WORLD

One woman’s fiery ordeal

ANN FINLAYSON March 30 1987
WORLD

One woman’s fiery ordeal

ANN FINLAYSON March 30 1987

One woman’s fiery ordeal

CHILE

The huge conference room in Geneva hummed with the conversation of more than 250 delegates to the 43rd session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as Carmen Gloria Quintana quietly slipped behind a desk mounted with a microphone. When she began to speak, the rustling of papers and drone of voices continued—for about a minute. Then a hush fell over the room. Coughing occasionally, her hands heavily bandaged and her face badly scarred, the young Chilean woman told how Chilean government soldiers last July sprayed her with gasoline, set her ablaze and then watched her burn for several minutes before wrapping her in blankets and leaving her in a ditch to die.

Quintana’s survival and her appearance in Geneva early this month defied all odds. Chilean doctors had given her less than two chances in 100 of surviving the secondand thirddegree burns that covered 62 per cent of her body before her suffering came to the attention of Canadian church workers in Santiago. Along with Chilean human rights groups, they oversaw her treatment in Chile and, in September, flew the 20-year-old engineering student and her family to Montreal. After months of intensive treatment at the burn unit of Montreal’s Hôtel-Dieu hospital, Quintana told members of the Canadian InterChurch Committee on Human Rights in Latin Quintana America that she felt strong enough to tell her story to the world.

She faltered only once as she testified in Geneva’s Palais des Nations, facing the Chilean delegation seated opposite her while delegates and observers listened intently to simultaneous translations. She spoke steadily as she told how 30 soldiers in combat gear confronted her and her friends as they walked to join a demonstration against the military government of General Augusto Pinochet. Then, close to tears, she described how the soldiers doused her

and 19-year-old Rodrigo Rojas de Negri with gasoline. “They just laughed at us,” she said. Then, “as I was wiping my mouth with my hand, they threw something which exploded between us, and we began to burn like human torches.” Rojas died four days later.

Quintana’s account added to a swelling chorus of protest against human rights violations in Chile. Hu-

man rights workers charge that the incidents have risen sharply under the state of siege imposed by Pinochet following a September, 1986, attempt on his life. Indeed, in its 1986 report, the Chilean Human Rights Commission concludes that, although the number of politically motivated killings dropped to 58 last year from 66 in 1985, arbitrary arrests soared to 33,665 from 9,116, reports of torture increased to 255 from 168 and the number of cases of cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment rose to 757 from 746.

But it is not only human rights abuses that stir Chile’s rising tide of dissent. A dramatic deterioration in living conditions and health care has caused thousands of Chileans to seek better positions in Canada and other industrialized countries. When resettled, they can usually earn in five years the equivalent of a lifetime’s earnings in Chile. Although the official unemployment rate now stands at 8.8 per cent—the lowest in more than a decade—United Nations regional employment figures indicate that as much as 60 per cent of the workforce in poor urban areas lacks stable employment.

Against that background Canadian officials last week continued to insist that a group of 88 Chileans stranded in Argentina when Ottawa tightened its immigration policy last month were economic, not political, refugees. Although Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard allowed three Chilean women and their children to join their husbands in Montreal, he said that an investigation of all the cases had uncovered no political refugees. That assessment was disputed by UN officials. And for Carmen Gloria Quintana and others, the line between politics and economics in Chile does seem to be blurred. Said William Fairbairn, the Canadian representative on the World Council of Churches’ delegation to Geneva: “Carmen Gloria’s only political act had been to help out in the soup kitchens of the poor area of Santiago where she lived. Yet she became a victim of I violence for walking down I the wrong street at the u wrong time.” torches’ Despite the tighter controis on entry into Canada, officials at the Canadian Embassy in Santiago say that they are still distributing hundreds of preliminary application forms to potential immigrants every week. “Usually a genuine victim of political persecution is able to provide some kind of evidence,” said consul Christian LaBelle. For Carmen Gloria Quintana, that evidence is written on her face—and will be with her for the rest of her life.

-ANN FINLAYSON with

MARY HELEN SPOONER in Santiago

MARY HELEN SPOONER