In 2011 I created a four-part series on this blog entitled On the Sands of Time, with the purpose of describing the hauntingly lovely Chilean town of Pisagua. A fifth installment was planned during a visit from my parents that same year, but unfortunately a vehicle breakdown stopped us twenty minutes into that trip (to Pop-Pop's great and lasting disappointment!)
This week, however, during a visit with friends from Santiago we had the opportunity to take them back to the "town that time forgot." Our trip took us to the one place about which I had not yet written, the historic cemetery of Pisagua. It is as fascinating and mysterious as the town itself, yet starkly tragic as well.
Wooden crosses litter the barren hillside, splinters of a darker brown against the sandy backdrop of the Atacama Desert. Typical of the time yet strange to our modern eyes are the many graves marked by crib-like structures built around them.
Other graves are sealed into walls, the enclosures of several broken open with the ravages of time and eerily revealing the final resting place of the coffins placed within so many generations ago.
Strange as it seems, some of the graves mark the final resting place of foreigners who made it to this now-forgotten place during the days when Iquique was a bustling port. It sparks the imagination to consider the feet that once walked here and the stories that now only echo silently across the shimmering heat waves under the desert sun.
At the far end of the cemetery, imagination turns to cold harsh reality. An open pit guarded by flowers and a chain fence marks the place where the bodies of nearly twenty "disappeared ones" (from the era of Pinochet's takeover and dictatorship) were buried in a mass grave. Discovered in 1990, the grave held bodies preserved by the arid desert and bearing the marks of torture and murder.
In 2006, a memorial was created for the victims who lost their lives during this dark chapter in Pisagua's history. The somber story was carved in marble to withstand the passage of time and records not only the names of those whose bodies were found but also those of others known to have died or disappeared in this place, at that time.
Inside the town of Pisagua there is a different sort of memorial. Sharply painted on an empty wall, accompanied by a sister painting extolling the virtues of young communism, is this mural which cries: "25 YEARS PISAGUA ... NOTHING IS FORGOTTEN!"
But the words chosen to mark Pisagua's most terrible and renowned gravesite are those of Chile's own poet, Pablo Neruda. "Though footsteps touch this site for a thousand years, they will not erase the blood of those who fell here."
This visit raised many questions among the oldest of the children in our traveling group, especially our daughter Eva and our friends' twin 14-year old daughters who will be studying this chapter of their country's history in school this year. In fact, as I stood in front of the mural to photograph it, Eva asked me why I wanted to look at something so ugly. My response to her was the only one that makes sense - to forget the dark chapters of history is to stand in danger of repeating them.
Chile is a country which has prospered and advanced in so many ways, but the shadow of the Pinochet era still lingers over the lives who were touched by it. A memorial in a graveyard of crosses will never heal those wounds. How thankful we are to know the only One Who can!