My plea to Mr Straw: listen to Chile's damaged people

Yesterday he told my wife about the worst event of his life - being tortured by Pinochet's police
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THIS IS the story of a Chilean handyman I will call Rolando - he would not want his real name known - and how he reacted to the news that the Law Lords were denying General Pinochet's immunity and allowing his extradition to Spain to proceed.

Maestro Rolando has been doing odd jobs for us in Chile, on and off, for the last 10 years; carpentry, painting, plumbing, a bit of everything, tons of ingenuity, a great sense of humour.

My wife tells me over the phone from Santiago that yesterday Rolando sat down to lunch and, for the first time since they've met, he spoke to her about the most traumatic experience of his life: a few years after the coup, he said in a matter-of-fact voice, he had been arrested and tortured by General Pinochet's police. Rolando worked back then as a porter in a school and his tormentors wanted him to implicate his colleagues, finger any teachers who night be engaged in subversive activities. It had been a brief detention. Two, three days, and then they'd let him go. He'd lost his job, suffered bodily pain for a few months, and psychological damage for who knows how long. And had kept silent. Till now.

Now he was able, suddenly, to speak about what had happened to him. For almost 20 years, like millions of other Chileans, he had shut himself inside the closet of his secret emotions, had only told the tale to his own inner shadow. Strangely enough, it was not Pinochet's detention a month ago that had freed his voice, but the decision by Britain's highest court to confirm that detention.

Our handyman felt protected by the glow of that decision by the Law Lords: it was, he said, as if an enormous burden had been taken from his body, as if he were finally free to say what he felt, able at last to let his hidden words flow into the vast public space of Chile. Because Maestro Rolando was now free in his own country, and the man responsible for ravaging that country was under arrest in another land.

Let me add that Maestro Rolando was also happy for another reason: he had bet the local owner of a botilleria that Pinochet would lose and was now getting ready to claim two bottles, one of good wine and another of pisco, our wonderful Chilean brandy. They would be drunk in celebration that very night. Nor was he alone. In poblaciones all over Chile, people poured spontaneously into the streets, beating drums, chanting, dancing - the sort of collective joy that my country has not witnessed since democracy returned eight years ago.

Maestro Rolando's story is all too typical of the damaged, bruised people of Chile, and typical as well of how the ruling of the Law Lords has given them some sort of relief, vindication, a sense that the unfair balance of the cosmos has been adjusted, that once in a while a wave of justice does, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, reach our shore.

But this story of a man who finds his voice after so many decades of silence and shame is important for another reason. It may be something that Jack Straw might ponder as he reaches a decision as to General Pinochet's ultimate fate.

Before the Home Secretary decides whether to expel the former dictator or to allow his extradition to proceed, he should not only weigh the pleas for compassion on the part of Mrs Pinochet and the General's right-wing supporters who, of course, never showed compassion for the men and women whose lives were ruined by 17 years of human rights abuses. He should not only take into consideration the reasons of State that the democratically elected Chilean government will bring to him, arguing that Pinochet's contained detention destabilises the Chilean transition. What he should do, above all, is to consult the victims.

And as he cannot, of course, speak directly to Maestro Rolando and the millions of other Rolandos who have been most hurt by Pinochet, I have a suggestion: consult the most damaged of the General's victims. I am talking about the relatives of the desaparecidos, the missing men and women of Chile who were kidnapped and murdered by Pinochet's secret police. The relatives who still do not have, decades after their loved ones were taken from them, a body to bury, a grave where flowers can be left, ashes to fix and make real the death.

Of all the cruel acts of Pinochet, the disappearance of his adversaries has undoubtedly been the most pitiless and fierce. Having had the power to alleviate their suffering, he has adamantly refused to reveal or make his subordinates reveal where those bodies lie and what happened to them. He has not allowed the mothers to mourn their dead children, the surviving children to mourn their murdered fathers, the widows to mourn the men they married. Instead, Pinochet has incessantly mocked them.

By doing so, he turned them into the symbol of all that is wrong with Chile, all that the transition to democracy has been unable to accomplish. The relatives of the desaparecidos - to put it simply - embody our loss, the loss of a whole country. They are truly, deeply representative of every afflicted person in the land.

They are the conscience of Chile. The memory of a past that will not be erased, has not been erased, by years of persecution.

Their suffering and dignity has conferred upon them a moral authority that must be taken into account before any decision is made as to General Pinochet's fate.

Think of how extraordinary it would be for our former dictator's future to be in the hands of his quintessential victims. Think of General Pinochet, aware of this, extending an invitation for those relatives to come to England, paying their way, in fact, so he could meet them for the first time in his life, in their lives. Think of the General trying to convince them of his regret, his sorrow, his need to make amends. Think of that man listening to them, one by one, hearing each one of their stories, watching each one of their faces. Think of the General declaring publicly that he will spend the rest of his life helping them to find the bodies of their missing loved ones. Think of the General throwing himself on their mercy.

Their mercy.

What they will then say to Jack Straw is up to them. It will depend on what their most intimate dead ask them to do.

Then, and only then, should the Home Secretary make his decision. Then and only then will true justice be done.

Ariel Dorfman's latest book is `Heading South, Looking North', a memoir about surviving Pinochet