Friday, January 27, 2017

You look like terrorists

Forty years ago today, two Chilean friends, Christian and Nene, and myself were minding our own business in the Brazilian city of Curitiba when we were arrested as murder suspects (‘you look like terrorists’, we were told) and put in prison. It was a frightening experience, more so for my friends who had spent the past three years living under Pinochet’s military rule in Chile. But Brazil and Argentina were also subject to military rule at this time, and in Argentina, especially, it was not unusual for people to be arrested, and go missing, never to be seen again - the desaparecidos. Here is my diary entry, dated 29 January, first about visiting Iguacu Falls on the Wednesday and then about our arrest and release on the Thursday (27 January).

29 January 1977
‘Foz da Iguacu is an ugly dirty town. It lies 20-30km from the falls, and a few km from the Paraguay border. It is full of hotels and restaurants, but the streets are dug up and full of rubbish. We installed ourselves in a hotel for 30 Cr but our room was smaller and hotter than an oven. A friendly joven befriended us and promised to take us to a church where we could sleep for free, idle away the evening soaking in impressions of Brazil or listening to some Paraguay folklorico with a hand harp. In the late evening, the joven took us to a large church where he said we could sleep beneath a covered courtyard. We thanked him profusely and began to spend a night fighting the mosquitoes and the heat. It was one very terrible night. [. . .]

Wednesday was dominated by the falls of Iguacu, one of the centres of tourism of South America and truly ‘impressionante’. It is so large, so magnificent. For a kilometre or more an enormous river breaks up and falls hundreds of feet in hundreds of different falls, different levels, different widths. It is a magnificent sight, completely natural. In the distance there’s a catwalk across the still gently flowing upper river, it is the Argentine tourist route. [. . .] A peaceful gentle brown river flows above, and suddenly there is no more river bed, and it goes thrashing, thrushing, torrenting down in a brown and white froth sending out spray with the wind. Some tourists hire big yellow raincoats to get a better view of the devil’s gorge. At the top we walk into the selva a few feet and sit on a big stone that rests in the river. The selva is alive with animals. Spiders, with their 3D webs stretched between trees and bushes. Iguanas, more than a foot long, crawl softly in the undergrowth. Endless coloured butterflies, suck the wet from the stones. There are black ones with patches of phosphorescent mauve. There are small ones with red, black and white line designs on the outside. There are enormous yellow and black ones. There are orange ones and yellow ones and white ones. All so beautiful. There are mosquito eggs wiggling in stone pools. There is a snail slowly pulling itself up out of the water. There are flies and ants and the enormous river flowing by. I wonder how I can ever be impressed by a little waterfall again.

We take the bus to Curitiba through the night.

Christian is ill, he has an infection of the ear. We go to some hospitals; at one we leave him to the bureaucracy of the medical system. We arrange to meet at 11:00am in a plaza. Nene and I eventually find a tourist office. They do not see many tourists so we are overloaded with information, post cards, even a board game ‘to get to know Curitiba’. At 11 we meet Christian. We ask some policeman for some information. We stop to talk to a Brasileiro, and then the police decide to take all four of us to a police station. We are a little insulted but don't cause trouble. In the police station, we are body searched; all our possessions are removed. Laboriously long forms are filled out, and every personal item is listed. The money is counted scrupulously. The police are friendly, but we are suspects. We think we can go when they have finished, but no we have to wait while they phone headquarters. We are placed in cells. I start to ask to phone the British Consulate. After a while they try to bundle us into two police cars. They have armoured back seats. I am afraid for us. I start to protest and insist on phoning the British Consulate. They will not let me. Finally, I am forced in the car by two policemen. I have in mind untold horrible things that I know are possible. I am afraid for Nene. We are taken to the Centre of Investigations. There the same long forms are filled out again. Many policemen come and go, some with ugly greedy faces, some making jokes about how we look like terrorists. Once the forms are completed, we are locked in a room. It seems a policeman was killed by three Paraguayans yesterday, and when we spoke Spanish to the two cops in the Plaza they became suspicious. I am still afraid for us. The Brasileiro is cool and says the police do not lie. I sleep and have nightmares, and wake with a very bad headache. After three hours we are taken upstairs. Upstairs, there are secretaries, and people in suits coming and going. I am very relieved. Somebody gives me a pill for my headache. In 20 minutes we are out on the streets and very very relieved. Christian still has very bad face pain. We go finally to a hospital (to the one he had been told to go earlier in the day). He finds it is a private clinic and has to pay $20. He does not want to. We force him. A young doctor gives him a big painful injection and mountains of medicine. We play games for an hour in the shelter of the rain deciding what to do. Eventually we decide to take the bus back to Sao Paulo through the night. Nene and I kiss passionately on the bus.’

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