My father witnessed the military coup in Chile, 40 years ago today

September 11, 2013
man sits on window sill

Franco Urbina sits at the window in the house in Santiago, Chile that soldiers raided on September 11, 1973.

The morning of September 11, 1973, my father Franco Urbina — 16 years old at the time — went to school like any other day. Unlike other schools, however, the iconic National Institute was only a block from La Moneda, the presidential palace in the heart of downtown Santiago.

At 9:30 the headmaster informed the students that it was best if they all went home because something was going to happen. Young Franco didn’t know quite what to make of it and as other older students gathered to figure out what to do, he and a small group of classmates left the school.

Only steps away from the Alameda, downtown Santiago’s main avenue, the teenagers soon realized the gravity of the situation. Bullets had begun to whiz through the air and they quickly decided to go their separate ways and try to get home.

Franco ran, taking cover at intervals behind buildings and any shelter available. At one point he came across a man lying dead in the street, his head blown out by a bullet.

The shots started coming far more frequently, whistling past and filling the air with a fine dust as the bullets hit the buildings. He couldn’t see the bullets, but he could see people collapsing in the street.

He survived the mad dash out of the downtown core and made it to the Mapocho River where soldiers had blocked the bridge, not letting anyone into the city centre. A small troop of nervous conscripts let him pass, with hundreds of people on the other side clamouring to find out what was going on.

It had taken Franco more than an hour to escape the gun battles raging downtown and soon after he got home and turned on the radio, he heard the jets start to make passes overhead. As clear as day, he heard the missiles launch and hiss through the sky to their target, La Moneda. The sound of the bombs was so clear they could have been two blocks away. Helicopters and planes flew over and from the courtyard he saw the column of smoke rising from the presidential palace.

The military had taken over almost all the radio frequencies, save for Radio Magallanes, through which President Salvador Allende made his farewell address to the country. The military message became more and more sinister, first advising people to stay at home, then that they could be at risk if they went out, then that anyone found in the streets could be shot.

Franco’s brothers and father arrived at different times, but all made it home. Lunch was strained, anxious and quick. Franco’s mother and aunts were hardly able to contain their emotions and with good reason.

Evening was coming on and Franco returned to the lounge at the front of the old colonial house to listen to the radio.

The bottom half of the lounge’s tall windows were shuttered, but outside, peaking over the top of the shutter, something metallic and reflective slid past. It was a soldier’s helmet and soon Franco saw the shiny barrels of rifles too. He stepped up onto the window sill to get a better look. Across the street were dozens of carabineros in their army green formation and army-equipped, in the midst of raiding houses across the neighbourhood of Independencia.

Franco didn’t know whether they’d seen him and whether they might start shooting at the house right then, but his first instinct was to alert the family. There are hundreds of police outside, he told them. They’re going to raid the house, he gasped. But no one believed him and desperation began to set in. He insisted but wasn’t taken seriously until — bam, bam, bam — an officer rammed the door with his rifle, demanding that they open the door.

They sprung into action. The two eldest brothers, Leandro and Fernando, headed for the back of the house and the way up to the roof. Leandro Sr. and his son Franco moved towards the door, with the thumping and yelling from outside getting louder. They could have died right there if the officers had decided to shoot, Franco thought. But they didn’t and Leandro Sr. opened the door.

The officers had come for Leandro Jr., who was hiding on the roof, away from view. Having the same name, Leandro’s father told them that he was the one they were looking for. They weren’t convinced and once again demanded to see the younger Leandro. The senior played dumb and said his son didn’t live there anymore, a plausible answer since Leandro spent much of his time with his wife, Uca. The officers had had enough and rather than leave empty-handed, they took Leandro Sr., Franco, his brother Mauricio and a friend that had stopped by at a most inopportune time. Had the carabineros properly searched the house, they would have likely found Leandro. Testimony of the atrocities committed after the coup provide an indication of what might have happened to him. What I am discovering happened to my father is bad enough.

It was the first day of what would become a bloody 17-year dictatorship. On September 18, we will celebrate Chile’s independence day and the long road to truth and justice, in that very house.

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