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Selected Work by Judy Sklar Rasminsky

Ordeal by Fire

Co-author Eva Neisser Echenberg
The
Toronto Star, September 12, 1987
Feature, 2200 words

From the moment she stepped off the plane onto Chilean soil on June 7, 1987, Carmen Gloria Quintana felt an intoxicating rush of excitement and apprehension.

This was the second trip home for the former University of Santiago engineering student since her family had fled to Montreal, Que., last September. Though she was grateful to her newly adopted country for offering her refuge and medical care, Canada was more like a good friend than a member of the family: Her heart still belonged to Chile, despite the constant presence of soldiers and hungry children in the streets.

Her return in April had been a triumph. Pope John Paul had wrapped his arms around her like a father and urged her to work for justice in Chile. Thousands of young people had chanted her name at a rally in the National Stadium. She had really become a symbol of hope for democracy in her country.

Surrounded by family and friends for one short week, the 19 year old hadn't even minded that her small cousins had been frightened of her face—a grafted patchwork of browns, pinks and whites punctuated by angry red scars—a legacy of when she had been set on fire July 2 last year on her way to a demonstration against General Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. (Her companion, Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, also 19, who had just returned to Chile after 10 years in Canada and the United States, died as a result of his burns four days later.)

But this visit promised to be much more traumatic. Instead of the Pope, she would be facing a military tribunal. Instead of attending a rally, she would be taking part in a dramatic re-enactment of the horrible moments of July 2. She might even face Lieutenant Pedro Fernandez Dittus, the leader of the military patrol that had burned her, who stood accused of negligence resulting in death and bodily harm, a relatively minor charge but the only one that the government had brought in Carmen's and Rodrigo's case.

Because Fernandez Dittus was a soldier, the case fell under military jurisdiction. The military judge would reach a verdict on the basis of a file now being prepared for him by Commander Erwin Blanco, the ad hoc inquiry judge.

It was Carmen who had demanded this confrontation. The military had presented its version of events in a re-enactment of the scene in January. According to them, she and Rodrigo had set themselves alight by kicking over a bottle of benzine that they had been carrying. Now Carmen was determined to tell her side of the story.

Telling her story is what gives meaning to her life these days.

She had cried all night the first time she saw her face in the mirror in the burn unit of Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Montreal. But her mother, Audelina, had pulled her back from self-pity by reminding her of her own words. On the day before the July demonstration, Carmen had shrugged off her mother's warnings and insisted on standing up for her beliefs. She had even said she was willing to die to aid the hungry children she helped each weekend at the student-run soup kitchens.  

Now it was even more important to speak out. Her sister Emilia, 21, and Emilia's husband, Luis Fuentes, 23, witnesses to the burning, were returning to Chile to give evidence with her. Her mother went with them to ensure that Carmen ate, slept and received the medical attention she still needed to recover from the second- and third-degree burns that had covered 62 per cent of her body. Her father, Carlos, three younger sisters and a brother had stayed behind in Montreal.

A large crowd greeted the Quintanas at the airport but they did not linger. Because several witnesses and lawyers associated with the case had already been arrested, kidnapped or threatened, a human rights organization run by the church, the Vicarate of Solidarity, had arranged cars to whisk them directly to sanctuary, a convent run by Belgian nuns.

There the family remained, receiving no phone calls or visitors and checking with the nuns each time they entered or left the building. They moved around the city only by taxi and only in a phalanx of six—Carmen, Emilia, Luis, Audelina, Audelina's sister Ana Arancibia Armijo and a young Vicarate of Solidarity volunteer, Jorge Aguirre.  

The first official encounter was scheduled for June 10. Her mother's silver crucifix around her neck, her heart thudding, Carmen made her way through the troops around the military court house with her family, Canadian lawyer Denis Racicot, and Chilean lawyers Luis Toro and Hector Salazar. When the guards directed the others to a large, filthy waiting room without a single chair, Carmen went to the tiny ad hoc courtroom alone.

In 14½ hours of questioning over two days, she related the facts as she knew them in a low, soft voice, trying to control both her anger and her anguish.

At 7.30 a.m. on July 2, she said, she had set out from her home in the working class suburb of Los Nogales with Emilia, Luis and some friends to take part in a nationwide day of protest against the government. As they reached streets where a fogata—a barricade of burning tires, a common form of protest in Chile—had been planned, a military patrol, their faces painted black, had stopped her and Rodrigo. The soldiers had searched and questioned them, beaten them, poured benzine over them from head to foot and set them on fire. Then they dumped them in a ditch beside a road near the airport, some 20 kilometres away.

"If the soldiers hadn't beaten Rodrigo in the kidneys and broken his ribs, he would be alive, like me," she told the judge before she finally emerged from the courtroom in tears.

Emilia and Luis each also endured two full days of questioning and Carmen underwent a court-ordered medical and psychological exam to determine her fitness to take part in the re-enactment of the scene. 

Although these days of testimony were rattling, she felt herself growing stronger. She yearned to move freely in the city, to savor it while she could. Like the rest of her family, she wanted to leave the convent. They postponed their departure when 12 people were killed "resisting arrest" in a 20-hour period on June 15 and 16, but on June 20 they moved into their own house in Los Nogales and embarked on a dizzying round of visits and appointments.

Out each day from 9 a.m. to midnight, visiting university, churches, soup kitchens, Rodrigo's grave, they received guests and phone calls before they left and after they returned. Audelina, Emilia and Luis were exhausted, but Carmen, running on adrenalin, stayed up to entertain until 2 or 3 a.m. People mobbed her in the streets, running into the nearest shop to buy small gifts—ash trays, ceramic animals, dolls—that they pressed into her hands along with hastily scribbled notes.

But the excitement took its toll: Carmen lost 5 kilograms and without physiotherapy the flexibility of her hands scarcely progressed. (Writing is still hard for her.) Luckily the lycra pressure suit that encased her body from neck to toes—made at Hotel-Dieu to soften and atrophy her scar tissue—felt like a second skin in the cold winter weather.

Dr. Jorge Villegas, who had cared for her at El Trabajador Hospital during the crucial first weeks after the burning, made Carmen some new masks: a skin-colored latex one for day that covered her entire head except for her eyes, nose and mouth, and a reinforced latex night mask with a hard pink acrylic undermask for the area around her mouth. Despite their zippers, the masks fit so tightly that she needs help to pull them on. "And," Carmen adds, "they make me look like Spiderman."

On the first anniversary of the burning, Carmen awoke with a feeling of intense sadness. She was no longer the beautiful, carefree young woman she had been. She hated feeling so helpless, hated seeing the men who had burned her and Rodrigo free on the streets of Chile. But her suffering had matured her and given her self-control and unusual clarity of vision. The timidness she sometimes used to feel was gone—she had a purpose, a reason to survive. She was glad to be in Chile speaking for those who could not speak for themselves.

All over the country people remembered her and Rodrigo by lighting candles. They had scheduled a full day, culminating in a ceremony on Calle Yunque, the site of the burning, where Carmen helped repaint the mural dedicated to her and Rodrigo. As soon as their permit to demonstrate expired, the police moved in with tear gas to disperse the crowd. The shock they felt after eight peaceful months in Canada was even more profound than the burning.

When a date for the re-enactment was finally set, Carmen was ready. At the line-up on June 25, she had found it hard to identify Fernandez Dittus among the soldiers with black-painted faces who had filed before her between 7.30 p.m. and 1 a.m., and because she had been only 90 per cent sure that she had selected the right man, the judge had instructed her not to sign the identification paper. But she knew that when she stood on Calle Yunque surrounded by soldiers she would remember his face clearly.

On July 12, the first day of the re-enactment, the police cordoned off an eight-block area and searched houses to prevent the press from watching the proceedings. Carmen's mother, carrying antibiotic Carmen needed for her bronchitis, had great difficulty getting through the lines.

The rain came down in sheets all day. From 7 a.m. the judge and his clerks stood beneath umbrellas in the middle of the street, but Carmen was not permitted to have one. A tall young man from the state security police played the part of Rodrigo, while Carmen, Emilia, Luis and several other witnesses who had not testified in January retraced the steps they had taken on July 2, 1986.

When the men with rifles and black-painted faces circled her this time, Carmen, her long poncho dripping, her short black hair plastered to her face, studied them carefully. The leader wasn't among them. Then she spotted him in a nearby car. "That's him," she said, pointing.

Ordered from the car by the judge, Fernandez Dittus reluctantly took his place. Carmen looked him in the eye. "When will you tell the truth?" she asked. Fernandez Dittus laughed.

Because the official record of the re-enactment did not tally with what she had said, she refused to sign it. "Basta, mierda," ("That's enough, you s. . ."), the judge shouted, hitting his desk and threatening her with solitary confinement. “You're not in a North American court."

Carmen's answer was loud and clear. "I'm not afraid. You've already done the worst you can do to me.”

The final confrontation with Fernandez Dittus was an anticlimax by comparison. The two days of the re-enactment were Carmen's real calvary. Though she had stood firm against intimidation, she could not forget the judge's bullying and insults and the soldiers' laughter and vulgar remarks.

The verdict of the military court is not expected for at least a year. Although the media managed to cover the entire legal process, including the re-enactment, Carmen has little confidence that justice will be done. Fernandez Dittus, freed on $35 bail in January, was promoted to captain in June. Carmen is putting her faith in another judge: The Chilean people.

On July 30, she returned to the humid Montreal summer. Claiming that she had forgotten how to speak French, she eluded journalists and ran through Dorval Airport to embrace the family she hadn't seen for seven weeks. It was one of the rare moments in the last 13 months that she had allowed herself to be a private citizen.

She now faces a series of operations at Hotel-Dieu and a parade of speaking engagements, including an appearance at the human rights commission of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. She and her family are also setting up the Carmen Gloria Foundation to help the poor in Chile.

Now the Quintana family must grapple with the realities of the second year of refugee life in Canada. Carmen's father, a skilled electrician, has not found enough hours of work to support his family. Emilia and Lidia, 18, who would be attending university in Chile and who want to continue their studies, must pay foreign student fees that the family cannot afford. They are currently cleaning offices.

As soon as Carmen has completed her medical treatment, in one or two years, she plans to return to her homeland. In spite of everything, she wants to raise her children there. "I want to keep fighting to end the dictatorship so that the children of the future can live in freedom."  

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Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.

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