Ana Luisa Rojas is 54, small, with a tired, gentle face.In December 1977, she went on a hunger strike for three days in front of the Church of San Francisco in Santiago, Chile.
In May 1978, she went on a hunger strike for 17 days in front of the Church of Jesus Obrero (Jesus, the Worker) in Santiago. Afterward, she had to be fed intravenously.
Sola Sierra is 43 with dark hair and dark eyes. She looks younger than that. In June 1977, she went on a hunger strike for 12 days in front of Cepal, the U.N. Economic Mission for Latin American in Santiago.
Rojas and Sierra were flown here from Santiago at the expense of the Institute for Policy Studies to accept one of the Institute's third annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards. The two accepted the award on behalf of the Association of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Chile at a ceremony last night. The group, composed of some 630 persons, agitates and appeals to organizations and governments to get information on the whereabouts of disappeared persons.
Sola Sierra's husband disappeared Sept. 15, 1976. Months later, she heard from some released prisoners that her husband had been seen at a detention and torture center.
Ana Luisa Rojas' 32-year-old son, Alfredo, disappeared March 4, 1975. He, too, reportedly was seen at that detention center.
The women have brought with them statistics of horror: 2,500 people (1,500 documented, says Amnesty International) have disappeared -- some allegedly killed, some reportedly arrested -- from Chile since the military government took power in September 1973, and began arresting thousands of leftists and others, according to a variety of international aid organizations.
A third woman, Anna Gonzales, the president of the organization, had been scheduled to come. But she was arrested Sept. 8, in the course of a hunger strike, according to the two women. Gonzales was released Tuesday, according to Isabel Letelier, head of the Chile Committee for Human Rights and the widow of Orlando Letelier, whom the awards commemorate. Letelier, a Chilean exile leader and a former ambassador, and his coworker, Ronni Moffitt, were killed three years ago when a bomb in Letelier's car exploded.
The two women sat yesterday in a light-filled conference room at the Institute for Policy Studies' temporary headquarters on Connecticut Avenue. They came with Isabel Letelier and an interpreter, Nina Terrell. Quietly others slipped into the room to sit at the conference table -- mostly young Chilean exiles, who listened quietly and gave only first names.
The women said they have been arrested, have chained themselves to fences, have stood in the middle of streets. Members of their organization have been followed and harassed and mistreated, the women say.
They are not afraid?
"No," whispered Rojas, smiling, before the question could even be translated to her.
"You have to understand these are our loved ones," said Sierra. "If they disappeared, they too were struggling. We cannot sit at home with our hands folded."
Every day, they pursue some more government officials, they meet with more people, they said. In the afternoons, Rojas embroiders for sale colorful tapestries called "arpilleras," depicting the struggles of relatives. Just before leaving Santiago, they had spent time with the relatives of 15 men arrested six years ago and found dead in an abandoned mine -- whose bodies the government promised to return but never did.
Sometimes, the two women talked before questions could be asked.
"We want to emphasize that our association always comes out stronger and more determined because ours is a just cause," said Sierra. "We have the right to know what happened to our loved ones. Our struggle is one where we have to let the whole world know what happens so that such things will never happen in Chile again."
The teary-eyed exiles sniffled. Rojas reached into her purse for a tissue and wiped her eyes.
The interpreter told them they had to leave for another interview and they rose from their seats, smiling, giving firm handshakes.