The Living and The "Disappeared" (formerly Seven by Nine)
By Stephen Sinsley
Seven by nine was the approximate size of the living room I was sitting in. I don't remember why I was so fixated on the size of the room, the layout, and the people... people nervously hanging out. I had been living in Montevideo, Uruguay for over a month, and had been invited to the party, if you could call it that. I was the one and only gringo in the room, possibly the first one to enter this home. My girlfriend Rosa and her best friend Magu had invited me, and vouched for me. I was honored. Americans were not the most popular people in Uruguay in 1972.
Steve Sinsley in Machu Pichu 1971.
In that room I was surrounded by university and high school students nervously laughing, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and occasionally playing the guitar. A few days before, Rosa and Magu were taking me on a tour of their university when we came across a large group of "so-called protesters" of a strange stripe. There were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, all men, wearing suits and ties and holding up what appeared to be medieval banners with gold lions on them and the letters "TFP." Rosa explained that they were members of "Tradition, Family, and Property," an ultra right wing paramilitary Catholic cult exported by Brazil to this and many other countries including the States. When I started to photograph them, they ran over and angrily surrounded us. Rosa explained that I was an American, and suddenly they smiled, patted me on the back and said "Nixon, Vietnam, good, good." As an anti-war veteran I wanted to barf, but I smiled and in my worst Spanish I replied "yes Nixon, good, good. Can I photograph your demonstration? They grouped up, banners and all, and the only thing missing was Seig Heil. I could see what was coming. They were the only students permitted to demonstrate...against divorce, abortion, and anything to the left of Atilla The Hun.
The country which had once been known as the Switzerland of South America, had veered to the right when the military, with full US support "unofficially" took over the reins of the government. Within twelve months the hobnailed boot would come crashing down upon what semblance of democracy was left.
At the party we were all sitting against the walls of that small living room, with a radio playing in the the background. No lovers romping in the bedrooms, or making out in the kitchen. Why was the radio on at all if no one was listening to it? Suddenly martial music started playing on the radio. Everybody and everything stopped. Someone got up and turned up the volume. It was the daily broadcast of the "Fuerzas Conjuntas." that is to say "United Armed Forces," the powers unofficially running the country. They started reading the names of people in their custody that week. Nobody at the party uttered a word, we all sat in rapt silence, punctuated by gasps, or sighs. The names were of student leaders or activists, union leaders, religious activists. My eyes scanned the faces in the room for signs of recognition, a wince, anything. What I discovered was that when someone was picked up, they were immediately tortured for information real or imagined. Those that didn't survive the torture were unceremoniously loaded into helicopters and dropped into the South Atlantic together with some live prisoners, never to be seen again.
Today, in a free Uruguay, with free elections and a progressive government, the victim's names and photographs adorn the walls of memorials in Montevideo dedicated to the "disappeared" during that dark period in Uruguay's history. "Never Again" is a national and regional motto.
At the party, I noticed some tears of joy, following the reading of a name. I was confused, but Rosa explained to me that if the military read a name, it signified that the person who had been taken was still alive and in prison. If a person had been "disappeared" say two weeks before, and his/her name was not read it signified they were dead. It is hard, very hard to explain the feelings I felt that night to someone who has never lived under a military dictatorship. I felt as if my soul was being ripped out and stomped upon, as the pain in that room - which had hitherto been for me an intellectual abstraction - became so real. Rosa, Magu, and I hugged and cried for what seemed forever. This was my baptism of fire, my first personal experience, with the pain and anguish wrought by brutal dictatorships. Little did I know that this may have been my first, but it would not be my last brush with our "good neighbor policy."
Steve Sinsley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments and/or questions. This vignette is part of a forthcoming autobiography/sortabiography coming out next year, tentatively titled "From The Canefields of Cuba to the Beaches of Rio".