Talking to: Lily Traubman, 60, rehabilitation therapist, lives in Kibbutz Megiddo, immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. Where: Her apartment in the kibbutz. When: Tuesday, 11 A.M.
Let’s start from the end: You, an Israeli citizen, have filed a petition against the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, and have accused them of abetting crimes against humanity.
I am demanding disclosure of Israel’s security and foreign relations with Chile during the period of rule by Augusto Pinochet, in which tens of thousands of people were kidnapped, murdered and tortured because of their opinions – and the world was silent. To this day, 3,000 people remain missing, their fate unknown. I want to uncover the documents and information.
You fled from Chile to Israel in 1974, so why now?
The truth is I simply didn’t know it was possible: I started to act only after I learned about a decision in the United States to make public the documents about Washington’s ties with Chile. I was 17 on the day of the coup there, during which my father was murdered. I came to Israel at the age of 19. I will be 60 this month. It’s important for me to know the truth.
Four decades have passed.
True, but for me, it is still totally alive. And not only for me. Things are not quiet in Chile and they won’t be until the truth is known. The crimes of the dictatorship, and the fate of the missing people in particular, continue to occupy Chilean society. At first few fought for it, but now hundreds of thousands have joined the fight, and more and more details are coming to light about Pinochet’s rule. I was in Chile three years ago and it moved me deeply to see young people, born long after the coup, demonstrating in favor of democracy and the constitution, while holding up photographs of missing people. That wound is not healing.
Let’s recall that before the coup in 1973 and Pinochet’s rise to power, Chile was ruled by President Salvador Allende, a Marxist. The Nixon administration was involved in toppling him, claiming that they feared he would undermine democracy in South America. Tell me about the day of the coup, September 11.
I was in 11th grade and was a political activist in a left-wing organization called MIR. I’d hitchhiked to school: The coup occurred after a long period of strikes in Chile, the right wing tried to shut down the country, and public transportation was not operating. I got to school, but classes didn’t start. A girl in my class got a phone call in the school office from her mother, who was a journalist. She told her that Allende had arrived at the presidential palace in an armored personnel carrier. When my friend passed the information on to me, I said, “Well, what nonsense. You’re exaggerating. It must be because of the strikes.” We kept waiting, and then the principal came in and said to me, “Lily, there is a military coup, come with me to help calm the girls in the classes. We have to close the school; you are all going home.” There was hysteria in the air.
And did you go home?
From school I went to the MIR meeting place. We had a plan: In the event of a military coup, we would protect the presidential palace. There had been a coup attempt six weeks earlier, and our activists had gone to the palace and asked for weapons to protect Allende. He hadn’t agreed to distribute weapons, and rightly so, because he knew that could touch off a civil war.
No one was at the meeting place when I got there that day; our activists just gave up in advance. I went home, to the apartment where I lived with my mother and her husband. Neither was home. The neighbors told me my mother had gone to a doctor whose office was opposite the presidential palace, which was being bombed. My mother’s husband, Peter, was employed at the Technical University at the time. The radio reported that hundreds of people were being executed in the university’s courtyard. It was frightening. I couldn’t find my father, either. The hotel he lived in told me he had gone out and hadn’t returned.
Did you find them?
It took a long time. There was a curfew. After a few days it turned out that my mother and her husband were hiding with a former neighbor. I wasn’t able to find out what happened to my father. At first I tried going back to school, but in the end people came to interrogate me there and I realized that it was too dangerous. I kept searching for my father. Afterward, we learned that he had been arrested two days after the coup. He was supposed to broadcast and report in the event of a military coup. The neighbors informed on him. He was arrested, his radio equipment was found, and they just tortured him to death.
What had you heard in the meantime about what was going on around you?
I heard about people who disappeared, who were tortured and murdered. There was a moment at which I could no longer leave my hiding place, and so I really didn’t know what was happening. But before that, members of my group went on meeting in the underground. We would meet one-on-one, for five minutes. For example, we might pretend we were looking at the newspapers in a kiosk, and then hand over a note or exchange a few words. Or someone might call to say he had information for me and I should come. That was a big dilemma, because it could have been a trap, but curiosity always got the better of fear. A great many of my friends were arrested. One of them, the father of an infant, was taken for interrogation. His wife hid with the baby and they were not caught. He was tortured but did not crack, so he was released. He felt he had outwitted them and went to visit his wife and the baby. He was followed. They seized the baby, took her into custody and tortured her before his eyes.
They tortured the baby?! My God!
They poured hot and cold water on her alternately, and he of course immediately broke down and told them everything. They did horrific things. They also used biological weapons. I know of people who were arrested who had bacteria injected into their food in prison. Some of them died and others survived with serious injuries. They injected rabies viruses into one person I knew and tied him up until he died.
A year ago there were headlines when four women filed a suit for sexual abuse they suffered in prison during the Pinochet period. They demanded that the abuse be recognized as a political crime and that their torturers be brought to trial. Were such attacks something that was directed from above?
Of course. Have you heard of “La Venda Sexy”? It was a detention center where people were tortured. The name actually means “Sexy Blindfold,” because the detainees’ eyes were covered the whole time and they were subjected to sexual abuse.
All the detainees were blindfolded the whole time?
Yes. They were arrested, blindfolded and put into a room, together, with their eyes covered. Then they were tortured. Most of the female detainees were raped and underwent sexual abuse. A girlfriend of mine was held there but was not raped. She told me she’d felt fortunate, but then came New Year’s and she was raped. They’d kept her for the holiday.
Venda Sexy was truly awful. They had dogs that were trained to rape women, and they would force spouses and family members to watch the rape. More and more testimonies about these abuses come out all the time.
And throughout this whole period, Israel, under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, maintained excellent relations with Chile. The two countries supported each other in the United Nations and signed bilateral agreements. Army Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur visited Chile in 1978, as did Deputy Prime Minister David Levy in 1982. Both met with Pinochet.
Pinochet was even invited to the synagogue in Santiago on Yom Kippur. Other presidents were not invited.
Do you think Israel was involved in the coup in any way?
That’s exactly what I would like to find out.
You lived in fear.
I was so frightened. There was a curfew at night, it was forbidden to go out, every car that went by made me jump – I thought they had come to take me. A horrible feeling. One day your world collapses. People who were your friends could suddenly inform on you. You are in constant danger. On the day my father was murdered, I also discovered that I was pregnant. After the baby was born, I had to go into hiding.
Where did you hide?
At first we hid in an office for a few days. That was very difficult, because we had to keep the baby quiet, like in stories you read about. She slept in a suitcase. Afterward I met a Catholic priest who had helped Jews in World War II, and we moved to the home of a family that hid us. They were amazing people, who risked their lives and the lives of their children. By then I understood that I had to escape from Chile with the baby. I went to the Israeli embassy and was told that I was No. 20 in the line [of people asking to take refuge]. I did not get help. The priest told me that the Colombian embassy didn’t offer help but also did not throw people out. He organized a group, and one night we simply climbed over the fence and entered the embassy. I asked for visas to a few countries and I finally decided on Israel, because my brother lives here and I had a few friends in the country. My baby daughter Tamara and I left Chile for Argentina with a laissez-passer for Israel.
Did you intend to stay in Israel?
I thought and hoped I would return to Chile. I didn’t think the dictatorship would last so long.
When did you start taking an interest in the security relations between Israel and Chile?
The subject always interested me, and I was constantly being reminded of it. For example, one time, my brother, who was in the [Israeli] army, was on a mission in Eilat. In the evening he went to a bar and heard people speaking [Spanish] in Chilean accents. He went over to talk to them. They asked what he was doing and he said he was on army business. “We are, too,” they told him. It turned out that they were undergoing training in Israel. My daughter was a waitress in a Jaffa restaurant where Israel Military Industries and the Foreign Ministry were holding an event. A Chilean man came to the restaurant with a heavy package, possibly money. It turned out that he was Pinochet’s son. I always knew Israel was selling arms to Chile.
The documents declassified by the Americans also contain references to arms deals with Israel. Secretary of State George Shultz noted in a 1984 document that Britain, France, Israel and Germany were Chile’s arms suppliers.
All the weapons of the Chilean police and army were Israeli. In Chile I went around with a photograph of my brother in uniform. At checkpoints and in searches I would take out the picture and tell them that this was my brother, who was an officer in the IDF – even though he was a regular soldier – and that did the trick. The Chilean army greatly admired the Israeli army. When Pinochet wanted to visit Israel, he threatened that if he were not received here he would cancel a large arms deal. No dictator in the world, however bad he may be, can exist without international support. The dictatorship in Chile lasted as long as it did because there were countries that supported it, and Israel was one of them.
Israel describes itself as “the state of the Jewish people,” but there are about 20 missing Jews in Chile who were murdered during that period, while Israeli governments and the military maintained close ties with Chile, accorded it legitimization in international forums and provided aid and training to its military and intelligence units.
What responses did you get from the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to your freedom of information requests?
An incredible response. They told me that there are too many documents – 19,000 pages – and that I would not be able to receive them, because it would take almost a year to go through them and censor them where necessary.
What is the implication of that reply?
It means that the connection [between the countries] was not an incidental one. In fact, the Defense Ministry has admitted for the first time the depth of its links with the Pinochet regime: 19,000 pages is not a one-time thing. To this day there has not been an official Israeli admission of these ties.
What do you think is in those documents?
It’s clear that there is documentation of arms sales, and also obviously of the training provided to Chilean intelligence. There is information about the fate of the missing Jews in Chile. Maybe there is even information about my father. The people who tortured him, who killed him – who are they? Maybe they were here, in Israel? Maybe they received training from the Shin Bet [security service] here? When the documents are uncovered, we will be able to understand how the infrastructure of the dictatorship worked and how deeply involved Israel was.
Do you believe you will get the documents?
Yes. We do not accept the Defense Ministry’s reply. It’s like Germany declaring that it cannot make public documents relating to the Holocaust because it lacks the personnel to go through them. We will fight until they are made public. In the United States, 24,000 documents on the subject have been made public, and they are continuing to disclose more. I think that now that have told us the documents exist, they will have to make them available. They themselves say in their reply that the documents are falling apart; this is the last moment to try to get them.
How did you feel when you got that reply?
At first, when I understood that information exists, I was very happy, because at long last there I was getting confirmation – but then I realized that there is still a long road ahead.
About 3,000 of the tens of thousands of Pinochet casualties simply disappeared. We still don’t know what became of them.
That is the official figure, but the real numbers are higher. Just in the past few months people have started to talk about infants, too. That is something that was never talked about before. What happened to all the missing babies? What happened to the women who were arrested while they were pregnant and disappeared?
You are determined to bring the truth to light.
Yes. I will do everything to make that happen. It was recently made known that there is an Argentine war criminal living here, in Kiryat Yam, and that Israel is not extraditing him. Could there be Chilean war criminals living in Israel, too? It is our responsibility to make these people talk. They are keeping quiet and hiding. There is no way to bring my father and the thousands of others back to life, but we can try to achieve justice. My petition is meaningful for those who survived the oppression and for the families of the missing. But more than that, knowing and understanding what happened there involves a universal value of freedom. Israel’s ties with South Sudan today prove that such relations continue to exist. To ensure that it will not happen again, and for the sake of historical justice, it must be revealed. That is important not only because of the past, but also for the future.
In response to a request for comment, the Defense Ministry told Haaretz: “The request in question, which was submitted under the Freedom of Information Act, was examined according to the provisions of the law and was finally rejected in accordance with a legal clause stipulating that a public authority has the right to reject a request for information when the handling of the request requires an unreasonable investment of resources. Beyond this, as a rule, the Ministry of Defense does not customarily comment on relations with foreign countries.”