The soldiers set fire to the grounds three times, hoping to obliterate every trace of their crimes. The trees, though, they could not entirely kill. Some left seeds. In the years that followed, the trees reappeared, sprouting around the charred craters of their old selves.

And so the memory of Chile’s greatest cruelty lingers. Not in ruined buildings or unearthed bodies, or abandoned implements of torture and execution, but in a curious hole at the heart of a tree. Even those who suffered and died here never knew where they were taken. But decades later, the earth still brandishes the scars, as if it refuses to be forgotten, because what was done here was too hateful to forget.

Thirty years ago, this was Villa Grimaldi, an elegant estate built by an Italian family on the outskirts of Santiago. After the bloody September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew an elected government and put General Augusto Pinochet in power, Villa Grimaldi was taken over and transformed into a detention center, where the enemies of the new regime were shipped, in secret, and silenced. Between 1974 and 1978, about 4,000 people were tortured there. At least eighteen were killed, and another 200 disappeared, likely executed as well. Those responsible for the atrocities at Villa Grimaldi were blinded by hatred for their political opponents. Their work became something more than rooting out information, or intimidating people into submission. It became the realization of a sadist’s fantasy: “la destrucci n de la persona.” The enemy must be made to suffer until he is broken, until she is destroyed. And so the torturers showed no mercy. They poured scalding water over prisoner’s bodies, and dunked them in vats of dirty water, urine, or feces. They hung prisoners up by ropes and thrust sticks into their anuses or burnt their genitalia with lighters. Women prisoners were routinely raped by packs of men, even by packs of dogs.

Today, survivors of Villa Grimaldi return regularly to their former prison. They are working to turn the place where many of them were beaten, maimed, and raped into a peace park and museum. Over the years since the camp closed down, in 1978, they have collected evidence of the torture and execution that occurred at Villa Grimaldi–painstakingly, because there are many in Chile even today who argue that the atrocities never happened.

Some of the government’s torturers have confessed. Pinochet has not. He still insists that he did not know of the activities of the DINA, his government’s secret police, which ran Villa Grimaldi and other torture and detention centers throughout the country, and was allegedly responsible for the killings and disappearances of at least 3,000 people, including hundreds of foreigners. His supporters admit that some “mistakes” were made, at Villa Grimaldi and elsewhere, but that the objective–freeing the country of the socialist rule of Chilean President Salvador Allende–required extreme measures. The ends, they insist, justified the means. As the spokeswoman for the Pinochet Foundation put it to me: “We had to clean house.”

I visited the Villa Grimaldi peace park last  August. When I returned to the United States, government officials had already started making the case for war in Iraq. From time to time, they brought up the human rights abuses perpetrated by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. It was another dictator, but the same crimes. In Chile, Pinochet’s soldiers rounded up the country’s undesirables–leftists, intellectuals, union members, students, their families–and trucked them to camps like Villa Grimaldi, where many vanished. In Iraq, Saddam waged a campaign of genocide against Kurdish civilians in 1988, gassing or executing tens of thousands; three years later, he crushed a revolt in southern Iraq, arresting, torturing, and “disappearing” thousands of Shi’a Muslims.

Villa Grimaldi’s torturers liked to tie couples to bunk beds of wire mesh, so that one partner could watch the other writhe in pain; Saddam occasionally brought in a prisoner’s wife or mother and had her raped in front of her loved one’s eyes. The Chileans experimented with the use of poison gas and injections of rabies on their victims; the Iraqis pierced hands with electric drills, ripped out fingernails, gouged eyes, cut out tongues. Other techniques were regularly used in both countries: hanging prisoners by their arms for hours, beating them with sticks or cables, ramming objects up their anuses, applying voltage to their genitalia.

Even when they weren’t being tortured, prisoners would be kept awake by the screams of other victims. In Iraq, some prisoners were forced to sleep facedown, their hands tied behind their backs; in Villa Grimaldi they were housed in closet-sized cells so cramped they could not sit down. Their eyes were taped over and black hoods placed over their heads. Only in the torture room would the hood be taken off, so that the torturer could read the prisoner’s face for signs of a premature death.

“If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning,” President George W. Bush said last month of Iraqi human rights violations. He could easily have been speaking about the atrocities committed in Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship. And yet, there is a key difference. This time, the United States stands ready–eager, in fact–to do something to root out the evil.

Before we sign up for another crusade in the Middle East, however, we must consider some troubling facts. First, the truth is that liberating the Iraqi people is merely a sideshow, if even that much; the chief purpose of this war, the Bush administration has repeatedly said, is to remove a threat to U.S. national security. Second, even if the chief goal of this war were humanitarian intervention, it is not clear that the United States would have grounds to invade Iraq at this time, given that Saddam’s known acts of genocide occurred more than a decade ago. Third, the United States at the present moment has a shallow reservoir of credibility upon which to wage a war–even a war with as noble an aim as bringing the Butcher of Baghdad to justice.

I raise these concerns as someone with ambivalent feelings about military intervention in Iraq. When I left the Villa Grimaldi peace park last summer, I remember thinking how I wished the United States or some other country had made an effort back then to liberate Villa Grimaldi and Chile’s other detention centers before so many suffered and died. But since then I have come to recognize that–as much as I wish it to be otherwise–there are never easy solutions to the human catastrophes in places like Iraq or Chile. Sending in the Marines may seem like the quickest and best way to free a country’s people from violent repression, and yet it should never be forgotten that war by its very nature causes suffering–the most intense suffering human beings can know.

I still think that the case can be made for the use of armed force in Iraq. But this will require a different kind of leadership than we have seen so far, in America or Europe or the Middle East. It will require leaders who are willing to take the long and difficult path to attain legitimacy for their actions–a legitimacy backed not just by bold moral arguments, but also by the decisive weight of world opinion. Fortunately, recent developments in the area of human rights law (among them, the 1998 attempt to extradite Pinochet for crimes against humanity) have established a common language and common institutions for thinking and acting upon these concerns. Slowly but surely, we have been moving toward a world where the rule of states–whether Iraq or the United States–goes only so far, and where heads of state are held accountable for their actions, at home and abroad. What the United States does in the next few weeks, however, will make all the difference: Will the institutions that can legitimately deal with these crimes against humanity grow stronger, or
will they be torn apart by a superpower that thinks it can go it alone in the world?

Regardless of whether human rights is a genuine concern of the Bush administration, it clearly is not the driving motivation for the present Iraq policy. The administration’s argument-in-a-nutshell is that (a) Saddam is a menace to the world, and specifically the United States, and (b) he must be disarmed via invasion, because inspections aren’t working. That premise, as I have argued previously in this space, is a tough sell–or, at least tough to sell to anyone who properly respects the might of the world’s sole superpower. If by chance Iraq gives a slap to America’s cheek, America would swiftly return the cradle of civilization to its pre-civilization state. What kind of threat, then, does Iraq actually pose? (It seems that the only real threat to the United States nowadays is al-Qaeda, a shadowy network of terrorists who can’t be so easily bombed into oblivion.) And while we are discussing the merits of retaliation, we should also consider that a doctrine of self-defense that allows pre-emptive strikes–that is, the use of armed force not in response to any direct attempt to harm the United States–could also have been used to justify the bombing of U.S. naval vessels at Pearl Harbor (which apparently presented a menace far too close to imperial Japan’s own shores). In other words, striking first is rather hard to justify as moral behavior, as any schoolchild who’s gotten into a fight can tell you.

This notion of threat aside, let’s consider more carefully the administration’s use of humanitarian arguments in favor of war. Virtually every one of Bush’s speeches makes note of the rapacious evil of “the world’s most brutal dictator.” If the atrocities are true (and groups like Amnesty International–clearly no fans of Bush–have carefully documented them), why shouldn’t the United States liberate Iraq from its tyrant? The world rightly lamented its failure to stop the ongoing genocide in Rwanda; it reacted much too slowly to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Why not act now in Iraq, when the political winds are blowing at the president’s back, and the opportunity might never come again?

Oddly, human rights advocacy groups have been less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a humanitarian war. London-based Amnesty International worries that military action in Iraq will worsen the famine there, uproot “massive” numbers of people from their homes, and ultimately lead to a “human rights and humanitarian catastrophe,” in Iraq as well as neighboring countries. While it supported military action to stop Serbian massacres in Bosnia, Washington-based Human Rights Watch says the situation of ongoing genocide that existed in that country does not exist today in Iraq. As the organization said recently in a statement: “We have advocated military intervention in limited circumstances when the people of a country are facing genocide or comparable mass slaughter. Horrific as Saddam Hussein’s human rights record is, it does not today appear to meet this high threshold–in contrast, for example, with his behavior during the 1988 Anfal genocide against the Iraqi Kurds,” when Iraqi troops rounded up more than 100,000 Kurds in northern Iraq and executed them.

The problem, too, is that raining bombs upon Baghdad will also leave the liberators with blood on their hands. The “precision” bombs that the United States and its allies are using in Iraq will likely kill tens of thousands of civilians, not to mention tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. Furthermore, it is quite possible that in Iraq, a country riven by age-old ethnic and religious differences and held together by the iron hand of its tyrant, the leader who replaces Saddam Hussein will be, or will have to be, just as brutal. With such concerns in mind, many human rights activists say they cannot advocate war in Iraq–even a just war that would presumably end the torturing and killing taking place in Iraq’s own Villas Grimaldi.

We could call the reluctance of human rights advocates to wage war in Iraq a sign of hypocrisy. Many hawks do. But we should remember, too, that there are many good reasons to be skeptical about the U.S. government’s present-day zeal for human rights. Take Iraq. Even after Saddam’s gas attacks and mass executions of Kurds were documented in the late 1980s, Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. said nothing, and continued to provide Iraq with credits to buy American grain and manufactured goods. In Chile, the Central Intelligence Agency aggressively supported the coup that brought Pinochet to power–even providing tear gas and submachine guns to a group of coup plotters who ended up killing Army Commander Rene Schneider, an Allende supporter, in a botched kidnapping attempt. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger happened to oversee this and other covert operations in Chile around the time of the coup, and he was well-informed about Pinochet’s bloody crackdown on dissidents. In June 1976, when Villa Grimaldi was running at full throttle, Kissinger encouraged the dictator behind closed doors: “We are sympathetic to what you are trying to do here,” he told Pinochet.

This brings me to my final point: the United States’ lack of credibility to wage a humanitarian war. Some may argue that the United States had no choice but to support dictators like Pinochet, fighting as it was then a global war against communism. But that also is a simplification of reality. The United States may have had to defend its national interests abroad, but human rights clearly could have played a much more prominent role in the decision-making of its leaders. Had U.S. presidents shown any moral backbone, values of democracy and liberty could have shaped foreign policy for the better not only in Iraq or Chile, but also in countries like Nicaragua (where the United States trained and funded a mercenary army that terrorized the civilian population) and Cambodia (where the United States conducted a secret bombing campaign that killed hundreds of thousands of innocents).

Instead, there were clear and tragic excesses. Even if the policies undertaken in these countries were not intended to cause harm to civilians, America’s utter disregard for the life-and-death consequences of its actions has stoked hatred and resentment of the United States around the world. For this reason, former South African president Nelson Mandela could say to a United Nations forum last month–to applause–“if there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.”

The United States can salvage its reputation, but only if it makes human rights a higher priority in its foreign policy. Iraq will be the test. If the Bush administration believes its rhetoric about Saddam’s evil, then it must pursue a legitimate campaign to oust him from power and bring him to justice. But the United States cannot hope to win that legitimacy through unilateral action. It cannot hope to win it flanked by the usual suspects–the leaders of countries like Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, who are inexplicably defying the will of their own people in order to stand with Washington. (It should be noted that roughly half the world is not in favor of military action in Iraq “under any circumstances,” according to a Gallup International poll; throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa, support for a war waged unilaterally by the United States and its allies against Iraq is in the teens or single digits.) To win legitimacy for its proposed military action, the United States must make a point of convincing ordinary people as well as elite decision-makers–in China, France, Germany, and Russia, but, more importantly, in Arab and Muslim countries. The outcome of this lobbying is not trivial. Having the weight of world opinion on the side of intervention will mean the difference between universal justice and vigilante justice. But so far, the United States hasn’t made much of a case for war to the people who really matter, and its superpowered arrogance has angered and offended the very allies it needs in its “war on terror.”

Fortunately, the example of Chile provides some hope that the world–when approached respectfully–can be convinced to side against tyranny. When Pinochet finally stepped down as head of state in 1990, he escaped any legal retribution for the crimes he had commited in Chile, thanks to various amnesty laws that he had made a point of enacting during the dictatorship. But in 1998, when Pinochet was visiting London, a Spanish judge asked for his extradition. Judge Baltazar Garzon insisted that the eighty-three-year-old ex-dictator be tried for crimes committed during his rule–namely, the genocide, terrorism, and torture of Spaniards in Chile and Chileans who now lived in Spain. Rallying to the Spanish judge’s cause, prosecutors argued before Britain’s House of Lords that international law should in this case supersede state law, and that there was no immunity for crimes against immunity. The court ruled in their favor.

What does the case of Pinochet say about the possibilities for bringing Saddam to justice? While Pinochet eventually went free, the fact that principles of international human rights finally had their day in court–and were found to have a legitimacy above and beyond the law of a single nation–has breathed life into other movements for justice. These same principles have lately found a home in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic is at last being judged for his role in Balkan genocide. In spite of the objections of Yugoslav authorities, Milosevic was handed over to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in June 2001, and he very well may face punishment for orchestrating the slaughter of Bosnians, Croatians, and Kosovars.

Saddam will not likely see a courtroom anytime soon–unless, of course, the United States attacks, or he flees the country in advance of an invasion. But thanks to the last decade of progress in international human rights law, the stage is set for that much-anticipated denouement. The tales of Saddam’s atrocities are enough to inspire humanitarians around the world to action, if the U.S. government would drop its doom-and-gloom scenarios and focus on the moral case for intervention. The United States has the international legal framework it needs to try Saddam, if the U.S. government would think to use it. What is needed now is an American leader patient enough to move the world down the path of justice for Iraq–to a just war if need be, and to the just peace that should be.

If Iraq is lucky, it will one day know the peace that Chile has finally won–decades after the killings, years after the downfall of its murderous dictator. It is a peace that Chile attained not through war, but through patience, perseverance, and, yes, forgiveness. You can see it in Villa Grimaldi, the very heart of the darkness. The work that survivors of the camp do today to bring past atrocities to light is not motivated by vengeance against Pinochet or the soldiers who worked under him, says Luis Santibanez, the architect who designed the peace park. “We are fighting for them, too. We want to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again, to anyone, regardless of their beliefs,” he says.

Ultimately, there is hope in the story of Villa Grimaldi, Santibanez says. Even under the most brutal conditions, there were those who found the strength to resist: the men and women who hid the names of other prisoners in slips of paper on their bodies, keeping their memories alive; the cellmates who wetted the lips of friends dying from electrocution with their saliva-moistened fingers; the lone man who, though crippled and able only to crawl, remained defiant to the end, shouting “Hope!” to other prisoners as they walked into the torture chambers.

As he walks among the somber monuments of his park, Santibanez reminds his visitors of the beauty this place of torture once possessed. Villa Grimaldi was a shrine to Old World beauty–a sanctuary of lush gardens adorned by statues, fountains, flowers. “In architecture school we were taught that beautiful things happen in beautiful places,” Santibanez says, his voice almost wistful. “But this place is a contradiction of that.””

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: victortanchen.com | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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