Author’s Note: This is a true story. I have of course invented the dialog and the thoughts of my characters, but Sebastian and Father Aldunate are real persons and the key facts in the story are just as they actually happened.
None of us had ever heard of Sebastian Acevedo. The man was a coal miner – a nobody. He had two children, Galo and Maria, whom he loved very much. Other than that, we still don’t know anything about him. Oh, we know little things. We know that the lines in his hands were permanently etched with black coal dust. We know his lungs were black from breathing the coal dust and that he was at very high risk of developing black lung disease. I suspect he wasn’t very well educated – probably didn’t even follow the news. I would bet he didn’t even know – or care – about the thousands that Generalissimo “President for Life” Pinochet “disappeared”. But we really don’t know the man, what made him tick.
Some of the unions were pretty active, but the coal miners? No. Sebastian probably wasn’t politically aware, much less actively opposing Pinochet and his butchery. Course, I can’t point fingers. Father José Aldunate was trying to get a mass movement going to expose the torture and, frankly, I thought it way too dangerous to participate. I kept up with the news and certainly never supported the dictatorship, but I’m no hero. I kept quiet, I kept safe.
Sebastian’s story started, far as I’m concerned, on November 9, 1983 with the protest against Pinochet in the city of Concepcion. In Pinochet’s Chile any kind of opposition was likely to get you killed and Sebastian’s children, Gallo and Maria, participated in the demonstration. They were arrested afterwards – that’s what started it.
* * *
Hector, pounding on Sebastian’s door. “Sebastian! Sebastian! Open the door! Quick! It’s Hector!”
“Hector – what’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry. It’s Gallo and Maria – I’m sorry!”
“What? What about Gallo and Maria? What are you talking about?”
Frantic and confused, Sebastian seizes Hector by the shoulders and shakes him. “Tell me – what has happened to my children? Tell me!”
“Arrested. Plain clothes officers. After the demonstration. I ran – I’m sorry.”
“No! No! I told them to stay away.”
Sebastian releases Hector‘s shoulders and sways where he stands. Hector grabs his arm to steady him, then embraces him as Sebastian sobs and tears run down his lined face.
Sebastian straightens up and pulls away from Hector’s embrace. “I will find them. I will make the police tell me where they are.”
“You can’t. They never admit to having anyone.”
“I must. I will stay in their office until they release my children.”
Hector considered this, then. “They will kill you too.”
“I will make them.” And Sebastian trudges into his house.
Sebastian hesitated in front of the CNI (National Center of Investigation) office. Hector’s words came back to him as he stood there “They will kill you too”. Sebastian stood there, sweating. The summer sun beat on him, making him dizzy and the glare off the pavement hurt his eyes – he had spent too much time in the underground dimness of the coal mines. “What can I do? I’m just a poor coal miner?” He stood there sweating and suddenly was cold and so alone he almost cried aloud.
Sebastian’s feet weren’t obeying the command to walk into the building. He saw Maria as a young child, crying and running. He stood there and remembered Maria running to him, flinging her arms around his neck. “Daddy, the bee stung me.” He remembered scraping the stinger off her arm and kissing the spot. Maria had stopped crying and very solemnly said “I love you Daddy – you make the hurt go away.” Sebastian thought “There are worse things than dying.”
He walked into the lobby and looked around. Officers sat at desks behind a counter. Sebastian presented himself at the counter and waited for someone to acknowledge him. Finally an officer looked up and said “Yes?”
“I — Sebastian tried again. “I ‘m looking for my children, Gallo and Maria Acevedo.”
“We don’t have any children here.” The officer got out of his seat and came over to the counter, smiling “Are they lost?”
Sebastian thought the officer seemed friendly and helpful and his heart lifted. “They – they got arrested. At the protest this afternoon.”
The officer’s smile faded, his face lost its look of friendly concern, and his eyes narrowed.
Sebastian hurried on “They’re good kids, they just went along to see the protest, they were curious – they really aren’t opposing General Pinochet – they don’t know anything about politics. They are just young and ignorant. Please, can you tell me where they are.”
“I told you we don’t have any children here.”
Sebastian studied the hard, cold face, the narrowed eyes and thinned lips. He forced words out. “They were arrested. You must have them.”
The officer’s face flushed. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“No, no sir. Never. But perhaps you are mistaken. Please, can you check the records. I have to find my children.”
“I told you. We don’t have them. Now leave.” And the officer, with his back rigid and his neck pulled down into his shoulders, went back to his chair behind the desk.
Sebastian’s knees started to buckle, threatening to betray him, and he leaned on the counter, clinging as if he held onto the Christ Himself, while his vision dimmed and the sound of his own heart thundered in his ears.
Finally, still clinging to the counter as if to Christ, Sebastian managed one word “NO!”
The officer swivelled in his chair and shouted to one his men, “Jorge, throw him out. If he resists, arrest him.”
Sebastian’s knees still refused to work correctly. He gripped the counter and waited for the policeman.
The policeman was not gentle. He twisted Sebastian’s wrist up and over his shoulder – it hurt – and put Sebastian up as high as he could go on his on toes. When they got to the landing outside the door, the policeman used the wrist to swing Sebastian down, around and then back up so that he went hurtling through the air to land on his side on the paved street.
Stunned, Sebastian lay there, with multi-colored lights flashing in his eyeballs. When he finally rolled over and sat up, the policeman was gone and he was alone in the street.
Sebastian picked himself up, noticed that he was crying and wasn’t sure if he was crying for himself or his children. “Both. I’m crying for both of us.” And Sebastian walked the three miles to his favorite cafe.
Sebastian went up to the bar and got a whiskey which he gulped down. Then he had another one. Finally he got a third drink and carried it over to a booth where he sat down to think. But his thinking came out as a prayer to the Virgin Mary.
“Dear Mother of God, my children are lost and I need your help. As a mother yourself, you know my grief and my hurt. Please, Mary, most Holy Mother of God, please help me get my children back.”
Sebastian’s prayer went on in this vein for a long time. He prayed to God, he prayed to Jesus, he prayed some more to Mary and he prayed to all of his favorite saints. Finally he slowed, stopped, and then just sat there. Eventually he realized he still had a drink and he swallowed the now warm liquor.
“Perhaps I went to the wrong police station.”
With that thought he got up and went outside to find a taxicab. He went to another police station and again was afraid to go in. Again, the image of his daughter gave him courage and again the police denied any knowledge of the children. He walked out of the police station and spent some time in prayer before finding a taxi to take him to the next station.
The third station was just like the first two “We have no children here. Never heard of Gallo and Maria Acevedo. Go Away!”
It was 10:30 at night and Sebastian didn’t know what to do so he went home. His wrist still hurt from the policeman twisting it, and he had several nasty bruises from landing on the pavement. Around 3:00 am he finally fell asleep in the overstuffed chair in his living room.
Sebastian groped his way back to consciousness at 6:30 a.m. His wrist still hurt, his bruises had turned a nasty purple, and his back and neck ached from sleeping in the chair. He took a cold shower, prayed some more, and waited expectantly for God to offer him some guidance. What came to him was images of his children when they were about twelve and thirteen, playing, laughing, looking at him with love in their eyes. He took this as a sign that he should continue trying to find them.
During breakfast Sebastian kept trying to think of something else he could do to help his children. All he knew was that the police had taken them. All he could think of was to ask the police to give them back.
The taxi ride to the next police station took 20 minutes. Sebastian spent the entire ride praying, asking for courage for himself and asking that the police would tell him where his children were. When he got to the station he didn’t hesitate, he went right in. As soon as the policeman found out Maria and Gallo were arrested at the demonstration he stopped talking to Sebastian and ordered him to leave. Sebastian tried to protest, to argue, to plead – but nothing did any good.
Sebastian turned and slowly walked out of the station. He stood on the sidewalk, empty and hopeless for several minutes. He couldn’t think of anything else to do, so began praying again.
“Dear Virgin Mary, most holy mother of God, I need your help. The police have taken my children and I can’t find them. Give me the courage and the wisdom to confront the police. I don’t care about myself, but Maria and Gallo are just now almost grown up – they have their whole lives ahead of them. Soften the heart of just one policeman so he will help me – I will go all over the city until I find that one policeman, but Mary, I need one who will tell me where they are.
Thank you. Amen”
After his prayer, Sebastian stood there in the morning sunlight, in front of the police station, with his eyes closed, listening. What came to him was “I am with you, My son. As I am with Maria and Gallo. Trust in Me and have no fear.”
Sebastian’s knees threatened to buckle and he half fell, half sat on the curb. He had never before heard God’s voice! He whispered “Thank you, Virgin Mary, thank you.” And he wept, not knowing whether they were tears of grief for his children or tears of joy at hearing God’s voice or simply tears from the release of unendurable tension.
Sebastian’s weeping lasted for several minutes. He dried his eyes and marched the 15 blocks to the next police station. He was no longer afraid for himself. “The worst they can do is kill me – and God is with me – I shall fear no evil.” However, Sebastian was still very afraid for his children. He kept repeating “Dear God, don’t let them harm my children.”
Sebastian marched into the police station, went up to the counter, and called “Excuse me, sir, I need some help.”
The duty officer looked up, said “Yes?”
“Please, sir, I need to find my children. They were arrested and I need to find out where they are.”
“What were they charged with?”
“I don’t know – they were arrested after the demonstration yesterday.”
“The demonstration! Go! Get out of here!”
“Please, sir. They were not political – they were just curious and went to see it.”
“I told you to get out of here!”
“Sir, do you have children of your own?”
“Three of them. So what. Go away!”
“Sir, as a father, you know how I feel. I must find my children.”
“Well, you won’t find them here. Now beat it or I’ll arrest you.”
“Sir, I’m sorry but I can’t leave until someone tells me where my children, Maria and Gallo Acevedo, are being held.”
“You can stand here all day –it won’t make any difference. We don’t have them.” And the officer turned his back, went to his desk and began to read.
Sebastian stood there at the counter for another twenty minutes. Finally he realized that they could go on pretending he wasn’t there indefinitely.
Sebastian went back outside and prayed again. ‘Dear God, give me the words – the wisdom and the courage – to say and do the right thing. Help me to convince the police to help me. Soften the hearts of the police. And Lord, keep on walking with me – I need you with me. Thank you, Lord. Amen.”
Sebastian took a cab home and changed into his best – actually his only – suit, a dark navy blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie. He looked at himself in the mirror and said “I look like a lawyer.” Thus armored he called for a cab and rode to the next police station, praying all the way.
Sebastian walked into the station, up to the counter, and announced loudly “I’m here for Maria and Gallo Acevedo.”
The duty officer looked up and asked “Acevedo?”
“Yes. Acevedo. A-c-e-v-e-d-o.”
The officer scanned down several sheets of paper and shook his head. “We don’t have em. You sure about the spelling?”
“Yes.” And he spelled Acevedo again.
“We don’t have em. Can’t help you.”
“Have they been released?”
“This list covers everybody here for the last two days – if they were released before that, they wouldn’t be on my list.”
Sebastian walked out of the station savoring his small victory – he got someone to check the list. Sebastian bought a small lunch from a street vendor and thought about his day so far. “God is with me!”
The next station, right after lunch went much like the one just before lunch. The officer checked his lists and had no information on Acevedo. Sebastian walked into the final station and made his announcement. “I’m here for Maria and Gallo Acevedo.”
The duty officer looked up. “Are you their lawyer?”
“I’m their father!”
“What’d they do?”
“Nothing. Do you have them?”
“We don’t arrest people for doing nothing. What were they arrested for?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Do you have them?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I am a respectable citizen and you are a public official. Do your job and check your lists for Maria and Gallo Acevedo.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No. I am insisting that you do your job. Do you have them.”
“Hey Sergeant – this guy is being disorderly and threatening.”
“Hello Sergeant. I did not raise my voice or curse or make any threats. I am merely asking him to do his job and check to see if Maria and Gallo Acevedo are being held here. Would you please instruct him to check the lists?”
“Are you trying to tell my officer how to do his job? Are you saying we don’t do our jobs right?”
“No. I just want to find my children. Do you have children of your own? Can you imagine a father’s pain at losing his children? Are you Christian’s? I am sure God would want you to help a poor father searching for his children. Do you have them?”
The blood seemed to drain out of the sergeant’s face and a small tick developed under his right eye. He spoke very softly, hesitantly. “We can’t help you. Everyone knows you are going to all the stations and causing trouble. Go away before you get arrested.”
“No. I’m not going anywhere until I find out about my children.”
“FOOL! DONKEY’S ASS! YOU WILL GET ALL OF US IN TROUBLE! DO YOU WANT TO DIE! GET OUT BEFORE I SHOOT YOU!” And the sergeant drew his gun and pointed it at Sebastian’s heart.
Sebastian felt a curious detachment. He didn’t think the sergeant would shoot him. On the other hand the sergeant’s face was now a beet red and contorted in anger and fear. Fear! Now that was odd – the sergeant was afraid – afraid of me, of Sebastian!
“STOP STARING AT ME! MANNY, THROW HIM OUT! NOW!
Sebastian waited while Manny started around the counter and then, very deliberately, turned his back on the sergeant’s pistol and walked out. Manny followed him to the door and watched him as he went down the steps and out of sight along the sidewalk.
There were no more police stations to visit. All that was left was the headquarters building. Sebastian briefly considered going to the centers where the “disappeared” were tortured. He knew immediately that was pointless – those centers would be staffed by the most brutal and sadistic of the officials and none of them would consider helping him.
Sebastian stood in front of the headquarters building at 2:15 in the afternoon. The summer sun was hot and he sweated profusely in the humid air. He repeated his mantra “God is with me.” And went in. Forty-five minutes later he was ushered into the office of “El Capitan”.
Sebastian stood there while the captain looked at him. As Sebastian continued to stare into the hard eyes of the other man, he realized the captain was trying to intimidate him. Sebastian continued to gaze into the captain’s eyes while he remembered God’s “I am with you, My son.” Sebastian started to smile, then thought better of it and simply kept his eyes on those of the captain.
Finally the captain dropped his eyes to the paper he held and said “Mr. Acevedo, this is a dangerous business. Why are you going from station to station, agitating?”
“I am not agitating, sir. I am merely looking for my children. Do you have them?”
“According to this, your children participated in an illegal demonstration. They seem to be enemies of the state, no?”
“No, they are not enemies of the state. Where are they”
“They weren’t arrested. We don’t have them.”
“Captain, you are mistaken. I have witnesses who saw them being arrested. Where are they?”
“Senor Acevedo, we do not have your children. You, however, are making yourself most conspicuous. I am starting to wonder if you are perhaps an enemy of the state?”
“Captain! I am a law-abiding citizen of Chile! I have never been political. I just want my children.”
“Senor, I understand your distress at not knowing where your children are. But we don’t have them. Now, go home and stop causing trouble before somebody decides to arrest you.”
The captain’s threats didn’t bother Sebastian, but try as he might, he couldn’t get past the Captain’s evasions and denials. After half an hour of verbal sparring, the captain looked at his watch, announced he had to go to a meeting, and ushered Sebastian out.
Sebastian went home that night bruised and bowed under a seemingly unendurable grief. While riding home in the taxi, he prayed the entire way. Burdened as he was, he yet remembered God’s promise “I am with you, My son” and he arrived at home undefeated.
Sebastian spent most of the night in prayer. In the morning he got up early and, after showering and eating, he went back to prayer interspersed with periods of silence. The periods of silence were to listen so God could talk to him. By 11:30 a.m. his course was set.
Sebastian put on his suit again. It took him only a few minutes to gather the necessary supplies. He was very calm as he took the taxi to the central square.
He exited the taxi at the corner of the square, between the cathedral and the government headquarters building. At this time of day the square was full of people and he was guaranteed a large audience.
The gasoline can was large enough – it totally soaked his clothing and created a puddle on the ground. A policeman noticed him almost right away and came rushing over.
“You there! What are you doing?”
“Keep away!” Sebastian felt very calm. “I light this if you come any closer.”
The policeman hesitated, then as he smelled the gasoline, hastily backed up a few steps. A half-dozen people had already stopped to watch.
Sebastian said “Two days ago you arrested my children, Gallo and Maria Acevedo. Everyone denies knowledge of them. If you do not tell me where they are, I will burn myself.”
“You’re crazy!!” the policeman seemed stunned. “Put the match down. Right now.”
“I want to know where my children are? Get your superiors or I light this.”
The crowd already numbered 15 or 20 and was growing rapidly as people all over the square realized something unusual was going on. One man was taking pictures.
Another policeman had joined the first and they conferred quietly for a minute. Suddenly the second policeman started walking rapidly toward Sebastian.
Sebastian held the match in readiness. “Stop or I light the gas!”
The policeman kept walking and said. “Drop the match”.
The policeman was only four steps away when Sebastian lit the match and touched it to his thigh. The gas flared up almost instantly, forcing the policeman back and Sebastian stood there for several long seconds, arms raised in triumph or perhaps supplication, a flaming human torch, before he crumpled to the pavement. Sebastian’s last thought was “Now we shall see!”
* * *
The pictures in the newspapers ensured that all of us knew Sebastian Acevedo. I told you before, I’m no hero – to be honest, I’ve never been very brave. But Sebastian shamed me. Sebastian shamed all of us.
The next day, Father Aldunate renewed his call to expose the torturers. I was still afraid, but I was also angry. A father driven to burn himself got to me in a way that none of the others had. I decided to go along with Father Aldunate. I figured I could always run away if things started to get dicey.
The demonstration lasted all of four and a half minutes. That’s right, four and a half minutes – I timed it. Father Aldunate told us we would be out of there in under five minutes so we could make our point and get out before the police came. And we did.
About four hundred of us showed up in front of the center where they took their victims. It was carefully timed so we all got there at almost the same instant. We held up a huge banner that said ‘Torturers work here”.
Father Aldunate started singing our theme song and we all joined in.
“For the caged bird,for the tortured bodies,I sing your name, Liberty.”
When the song ended, we scattered hundreds of leaflets around and everybody got out of there as fast as they could. Four and a half minutes.
I never felt so good in my whole life! Not only did we tweak Pinochet’s nose, our demonstration hit all the newspapers, here and all over Europe.
That demonstration hooked me. About once a month, we hit one of the government offices or one of the centers where they do the tortures. We almost always get away before the cops come. And we usually get pretty good press. And when somebody does get arrested, we get even better press.
I don’t think Sebastian wanted anything more than to get his children back. And he did get one of them – they released Maria a few days after he died. Gallo, no. Gallo became another one of the thousands that Pinochet “disappeared.”
I wonder if Sebastian knew that his sacrifice would give me my balls, would help me to be a man. I don’t mean just me personally – I mean all the thousands like me who were inspired to join the movement. Sebastian taught us that love is stronger than guns. So we changed our name to “Sebastian Acevedo Anti-Torture Movement”.
Now that Pinochet has finally been overthrown and we have our democracy back, I like to imagine Sebastian and Gallo, arm in arm together, smiling at what they accomplished.
Contact me: I love to hear from readers. Email me at cyberneticapress at gmail dot com. Thanks, Barry Clemson