious and absurd. The town is surrounded by displaced landmines, originally put there to keep prisoners from escaping.


The southeast part of town housed a noisy industrial sector-rail lines, smokestack, the sound of explosions. Just north, the alchemical flats that turned nitrate into crystal and up from there the offices, and administrators' quarters. West of the entrance lie the workers' barracks.

In the center of town there's a latticework gazebo surrounded by a spacious plaza, a theater, meeting hall and the gaping ruins of the Company Store, painted pink. Off the plaza and a few doors down on Valparaiso Street there was a church, since burned down, said to have been one of the most beautiful in northern Chile.

But these token refinements of society, culture and entertainment contrast to the harsh aspect of the nitrate mining camp-like the local workmen who customarily donned white gloves to cover up their calluses before mixed company.

Typically, working conditions were brutal. Limbs were lost, skin was burned and water scarce.

In 1945, Pablo Neruda toured the salitreras. That year he was elected senator of the northern regions Antofagasta and Tarapacá.

In his book Journey to the North of Chile, Neruda gives an account of visiting one of the camp residents:

"I enter her home and she shows me makeshift beds, some of them on the ground, a table made of boxes and only one chair for the entire house. They didn't build a kitchen for the houses. Level with the floor there´s a firepit made of…metal straps that's used as a stove. `The food comes out black,'she tells me…there's no toilet or bathroom in the camp and since water is scarce, they sometimes have to buy it. The eczema and ulcers caused by the acids of the nitrate process are just one more problem in their fearful lives."

Chacabuco became a Pinochet prison camp in the early 1970's. But according to former political prisoner Rolando Carrasco, his and other political prisoners' conditions were better than the nitrate miners'. Pinochet used the concentration camp to sequester and intimidate his detainees. While the prison camp was rough, it seems the nitrate camp was worse.

Logically, Pinochet's prisoners were jailed where the miners once lived. Their housing consisted of hundreds of compact dormitories; interlocking units that were packed together and filed out row after row.

Today the cracked adobe walls lined up against gray streets resemble Mission-style architecture crossed with a public storage facility.

Prisoners were stuck here, crammed together for months until the very sight of a compatriot made one sick. Pervasive was the smell of urine and feces. Death was a constant threat. Sometimes prisoners were dragged out to be beaten or mock executed.

Like cave dwellers from pre-history or any human with an urge for expression, the political prisoners of Chacabuco wrote upon the walls of their cells, drew pictures, even rendered images of Christ upon the Cross.

Three decades later, however, none of that is left. Throughout the barracks a strange etching-snow white and gravel brown-has completely erased the prisoners' writing and drawing.

The process is referred to as Operación limpieza-Operation Cleanup. After the Chacabuco prison camp shut down in 1974, the Pinochet military took it over as a base. Off limits.

The guard towers were removed, the steel gates were dismantled and the electric fence was taken down. In addition, the mess hall is gone and the church burned to the ground (reason unknown).

The cleanup treatment to Chacabuco parallels the national shut-up-already attitude that has been intensely promoted by the right since Pinochet left political office in 1990. Nearly three thousand people were killed, tortured to death or "disappeared" under the military regime commenced in 1973.

In 1995 Pinochet said, "It is better to remain quiet and to forget. That is the only thing we must do. We must forget. And that won't happen if we continue opening up lawsuits, sending people to jail. FOR-GET: That's the word. And for that to happen, both sides must forget and continue with their work."

But the remaining evidence of Chacabuco's existence as a concentration camp is the most obvious and absurd. The town is surrounded by displaced landmines, originally put there to keep prisoners from escaping.

Even while we were filming the documentary Deserted Memory on site, Chilean military arrived with U.S. specialists on a Chacabuco orientation. Based on this visit, it looks like landmine removal efforts might begin soon.

Walking through the empty town, the two former prisoners whom we brought to Chacabuco to film-Santiago Cavieres and Rolando Carrasco-found much of it hard to recognize.

Many of the barracks roofs are caved in or just not there anymore. Often the walls are spilled out violently onto the dirt roadway.

Nostalgia wasn't the primary feeling for Santiago Cavieres. Rather, a sense of dismay for the severe neglect. It parallels Chile's historical amnesia, and illustrates what Rolando once spoke of as a "deliberate ignorance" in today's society.

Why isn't Chacabuco being actively preserved, and restored? Why does the sign out front not mention that it was a concentration camp? Why do many Chilean guidebooks and newspaper articles omit this fact?

The interviews and photography of Chacabuco will form Deserted Memory, which is produced by The Chacabuco Project in part to explore this forgetfulness.

Chacabuco sustains an epic quality similar to Rome or Petra. The difference with Chacabuco, however, is that you can still talk to people who lived there.

Currently the town is crumbling in upon itself, gutted out, pilfered and vandalized. The painted stucco-lime green, sky blue, rosy red-will fade with time. Ancient Rome surely bore these colors once.

If left unexamined, history will repeat itself. The history of Chile is riddled with coups, strikes and massacres. Why would a society want to forget its past, and make itself vulnerable again to an inevitable, cyclical wave of violence and exploitation?

History will repeat itself. Or, like Chacabuco, morph into something more hideous and bizarre.

As the sun sets, Chacabuco bursts into humongous red, and its relics take life-rusty chains and hooks, elevated train tracks, wobbling serpentine lanterns affixed at the top with circles that trace out human heads.

Wearing headphones I'm plugged into the shotgun mic. From within Chacabuco I can reel in the sound of a freight truck tumbling down the lonely Pan American Hwy 5, wailing and moaning a long and wild desert howl directly into my eardrums.

This place must be remembered.

Von: 11.06.2006 By Will Sherman

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