"In the hallucinatory photographs of Paula Allen, the lunar landscape of northern Chile's desert stretches toward the horizon like a sea of grief. That arid land is the perfect metaphor for the unremitting pain of the women of the disappeared. Their suffering is that vast, that terrible. The tiny figures of the women with shovels in their hands, scouring that plain baked by a brutal climate, are in these photographs converted into eternal symbols."
The Women of Calama
The story of the courageous women of Calama begins in the north of Chile, in the center of the Atacama Desert. In September 1973, following General Augusto Pinochet's seizure of power from the socialist government of Salvador Allende, thousands of people began to vanish from the cities and villages of Chile in a process that has come to be known as "disappearing.”
One month after the coup, five soldiers boarded a military helicopter and began a journey which came to be known as the "Caravan of Death."
The soldiers traveled to five cities, stopping long enough to murder a total of seventy-five people. On October 19, 1973, the Caravan of Death made its final stop, in the town of Calama, where twenty-six men were executed, their bodies buried in a secret desert grave.
During the first few years after the disappearances, many of the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers of the twenty-six men met secretly. Frustrated by official unwillingness to provide information about their relatives' fate, the women set out into the desert, with shovels, to find the bodies of their loved ones.
For seventeen years the women persevered until they finally discovered the mass grave. This book tells their story.
On Christmas Day 1989, I walked into the Atacama Desert for the first time with the women of Calama. I had come to photograph these women searching for the bodies of twenty-six executed men, but I found myself alternating between taking pictures and helping the women dig.
A bond quickly developed between the women and me that transcended the relationship of photographer and subject, connecting us deeply as women and friends. I saw their hope shattered a hundred times in the face of repeated disappointments, watched as they returned from the Valley of the Moon with headaches and sunburns, and shoes full of sand, but nevertheless set out again the next day with flashlights and shovels following rumors and intuitions.
In June 1990, after seventeen years of searching, the women finally found a mass grave, only fifteen kilometers from Calama. What they found were the crushed remains of their men. Painfully and reluctantly, they were forced to give up the dream of ever finding whole bodies and had to bury plastic bags full of bones. It took five years to identify thirteen of the men.
Twenty-three years later, my commitment to the women of Calama has not lessened. As always, I return to the desert with a group of women. We no longer sift through the sand looking for bodies, but we clean the memorial, putting down fresh flowers because it is Valentine's Day, and we shake the dust off the plastic carnations wedged between the stones of the original cross which still marks the spot where the men were found.
In November 2011, thirty-eight years after the killings and disappearances, the women gathered in a courtroom in Calama to receive new identifications of eight of the men. Advancements in DNA testing could now identify a victim using the tiniest bone fragment.
One by one they approached the magistrate's bench to sign documents stating they had accepted the findings. For three of the families there was nothing to receive; the tiny traces of their missing relatives had dissolved during the laboratory testing. The remains had vanished, like the men.
How the money raised will be used
Flowers in the Desert: The Search for Chile’s Disappeared will be published by the University Press of Florida in Spring 2013. The costs to produce this book, including editing and translating (the book is bilingual); scanning, correcting, and printing the photographs; promotion; distribution and so on have proven to be extremely high.
The money raised through this Kickstarter campaign will be used to produce an extraordinary photography book, one that elegantly details the women’s decades-long struggle in Chile, and one that serves to document an important storyline in Chile’s history that is often overlooked.
I hope that these Kickstarter funds will allow the University Press of Florida to create a book that is both affordable and accessible and that will touch as many lives as possible in an effort to educate others about one of the most tragic acts against human rights in history.
Any additional funds raised above our goal will be used for extended promotion for the book. We want Flowers in the Desert to become mandatory reading for students (of Latin American and Women’s studies) and to be readily available at bookstores both in the United States and Latin America. We also want to support the travel costs of the photographer, Paula Allen, so she can continue her ongoing documentary work on the women of Calama.
The story of the women of Calama, even after thirty-eight years, has not ended. The women, their children, and now their grandchildren are still pursuing justice for the crimes committed in 1973, and they are still waiting for identification of eight of the men whose remains have never been located or verified. The full truth has yet to be revealed.
I am very appreciative of the time you have taken to read this Kickstarter Campaign. Thank you for supporting this book and for bearing witness. The women will know that what they have gone through matters and that they are not alone.
- (30 days)