Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A tortured soul... a helping hand

Winnipegger endured a two-year nightmare in a Chilean prison before coming to Canada and becoming a social worker

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The only memento Pedro Pontanilla has from his time in the military is a copper engraving he made of Chile's national emblem, the condor.

"It's one of the only things I have to remember who I am and what happened."

That and the nightmares.

He was tortured and imprisoned for nearly two years when he refused to participate in a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected president.

"I was one of the 100 armed forces (members) in Chile who were opposed to the coup d'état," said Pontanilla. They were upholding the constitution of the country to defend its people and their president, Salvador Allende.

"We let them know we're not going to kill our own citizens," said Pontanilla, who was arrested in October 1973, just months after the coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.


"Nobody knew where I was," he said.

The air force mechanic was blindfolded and burned and shocked with electrodes attached to his genitals.

"You can't remember time," he said. "You heard screaming, people crying and shooting. And you don't know where you are."

It was in prison that he made the copper engraving of the condor.

"For the last 37 years, I can't sleep properly. I've had nightmares.

"I was on the floor 24 hours a day with the light on for months and months. It's very hard. It was a terrible time."

But eventually it ended, and a group of churches brought him with his family to Winnipeg in 1975.

There wasn't much in the way of settlement services then, never mind counselling for torture survivors.

"What helped is, right away, we were able to help each other," said Jaime (Hymie) Carrasco.

Carrasco understood Pontanilla. He had spent three months in a military prison for being a union member during Pinochet's military junta in Chile.

When he arrived in Canada, the newcomers met informally and talked about their experiences in Chile. "People expressed how they felt," Carrasco said.

It may have helped him find his calling. A decade later, Carrasco went to university to become a social worker.

Some felt guilty, because they survived and others didn't or because they gave the torturer information.

Military members such as Pontanilla, who upheld the constitution, were treated the worst, Carrasco said.

"They spoke their minds," he said. "They were called traitors for 'betraying their country, the motherland,' all those fascist slogans," said Carrasco.

"Many were in jail together and developed a strong bond, like a family. A dysfunctional family, but a family," he said with a laugh.

Carrasco had a brother in the military, and that likely saved him from "disappearing" or being killed, he said. He has no animosity toward his brother, who retired in the military, he said.

"I am alive because of him," said Carrasco, who, in his work at the Mount Carmel Clinic, worked with people from many walks of life: "First Nations people, newcomers, mainstream Anglo-Saxons, poor people with no means to pay." He retired from the clinic last year.

He could identify with many of their issues, he said, because he came to Canada with his wife and three-year-old son and knows what it's like to not have $5 to his name.

He was a political prisoner and victim of torture, so he could connect with people who experienced oppression, repression and trauma.

"Everybody's unique, but it helps to have a lot of insight to engage people."

Those who fled the military junta in Chile took a long time to integrate in Manitoba, he said.

"We never thought we'd stay a long time." They didn't expect Pinochet to be in power 17 years.

"You live with your luggage," said Carrasco, who was trained as an accountant but spent his first decade in Winnipeg working in factory jobs and waiting for the military junta to end in Chile.

"That doesn't allow you to develop meaningful relationships."

Eventually, they did.

Pontanilla's painful past didn't stop him from being active here.

"I was participating, politically, here," he said. As a factory worker, he was involved with the United Steelworkers of America. He helped to organize the Chilean pavilion at Folklorama.

Today, he's hopeful more people will become politically active to keep Canada's social safety net from falling apart. People don't realize how precious democracy is until they lose it, he said.

"At least, right now, we still we have it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J3

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