Sara Salem

Memory as an archive of disappearance

What does it mean to archive the political act of disappearance? Archiving brings to mind a process of recovery, recording, recuperation, repair; objects are brought together and fixed in place. Disappearance suggests the opposite: loss, absence, destruction. Yet with disappearance continuing to be one of the most brutal forms of political repression in the contemporary world, historians, lawyers, activists and archivists have continually grappled with the question of how to archive this particular political act. The imperative is clear: the not-knowing associated with disappearance is both painful and endless; kept in a loop of searching, loved ones of someone who has been disappeared are never fully at peace until they know what happened. In other words, disappearance is an open-ended question. The imperative of official justice matters too; proving what took place becomes a way of pushing back against repressive political systems. The process of archiving disappearance, however, is less clear. Because its aim is to create confusion, chaos and un-knowing, it is especially difficult to record or trace, even decades after. It is not only people who are disappeared, but information; any sense of certainty is destroyed in the process.

In light of this, what does it mean to archive this type of absence, and those who have been made absent? How can archiving practices capture the particularly haunting nature of disappearance, and how it spreads through society? Working more recently on disappearance as a political tactic in Egypt led me to think more about how we might archive disappearance; record it in order to not allow the disappeared to disappear forever. In researching disappearance, I learned a lot from ongoing projects across Latin America that have grappled with the question of archives and disappearance, and I ask how this can become a crucial site of learning for other locations experiencing disappearance in the present. This piece explores some of these archiving attempts in Chile, where disappearance was one of the main tactics of repression used by Augusto Pinochet during the military dictatorship of 1973-1990. In particular, I explore how memory has been a crucial dimension of attempts to archive disappearance and the dictatorship in Chile.

[1] There are also inspiring projects, like Archives of the Disappeared, that do this work while considering the question of what disappearance means and how it can be traced.
The archives that have documented disappearance most closely—state, police and military archives—are often inaccessible; in some cases, they have been destroyed, in others they remain hidden. These are heavily politicised archives that, when handed over, have led to convictions; this is partly why they are so difficult to access. Yet there are other spaces that—purposefully or accidentally—trace disappearance. From legal case files to art, there is a whole array of material that, taken together, might tell a fragmented story about disappearance. Incompleteness and fragmentation emerge here as part of such archives; archives of disappearance cannot be anything but fragmented.[1] Their accidental nature is another important characteristic; these are not archives that are consciously built up or curated. It is only in the present, or after the fact, that they are being brought together as a kind of archive.
[2] In particular, leftist organisations such as the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), the Socialist Party and the Communist Party were targeted; however the detained and disappeared also came from outside of these organisations.
In 1970, Salvador Allende became the first democratically elected socialist leader in Chile and Latin America. Part of the Popular Unity coalition (Unidad Popular) and a member of the Socialist Party of Chile, Allende was committed to a program not very different from Third Worldist state projects around the world: nationalising key industries, free education and healthcare, and a commitment to reducing inequality and deepening democracy. On September 11, 1973, the military—supported by the CIA—staged a coup. Trapped inside La Moneda Palace, the home of the government in downtown Santiago, Allende gave a now famous speech where he refused to resign; later that day he died. The coup brought one of the 20th century’s most brutal dictators to power, Augusto Pinochet, who was to remain until 1990. The constitution was suspended, congress dissolved, and a brutal program of detaining and disappearing people who had been active on the left began. [2]  It is estimated that over 3,200 were disappeared during the dictatorship, and more than 38,000 people tortured. Pinochet’s project was one of eradicating the left and anybody who sympathised with them.
[3] This was a term used by various museums and former detention centres across Chile to describe themselves.
Since the end of the dictatorship, many museums, spaces and sites of memory [3] have been opened in attempts to work through the past. I visited in Chile in June-July of 2022, and conducted multiple visits and interviews with archivists and curators at various sites of memory, including: Villa Grimaldi, Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Museum of Memory and Human Rights, La Vicaría de la Solidaridad, and the National Archives. Although I had hoped to interview archivists/curators at Londres 38 as well, I was unable to, though I did visit the site. Alongside these visits and interviews, I spent time exploring film and literature as equally important sites of political memory. This piece touches briefly on how these different archival sites involve memory work that acts as a record of  disappearance.

Many of the archivists I spoke to noted that the official state archives of the dictatorship—in which presumably detailed information about disappearances could be found—had never been handed over to the national archives or any other institution, remaining either with the military or having been destroyed. On a visit to the National Archives, they spoke about a small archive that had been accidentally handed over to the police, from a settlement in the South of Chile called Colonia Dignidad. This settlement was a German colony whose members allowed Pinochet’s dictatorship to use it as a torture and disappearance site. The most expansive ‘official’ archive of disappearance in Chile can be found at La Vicaría de la Solidaridad, an organisation that is part of the Catholic Church who provided assistance to the families and victims of the dictatorship. This particular archive shows how memory can also be a troubled and troubling site of history; victims needing to see proof of what happened, and that it happened to them, brings to light the complex mechanisms underlying how we remember and how we forget.
[4] Arpilleras are colourful patchworks made primarily by women. During the military dictatorship in Chile, these became a popular form of resistance, with women recreating scenes of violence and resistance and using them to work through the heaviness of what they were feeling. They were also able to sell these for financial resources. For more, see: Adams, J., 2013. Art against dictatorship: Making and exporting arpilleras under Pinochet. University of Texas Press; Moya-Raggio, E., 1984. " Arpilleras": Chilean Culture of Resistance. Feminist Studies, 10(2), pp.277-290.

[5] Interview with author, June 2022.
Memory and testimonies are perhaps the most important archival source across different sites of memory in Chile, often recorded through oral histories but also through sketches, personal objects, testimonies, and artwork such as arpilleras. [4] Without these archives, there would be very little information about the sites, what took place within them, and the dictatorship more broadly. As noted by Nathalia Urrejola, an archivist at Villa Grimaldi, these kinds of archives, especially oral histories, blend the affective and the historical, making them different to legal or state archives on disappearance and detention. [5] Urrejola did not see them as sufficient by themselves, though, arguing that we still need to listen to them alongside other archival sources, ones that she saw as more factual. While this can be read as a privileging of the legal and bureaucratic over felt experience, throughout our conversation we came back to the slipperiness of memory, which I see as connected to her invitation to listen to oral histories alongside other archives. We see this slipperiness in the way former detainees sometimes need to see their own files to believe what happened to them.
[6] A movement was led by the local community (La Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos de Peñalolén y La Reina/The Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Peñalolen and La Reina) and human rights activists to ensure it became a site of memory rather than a housing complex, as originally planned.
Cell sketches and memories of different torture sites have been especially important to the construction of these sites of memory. Take Villa Grimaldi, for example, a former detention centre and torture site on the outskirts of Santiago. At the site, you can find recreations of the small cells in which detainees lived. The original cells were demolished by the military during the transition to democracy and were rebuilt later when the plot of land became a site of memory. [6]  During a visit to Villa Grimaldi, one of the archivists explained that they were able to rebuild the cells because of sketches that a former detainee trained as an architect had drawn . 

He remembered both the dimensions of the cell (1x1 m) as well as how detainees occupied the space. There were always 4-5 detainees in each cell, which meant that they couldn’t all sit at the same time. They would let those who had been most recently tortured sit and rest, while others remained standing .

The architect also remembered a small hole in the cell that let in air and light. These memories structured the entire site, from the size of the cells to the placement of buildings. Memory became an important archive in the attempt to (re)create Villa Grimaldi, and the entire site has incorporated memory into its retelling of history in various ways.
Yet memory is used in different ways in different sites documenting disappearance. Where Villa Grimaldi is an organised and curated space that holds immense amounts of information about the past, Londres 38 comes across as the exact opposite. Located in the middle of downtown Santiago, it is a house in the middle of other houses, not particularly noticeable until you get close enough to see a sign on the door with opening times (image 4). In front of the door there are name plaques on the ground (image 5); inscribed into the city, they are unavoidable traces of a violent past. Londres 38 was used by the secret police (DINA) between 1973 and 1975, after having been seized from the Socialist Party who had been using it as an office. An estimated 2000 people were detained there during that time, and of these, 98 were disappeared or killed. Although you can tour the house and although there is some information inside, it has not been turned into a museum nor does it have the feel of a museum. Instead, the building has been kept as it was then, with holes in the wall, marks on the floor, paint coming off the wall (image 6). Without explanations for any of these, you are left to imagine where they came from or what took place in each room. In this sense, Londres 38 invites you to use your own imagination and memories to make sense of the site and of the past. Without information or material to act as a barrier, you confront the space itself. Because it is empty, your imagination does much more work, as do your affective and intuitive instincts. The memory work in this site is collective memory work.

Film and literature have equally been important sites of archiving disappearance, exploring memory in complex ways. Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, for instance, a film about the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, troubles ideas of time and collective memory. Part of the film is about the many astronomers who work in the desert, looking through hi-tech telescopes for answers about our origins; the other part is about women who search the desert sands for bodies of loved ones who were disappeared during the dictatorship. Multiple scenes contrast the vast, endless desert against the small figures of solitary women, searching the sand. Capturing the magnitude of the task that they are involved in, these scenes represent both the possibility and impossibility of accounting for the past, and of finding the disappeared. Guzmán thus poses the question of disappearance and Chilean society, asking why Chile has forgotten, repressed and obscured the experience of the dictatorship, and why it matters that these women refuse to accept that their loved ones are gone. Memory here resides not in the women themselves, but as something society is actively repressing. The fact that disappeared bodies remain hidden in the desert signals this repression, troubling the idea that a complete archive of disappearance could ever exist.

[7] Fernández, N. 2019. Space Invaders. Daunt Books Publishing, 5.

[8] Another intriguing example of a Chilean novel about how children experience dictatorship is Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents.
Novels have also explored the silence around disappearance and the dictatorship. Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, for example, follows a group of friends as they remember their childhood, in particular a classmate that one day disappeared, Estrella González Jepsen, who they “sometimes dream about.” [7] The novel tells a story of how children experience dictatorship and disappearance. [8] Though they can sense the danger and tension around them, they do not necessarily know what it means and can’t do anything about it; taken together, this produces a particular feeling of powerlessness. Through fragmented writing and beautiful prose, Fernández brings to life the complexities and aberrations of memory, implicitly suggesting that no one remembers the past in the same way, and that we need these fragmentary memories to get to something that resembles a person or an event. Fernández captures the instability and unknowability of life under dictatorship; nobody is quite sure of what is happening, or what they know, of whether they are part of it. Knowing is called into question, whether anyone knows anything at all. As such, the novel points to both the power and instability of memory; the way it archives disappearance while also hiding it.

[9] Taylor, D., 2014. 9 Trauma in the Archive. In Feeling photography (pp. 237-251). Duke University Press, 247.
Before ending, I want to touch on how I came to write about archiving disappearance in Chile. Diana Taylor asks, speaking about Londres 38: what does this site feel like to visitors with no connection to the site, or to Chile? What she calls the “trigger”—the thing that produces feelings we feel in sites such as this one—has to come from the person viewing the site: “trauma lives in the body, not in the archive.” [9] Though I don’t have a personal connection to Chile or these sites, walking through them I constantly felt the “trigger.” I experienced heaviness, anxiety, fear; it took me a long time to feel emotionally rebalanced after these visits. Upon reflection, what I was experiencing was the visceral realisation that this is what these kinds of spaces feel like. I was relating them to the sites across Cairo: prisons, military bases, police stations. My affective response was based on connecting these Chilean sites from the past to Egyptian sites in the present, producing an intensely difficult set of emotions. Where Taylor suggests that an affective response to these sites can only emerge through an intimate connection to them, I instead point to how the violence of the postcolonial nightmare is a transnational violence, a violence that travels both through tactics, funding, intelligence and knowledge, as well as through affect. I experienced these sites through the lens of Egypt, somewhere seemingly far away but that felt extremely close during these visits. Indeed visiting these archives in Chile was a way to learn from people who have archived a political tactic that was becoming increasingly used in Egypt; to understand how we might archive disappearance in the present.

This piece has explored different spaces we might understand as archives of disappearance in Chile. I show how memory remains central to all of these archives, as well as how each archive thinks of and mobilises memory in search of a political past that continues to affect the present. Disappearance—lending itself to erasure and absence rather than being recorded—is thus a political act whose archive will always be incomplete, fragmented and unstable. Yet the imperative to know what happened—as a form of urgent justice—means that this archive, fragmentary as it is, is extremely precious to those affected, and to society as a whole.


A special thank you to my interpreter, Julio Cornejo, for his attentive interpreting throughout the trip. Thank you to Walter Roblero, Daniel Rebolledo Hernández, Nathalia Urrejola, Carolina Figueroa, María José Lemaitre and Sugey Alejandra Galvez Escobar for meeting with me and speaking about the exciting work they do at the following archives/museums:

Sara Salem

Sara Salem is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, Marxist theory, and global histories of anticolonialism. Her recently published book with Cambridge University Press is entitled Anticolonial Afterlives in Egypt: The Politics of Hegemony (2020). A selection of published journal articles include: on Angela Davis in Egypt in the journal Signs; on Frantz Fanon and Egypt’s postcolonial state in Interventions: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies; on Gramsci and anticolonialism in the postcolony in Theory, Culture and Society; and on Nasserism in Egypt through the lens of haunting in Middle East Critique. She is currently thinking and writing about ghosts and anticolonial archives.

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