Pinochet. A name from the past. An 82-year-old anachronism. But not for Luis. He remembers every last hammer blow, every burn, every electric shock. And he doesn't want you to forget it

Ann Treneman
Monday 19 October 1998 23:02

By rights, Luis Munos shouldn't have much of a story to tell, except the kind that we can all claim. His life was an ordinary one and, if it hadn't been for General Augusto Pinochet, it probably would have continued as such. Luis's error was to be young, Chilean and of the Left at the time of the coup on 11 September 1973. Never mind that he was hardly a revolutionary, working in the National Planning Office as a civil servant. It was through his job that he had met a young woman named Diana Aron. She worked for a publisher and had carried out research into Chile's ruling classes. At the time of the coup, they were newly-weds. Luis was 25, she was 22. Now he is 50 and lives in Brighton. His story is hard to tell but he wants to tell it because it is important, even after all these years, to bear witness to evil.

It was only a few days after the coup that the Ministry of Defence in Santiago broadcast a list of names wanted for questioning. Diana Aron's was among them. The accusation was that office equipment had been destroyed at the publisher's. Diana and Luis knew this wasn't so because they had gone and checked for themselves. It was a time of terrible chaos. "My office was occupied by the military. Gun battles were everywhere," says Luis. "I saw them shooting people in the street, bodies were everywhere. I was stopped and searched. I was just lucky that they didn't shoot me. We didn't believe it was going to be so brutal." He and Diana learnt that people reporting to the Ministry of Defence were being shot. They were told that Pinochet's people were looking for them and not to go home. They didn't.

For the next year or so they had no address, moving from place to place as their safety warranted. By November, Diana was three months pregnant. They were part of the resistance by now and knew what they were up against. They had a pact that if one of them didn't return by 8pm on any given evening, then they would know the other had been arrested. One day, Diana decided to go and see her sister and took a taxi. It was 18 November 1974 - two years to the day after they had met. Luis never saw her again. "I don't know what happened. I gathered later on that someone had called her name, she had run and was shot in the back several times." He believes she survived the shooting and was taken for interrogation. "Later, I met a guard who told me she was interrogated, even with her wounds. He said: `That woman, she really loved you - she loved you more than your mother - because not a word came from her mouth."

Back at the house, Luis knew something was wrong. He knew he was supposed to leave but could not do it. "I was just desperate. The father of a friend was in the house. I stayed in hope. I cried but I didn't want him to hear me so I went to the shower. I don't know how many showers I took. I washed her clothes. It was very strange. I thought maybe they will bring her home and she will need some clothing."

The next morning, he came to his senses and left. He took over Diana's job. It was risky and he knew they were searching for him. Then, not even a month after his wife had disappeared, he went to a meeting, only to find himself surrounded by five or six cars. He had often imagined the scene of his capture but had always assumed the men would wear uniforms and would drive military jeeps. Instead, one of the cars was for an airline company, another for the electricity company. The eight or so men were holding guns. In the background, there were children playing with toy machine guns. The men ordered him to drop his briefcase, which held some underwear and socks and a bottle of aftershave. He refused, saying that the bottle would break. He was hit in the face by the butt of a gun. He fell to the ground. They taped his eyes and tied his hands behind his back and shoved him in the back of a car.

Luis was taken to the Villa Grimaldi, no longer hospitable to anyone but torturers. They shouted at him, demanding to know about a car he was supposed to have driven, and where he kept his money. They stripped him and took him into a room which held a metal bed. He was blindfolded and laid naked on the bed on his back, legs spread out. Electrodes were attached to his toes, penis, anus, ears and mouth. To improve the level of shock, they poured cold water over him. There were five or six men in the room and they were shouting over the noise of a radio blasting out at full volume. Luis remembers the sound of a generator. One man stood over him, holding another electrode that he touched to various parts of his body. The shocks were horrendous. "It went on and on and on. They were shouting, `This is a tough guy, this is a tough guy, let's carry on'. Then I started to see lights and my ears really, really ached." This went on from 11am until after dark. They only stopped when his heart stopped beating.

He was taken to a room full of people and tied to a bunk. He couldn't move. He was still seeing lights and was desperately thirsty. The men around him kept saying that he should give up, that there was no hope. "I realised that I was on my own then. I couldn't talk. I couldn't say anything because anyone could be a traitor." The next day he was taken to interrogation again. This time he was beaten with a hammer. They hung him by his arms and beat his back with a stick and his feet with a hammer. They applied a soldering iron to his testicles and anus. Eventually they dropped him to the ground.

On the third day, he was taken to see an officer who told Luis that they had gone to school together. Luis did not believe him, though the man could recount the names of teachers and students. He then said that his wife was seriously wounded in hospital and that if Luis did not talk, they would stop her treatment. Luis asked the man how he knew all this. "I shot her," he said. "Look, she ran, what was I supposed to do? Say: excuse me, Miss?" Luis demanded that he be allowed to see his wife.

Nothing ever came of it. Over the next months, he was frequently interrogated, mostly by beating and by applying the soldering iron to his testicles. They used electricity one more time. "They wanted to break you, take away your humanity. With food, you had to hop for it, like a rabbit. Or eat on all fours like a dog. It's part of the torture, to weaken you, degrade you. I was so enraged at that guy about my wife I thought, I'm not going to give them anything. They don't deserve my tears. I saw people begging on their knees. I saw people licking other people's boots, really, to eat." He also saw worse: a man wrapped up in a blanket and kicked; another shot in the hand and the stomach who then had electrodes attached inside his wounds. Both died.

Luis was called in to see the man who said he shot his wife. His name was Miguel Krasnoff. Luis told him that he was never going to tell them anything. "I was calling them bastards. I told them they could destroy my body, rip me apart, but they cannot get inside my head. I told him: `you are not going to get my mind, so why don't you just kill me now? You are a murderer, kill me now.'" They put him in a closet where he could only stand or sit. He was there for 10 days. He survived by separating his body from his brain. The worst point came after several days, when insects entered the box. His hands and fingers were badly infected, as were his testicles, and insects were crawling over him. "I thought I was going to go mad. That's the great fear. Greater than death. Going mad." His brain devised avenues of escape. He would imagine, for instance, that he was playing the piano. "Beethoven, and it was beautiful."

He doesn't know why he wasn't killed - so many were. In March, he was moved from the Villa Grimaldi to an isolation unit. There he saw himself in a mirror and was shocked. He also took a shower and took the chance to wash all his clothes. He stayed naked for three to four days. Was he mad? "Probably. But I just wanted to wash myself and this body didn't belong to me." He was suicidal and decided he couldn't bear the pain of what had happened. "In one minute you can destroy so much evolution. The screams that you scream are not human. God knows where they come from in the brain. You feel like a prehistoric animal." He recalls, with wonder, that some of his torturers were wearing his clothes.

In April 1975, he was taken to a concentration camp in Santiago. When he walked into the camp, the 500 or so inmates started to clap. He had survived. "They had decided that they weren't going to kill me. I still don't know why." He decided he did not want to kill himself, that somehow he must salvage something of humanity out of all this. In the camp, they were more or less left alone. There was a basement with a water cannon where people were sometimes taken. In August, he was moved to another concentration camp in the north. There, he helped to organise a hunger strike and was again put in isolation. "It was 15 days but felt like an eternity. Then they took us back to Santiago."

On the way, the guards decided to stop by a lake to have a barbecue. They made a fire and broke out the beer. They decided to get the prisoners off the bus and line them up: it was to be an execution. Men started to cry. Luis believed that this, finally, was the end. The guards fired. "They did the whole thing but they were firing blanks. They laughed and had a drink and put us back on the bus."

That was at the end of 1975. He would remain in the Santiago concentration camp for another year. Once more, he was taken for interrogation. Once more, they attached the electrodes to his body. This time he was lying on the floor. They asked the same questions: where are the others? Where is the money?

Then, at the end of 1976, the Pinochet regime gave in to international pressure and started to close the camps. There were 2,000 to 3,000 detainees and not all could be tried. Luis wanted to stay in Chile but was told that he had to leave if he wanted to stay alive. He liked the idea of France - his mother had links to that country and he spoke the language - but was told it would be England instead. "By the end of December I landed here. It was cold and covered in snow."

He says the only reason he can tell his story is that he has had 10 years of therapy, and a great deal of help from the pioneering Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, in London. He still wonders why he lived and so many others did not. "Why? Why? Why? You can get rid of lots of pain but it's still always there. You see a face or your back hurts or the tears come back." He assumes Diana is dead but sometimes, on a bus or a train, he thinks he sees her.

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