Reflections on the Struggle for Justice: Cristián Correa


As we look back on 15 years of ICTJ's work, we recognize that our greatest asset is the people whose knowledge, experience, and dedication made our contribution possible. To celebrate all who have been part of ICTJ’s story over the years, we asked some of our former colleagues to share their reflections and memories of moments that stand out: moments that throw the stakes of our work into sharp relief. In the weeks and months to come we will bring you their stories in Reflections on the Struggle for Justice.

Cristian Correa, Senior Associate in ICTJ’s Reparative Justice Program, shares a story about the revelatory power of truth-telling in Chile.

It is 2003, and I am the secretary of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture in Chile. We are spending months touring the country, listening to heartbreaking stories of lives destroyed by the after-effects of torture. Men and women are often talking for the first time about experiences during their detention in the 1970s. Their thirty-year old secrets, once unburdened, turn out to have consequences we couldn’t have imagined.

I am in my small office when María Luisa Sepúlveda, the Executive Secretary of the Commission, calls me and asked me to accompany her on an interview.

This is rare, as we usually receive the testimonies of victims through individual interviews by all our staff, or sometimes with several of the commissioners during our trips to the regions. If María Luisa is asking me to accompany her on an interview is because this is something different. In the hallway I meet a woman in her mid-fifties. I greet her and notice that she is followed by a younger woman. María Luisa clarifies to me that the woman asked to bring her daughter for support while she adds additional facts to her earlier statement.

The four of us sat down together, huddled closely at the end of a long conference table.

A mix of sadness and resilience in her face, the older woman began to talk. She gave her name and when and where she was detained. It was not long after the coup against Allende, and like many she was jailed for having socialist sympathies. During her detention, she was sent for several weeks to a military base, now well known as a torture center.

We never pushed victims to detail what happened to them. It was up to them to decide how much they were capable of sharing. Some people said very little, letting us fill in the blanks. Courageously, this woman shared everything. Her daughter put her hand on her shoulder as she described the terror she felt when she arrived, and then the torture that she endured.

Her composure fractured as she began to describe the rape. The daughter’s eyes grew wide with fear, and then realization. We felt our presence recede. The mother turned to her saying softly, with tears streaming down her face, “I’m sorry that I never told you.”

The two sat locked in space, looking at one another. “That is why you never had patience with me. Now I understand,” the daughter murmured through her sobs. After a few minutes, the interview continued. At the end, as the two women left the room, their relationship forever changed, I saw relief on the mother’s face. On the daughter’s, though, were only questions about her identity that may never be fully answered.

PHOTO: The non-violent group Movimiento contra la Tortura Sebastián Acevedo, which protested torture during the time of the dictatorship, stages a demonstration. (Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos)