HE WAS LOST, A MANCHILD WITHOUT A BEARING in this world. The anger inside could make him sarcastic, lonely, cynical and mean. "Can you tell me something," he would say to his mother, "why are you so ignorant?" Or "Why aren't you prettier?" Or "Why do we have all this second-hand furniture?"
Like so many 19-year-olds, Rodrigo Rojas felt the rage that comes with the cruel, uneven cadences of growing up -- a yearning to achieve something without the patience or experience to finish it, a desire for love without the language or calm to express it. What Rodrigo Rojas longed for most was Chile, his home. Chile was worlds away from the family's apartment on Dupont Circle, and that terrible exile sometimes made Rodrigo lash out at those he loved. "I always knew, even when he was hurting me, that Chile was what his anger was all about," says Rodrigo's mother Veronica DeNegri. "He would never be happy until he could go home."
Rodrigo left Chile when he was 8 years old. His journey began as a vacation, a solo trip to see relatives in Quebec City. But when his mother was arrested, jailed, then exiled in the first bloody years of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military rule, it seemed the family would never return.
As an American teen-ager, Rodrigo was obsessed with Chile. It never left his mind. Although he lived in Washington for more than a decade, spoke fluent English, cheered perversely against the Redskins and developed a decidedly American passion for electronic gadgets of every sort, Rodrigo felt himself a Chilean. He spoke Spanish at home and with his circle of fellow exiles. When they talked politics, it was usually Chilean politics. Music meant the quena and charango. Poetry meant Pablo Neruda.
"Chile! Chile! Chile! That's all people like Rodrigo and me would hear about," says Juan Pablo Letelier, the 25-year-old son of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador who was murdered in Washington 10 years ago by agents of Pinochet's secret police. Juan Pablo now lives in Santiago. "But we both really grew up in the United States, and as much as we talked about Chile, as much as everyone around us talked about Chile, we didn't really know it."
Rodrigo tried to keep Chile a fact of the present as well as one of childhood. He would listen carefully to friends returning to Washington after a summer in Chile, then pepper them with questions. He would photograph as many demonstrations or celebrations having to do with Chile as he could. Above his bed at home he tacked up tattered posters of Orlando Letelier and of the military's bombardment in September 1973 of La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago.
But Rodrigo's memories of Chile were of the vaguest sort, half-true visions of family quarrels, the iridescence of parrots at the zoo on San Cristobal Hill, the Pacific washing the sands near Valparaiso. Scraps of memory. "It was slipping away. You could even hear it in his Spanish," says Marcelo Montecino, a Chilean-born photographer who was Rodrigo's mentor in Washington. "After a while his Spanish was off, full of cognates, phrases of Spanglish, little mistakes that nobody in Santiago or Valparaiso would ever make."
Rodrigo wanted to go to Chile for so many reasons. His father Ramon had left the family when Rodrigo was less than 2 years old, and he had no memory at all of him. There were other relatives to see, as well -- aunts, grandparents, cousins he had never met.
Chile also defined his ambitions. Rodrigo saw himself as a photojournalist, and more than anything he wanted a real "bang-bang" story -- machine guns, soldiers, despair in the shantytowns, obliviousness in the palace. Chile in Kodachrome. But Montecino, whose only brother, also a photographer, had been killed in the first days of the coup, urged Rodrigo to go somewhere else for the summer. "Even Nicaragua," Montecino told him. "Go there. It's cheaper." No, Rodrigo said, it's Chile. In mid-May his relatives in Canada gave him the gift he had wanted most, a ticket home. After a long flight to Peru and an endless bus ride from Lima, Rodrigo arrived at the Santiago bus station with his camera bag, a suitcase and $ 200. Tragedy seemed to shadow him from the start. Within a week a 19-year-old student at the Santiago Institute named Ronald Wood was killed. Wood had been waiting for a bus near the law school. A street demonstration, one of many in Santiago that day, was raging nearby and police were trying to scatter everyone. Suddenly, one of the soldiers shot into the crowd. The bullet penetrated Wood's skull. Three days later he was dead. Wood's funeral, on May 25, drew more than 5,000 mourners and demonstrators.
Wood's funeral was Rodrigo's first real day of "bang-bang." With his Nikons he recorded it all -- the casket heaped with flowers, two women in the crowd twisted with grief, the police arriving, the water cannons and the tear gas. Those photographs turned out to be the most mature work Rodrigo would ever do. But there was something haunting about them. "It was like he was taking pictures of his own funeral," says his mother.
Six weeks later, caught in the teeth of another protest in another part of the city, Rodrigo himself would be detained by soldiers. Soldiers would beat him with their gun butts. They would make him lie face down on the sidewalk. Then, witnesses say, a young lieutenant would drench him with gasoline, light him on fire and watch. More than 5,000 people attended Rodrigo's funeral. Mourners came with flowers, candles and signs, many of them seeing this death as an emblem of what Chile had become -- a state under siege with the highest percentage of political exiles in the world.
The police came to the funeral, too, with water cannons, tear gas and dogs, the usual scene in Santiago. Rodrigo Rojas was buried just a few yards from Ronald Wood. Finally, he was home. VALPARAISO, THE CITY WHERE RODRIGO WAS reared, is the San Francisco of Chile, a labyrinth of hills and stairways by the sea. When Veronica DeNegri was 18 and living in Valparaiso, she fell in love with Ramon, an ambitious young politician. "We were so naive then," she says. "We were not suited for each other, but we were like Romeo and Juliet. We thought love could solve all our problems." They married secretly in 1966. But for most of their time together, Veronica and Ramon were apart. He traveled the country for his work at the interior ministry; she remained with her family in Valparaiso. When they were in the same house, they would often fight and count the hours until business provided them another trip, more breathing space.
When Veronica got pregnant in 1967, Ramon was frantic. He did not want the child. He hadn't even told his family he was married. "Ramon wanted me to abort the kid," Veronica says. "But I wanted to have my baby. That completely separated us, and it was the reason he was never close to Rodrigo. He never wanted him. He never took Rodrigo in his arms -- not once. Rodrigo could sense it right away. When he was just 6 or 7 months old, Rodrigo would start to yell and scream when his father came around."
The last time Rodrigo was in the same room with his father was at a family dinner in 1968. As Veronica tells it, that last encounter was a horror, one that made Rodrigo seem preternaturally capable of adult rage:
"Ramon did not want to kiss Rodrigo. I said, 'Rodrigo, kiss your father.' But Ramon moved back. Rodrigo felt that. He began doing nasty things, like throwing a vase of flowers to the floor. At lunch Rodrigo and Ramon sat across the table from each other and looked at each other like they were in a war. There was so much tension. Rodrigo looked straight into Ramon's eyes. With hate. Finally, Ramon said, 'Take that child away!' "
When Rodrigo learned to write, his mother had him send letters and cards to his father at an address in Chile. Ramon never answered. "It wasn't even until the 10th grade that Rodrigo ever talked about his father," Veronica says.
Even without a father around, Rodrigo flourished, living in a rambling house full of aunts and uncles, all of whom were college educated. Everyone doted on him. When he ruined all the locks in the house with a screwdriver, the family was charmed. When he tried to "open" his grandfather's pocket watch with a hammer, everyone laughed. When he ruined 15 umbrellas jumping off fences "learning how to fly," the family made sure his bones were not broken, then praised the boy's ingenuity.
As it does in so many middle-class homes in Chile, conversation centered on politics. "Rodrigo grew up hearing politics, politics," Veronica says. The house was itself a microcosm of Chile's political spectrum. There were supporters of nearly every party in the country. For her part, Veronica's political interests were mainly in feminist and union issues. She was always on the left, but never adhered to one party for long.
In 1970 Chile faced its most pivotal and, as it turned out, last presidential election. To the delight of nearly everyone in the DeNegri house -- and to the horror of the Nixon administration and the CIA -- Salvador Allende won, promising socialist reforms. Veronica took a job in the ministry of public works and transportation. She admired Allende's early initiatives -- the nationalization of the copper mines, the increases in social spending.
But after three years of reform and tumult, the Chilean military overthrew the Allende government in 1973. Gen. Augusto Pinochet assumed the presidency for what most people hoped would be an interim period before a return to democratic rule. It was not a wholly unpopular coup. Inflation had been skyrocketing. Food and other supplies were scarce. What continue to shock and depress so many in Chile are the brutality and the sheer length of Pinochet's rule. When Allende was shot through the head on September 11, 1973, he was among the first to suffer. Veronica, her son Rodrigo and thousands of others were next.
"IN SEPTEMBER 1975, I WAS ARRESTED BY THE marines at home in Valparaiso," says Veronica, a strong, stout woman who works as a counselor in Rockville, advising pregnant teen-agers, alcoholics and lonely exiles. In Chile, after the coup, she helped families of the "disappeared" -- which she thinks is probably why she was arrested and jailed. As she talks, she uses cigarettes to calm herself, and short periods of silence to give her the strength to recount her horror, a nightmare that sometimes unreels unmercifully in her sleep. When her eyes fill with tears, she seems to will them away in an instant.
"There were two men in navy blue uniforms and dark caps. At first I thought they were municipal employes, building inspectors. They said, 'You must come with us. You are required to testify. We can't tell you why.' Rodrigo was at another house at the time. They said I would only be gone two or three hours. I still don't know why I was taken away.
"They put tape over my eyes and sunglasses over the tape so people outside wouldn't know what was going on. Soon I found myself walking up a spiral staircase. I was sweating and so the tape was loose and I could see a little. I saw a young man, a marine, blond, a handsome man. He told me they had to cover my eyes as a 'precaution.' Then they had doctors examine me. They always have doctors there when they torture you. They took my blood pressure. Usually it's low, but now it felt like my heart would jump out of my mouth. They really believed I was doing something terrible. The blond man was kind to me then. We had a conversation and he offered me a cigarette and I smoked. But I know the same man tortured me. He was playing the good guy. Sometimes they switched, and the guys that were kicking and hitting you before become the good guys. And they offer you a cigarette.
"They asked me all kinds of questions. Who was I . . . my family . . . did I want to tell them anything . . . did I know anything about guns? I had nothing to tell them.
"I went through many different kinds of physical and psychological torture. I was assaulted, beaten, morning, noon and night. They would hurt me and I would bleed and they would give me nothing to put on the wound. I was not allowed to take a bath or brush my teeth. They bit me. They kicked me and slapped me.
"On the third or fourth day the big torture began. They started the 'submarine,' which is a long tub filled with water and excrement. They made me sit down in it. They ask something, and if you don't answer it, they push you under. It felt like my ears were exploding and my lungs were exploding. I started to throw up. They kept doing it over and over.
"They have graduating methods. They started the electricity, the shocks, on my wrists, then my toes, then my breasts, then different places. Once, one of them asked me, 'Do you want a cigarette?' I said, 'No, I don't want anything from you.' So the guy said, 'Well, if you don't want to smoke, I don't want to smoke either.' And he put it out. He extinguished it on my body.
"And I was raped . . . and not just by men. Also by rats. They introduce it into your vagina. It is very terrible, because, the poor animal, you feel it looking for a way out, and it's ripping you.
"After this was the parria -- the grill. You are tied, hands and feet, to a huge grill which is electrified. They shock you on all different places -- the eyelids, the ears, under the tongue, the chest, around the kidneys, the hands, the vagina. When I had the parria I felt like my body was disintegrating, as if my muscles were ripping up into little pieces. My heart felt like it was growing and my brain felt bigger than my head.
"While I was in jail I had to block it out, the torture. You have to search for something to keep you alive in there. Just before they'd put me in jail I'd read a book about a man from the Far East, someone who had been tortured. The man explained how he always concentrated on the idea of a brick wall when they were torturing him. That's what I did. While I was in there I looked at a 'brick wall.' In a way I learned to become a brick wall."
VERONICA WAS IN PRISON FOR EIGHT MONTHS. While she was there, Rodrigo lived with his aunts in Quebec City. Veronica had arranged for him to make the trip before her arrest. Rodrigo's vacation suddenly became his exile.
While he could only imagine the horrors his mother was experiencing in Chile, Rodrigo had to struggle with the immediate difficulties of living without parents, with learning a new language and growing up in a strange place. Says Rodrigo's aunt Amanda DeNegri, "The one thing he did say about his mother being in jail was, 'I know I have nothing to be ashamed of.' But he missed her terribly." Veronica was released in 1977. At first she did not want to leave Chile. But almost immediately she began to get death threats on the phone. She was detained without explanation by the police five or six times in the weeks before she finally boarded a plane for Washington.
When Veronica first saw Rodrigo, he was bursting with things to show her. In Canada he had grown more and more interested in cameras, and now he had one of his own. "He was so happy to see me then and I think he was happy to move with me to Washington," says Veronica. Before she had been arrested, Veronica had had a child, Pablo, with a man who had since left her. Now Veronica, Rodrigo and Pablo moved into a one-bedroom apartment on 17th Street NW in a building that housed some other Chilean exiles. Money was tight. Veronica worked as a hotel maid to feed her boys. At night she slept on the couch in the living room while they slept on beds in the bedroom. "They were everything to me."
Rodrigo never asked about his mother's years in jail. After several years went by, she would describe her torture for the first time in a local women's group and, later, would speak out publicly to audiences put together by Amnesty International. Rodrigo refused all invitations to come hear her. "He shut it out," she says. "From a long time ago I could tell that he loved me and sympathized with me, but something inside him secretly blamed me for our exile, blamed me for everything that had happened to us." James Gordon, a physician and psychotherapist who saw Rodrigo regularly in Washington, says, "Most adolescents don't even like to think about their parents having sex. And so to Rodrigo the idea of his mother being raped and tortured was a terrible humiliation to him."
Rodrigo was growing up without apparent strain. Indeed he grew and grew, until finally, at Wilson High School, he was 6-foot-3 with a pillowy physique and a basso profundo voice. His fascination with cameras was equaled by his growing skill in computers and artificial intelligence.
But the anger was a slow burn within him, and his schoolwork reflected his turmoil. He was bored. "I don't see how anyone with any brains can stand it," he told his friends. He liked some things about Wilson -- the integrated student body, his computer teacher -- but so much seemed trivial to him. "He was anti-high school," says a friend, Juan Carlos Labarca. "He saw that American kids really see an easy life as their birthright. And here was Rodrigo, with his background, concerned with subjects that a lot of kids around him had never even heard of. He couldn't always relate."
There was a lot of Holden Caulfield in Rodrigo Rojas -- at once sensitive and sarcastic, intelligent and drifting. He would sleepwalk through a lot of his classes, pulling grades way below his capabilities. He began cutting class. In the main he preferred being with people older than himself, people he could learn from. Afternoons and evenings, dressed in his usual jeans and parka, he would follow a routine course, making stops to see his friend Jorge Burgos at the Hispania bookstore on 18th Street, then up the block to a lawyer friend, Michael Maggio. Then it was off to Marcelo and Lucy Montecino's place in Mount Pleasant to work in the darkroom, eat dinner and talk.
"Rodrigo would show up in the evening, and it was like he hadn't been here hundreds of times before," says Lucy Montecino. "He'd shift his weight from foot to foot and say, 'Uh, do you, uh, know if Marcelo is here?' Or we'd ask him to stay for dinner, and we'd have to ask a half-dozen times before he would sit down."
Like a lot of bright teen-agers, Rodrigo could be relentlessly honest. Once he said to Montecino, one of Chile's best-known photographers, "You know, Marcelo, you really only have three or four good pictures." There were times when he was infuriating, and yet his insecurities, his confusions were so naked that his friends accepted him and loved him.
Rodrigo was interested in girls, but he never had the nerve to ask them out on dates. Most of them seemed so young, he said. Usually Rodrigo just took pictures of the girls he liked. It was the same with protests at Dupont Circle and football games at Wilson. The camera was a way to see the world, and also something to hide behind.
All the while Rodrigo's performance at Wilson was slipping. In fact there was hardly any performance at all. Rodrigo was skipping class more and more often. Just a few weeks before he was supposed to graduate, Rodrigo pulled his most mystifying Holden Caulfield move of all. He blew graduation. Too many cuts. He never got a diploma.
For another year Rodrigo drifted, working at a photography store, taking more pictures, studying computers, visiting his circuit of friends. He had so many dreams -- to go to the Andes and photograph the mountains. To shoot the war in Angola. To visit Europe. And most of all, to go home, to Chile.
Last spring, he made up his mind. He would go. WHAT MANY AMERICANS KNOW OF CONTEMPO- rary Chile, they know from the images of "Missing," Henri Costa-Gavras' film about a young American killed by army troops inside the national stadium following the coup. The film portrays the brutality of 1973. Buildings are in flames, the streets echo with rifle fire, the river flows with bodies and blood.
These days the scene of battle is less cinematic, more hidden and sporadic. But a state of siege exists nonetheless. Within three years of the coup, many of Gen. Pinochet's most vocal opponents were dead, missing, imprisoned, in exile, or in hiding in remote regions of the country.
In Chile today, acquaintance with tragedy is inevitable, even casual. One afternoon last month, Montecino was walking around the General Cemetery after visiting the graves of Ronald Wood and Rodrigo Rojas. The place is a sociology of tombs. The poor are buried in the ground, sometimes without a name. The middle class rest in vaulted walls, their coffins slipped onto stone shelves and sealed. The wealthy build flamboyant monuments to themselves, tombs resplendent with hooded madonnas, arcing angels' wings.
Wandering around that day was a folk singer named Benedicto Salinas. He is a popular figure in Santiago and a vocal opponent of the Pinochet regime. While he was on tour in the United States last summer, he said, soldiers stormed into his house in the middle of the night and killed his wife and daughter. The government called the deaths suicides. After putting red carnations on the graves of his family, he visited the graves of friends killed since the coup. A few yards away were hundreds of open graves awaiting the dead. Outside the gates the old women did a brisk business in the flower trade.
And yet Santiago seems so modern and alive to an American eye. On first glance, there is far less of the abject poverty associated with Peru or Bolivia. Chile has a large middle class. The beaches are beautiful. The food is good, the wine even better. But after a while the edginess of the place comes through -- the thick belt of shantytowns that girds the city, the incredible numbers of police in olive uniforms, the machine guns and billy clubs, the riot bus with barred windows parked every day outside the Vicariate of Solidarity, the Catholic Church's human rights organization in Chile. It is a nerve-racking place, a suffocating place; Santiago is the taste of bile on the tongue, a chest filled with bad air. Things are getting worse. According to Amnesty International, repression in Chile has increased "sharply" since 1983. There are so many incidents of brutality that each is known by its particular form of violence. Last year, three Communists were found murdered by the side of a country road. Now they are known as los degollados, "the ones with slit throats." There are el ahogado, "the drowned one," and la dinamitada, "the dynamited woman." And the most comprehensive category -- los desaparecidos, "the disappeared."
Pinochet justifies it all, portraying himself in messianic terms, as one of the world's few victors over communism. At the same time, factions on the far left, such as the Manuel Rodriguez Front, are advocating insurrection. And so, in a way, the escalation of violent opposition is Pinochet's ticket to stay. At the same time that Pinochet has been hinting he plans to stay in power into the 21st century, he does not even have the unquestioning support of the four members of his ruling junta. His support abroad is no better. The only foreign head of state to meet Pinochet in Chile has been Gen. Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay. Even Ferdinand Marcos snubbed him. Pinochet was en route to Manila via Easter Island when Marcos rescinded the invitation.
Nearly every faction to the left of Pinochet -- from the most conservative Christian Democrats, to the fractured Socialists, to the burgeoning, and increasingly violent, Communist groups -- takes part in street protests. There is an element of ritual to them. Usually protests are planned in advance in shantytowns such as Nogales or La Victoria, or at one of Santiago's universities. In the days before the protest, soldiers will frequently make "sweeps" of the area, arresting dozens of people. The demonstrations are usually the same: A "barricade" of flaming tires is strewn across a street, rocks are hurled, slogans chanted, anything to make a show of opposition, a noise against the General. And then the police come with the water cannons and gas. They have improved their tear gas in recent years, so that now just a little triggers a fit of vomiting.
This was the Santiago Rodrigo found when he arrived after his stopover in Peru. He could not have been more eager for the fray. Rodrigo stashed his things with his aunt Amanda, a lawyer who lives on the outskirts of town, and headed for the offices of APSI, one of the country's left-wing weeklies. He brought with him a donation, a badly needed camera. "He came into the offices so timidly, so naively," says one of the APSI staffers. Rodrigo had a media credential given him by a video production company in Washington, but he wanted to go right away to the demonstrations without any local ID. The photographers there persuaded him to be more careful. "This is Chile," they said. "This is different."
Still Rodrigo suffered from a youthful, American sense of invulnerability. Before Rodrigo left, Montecino told him to go to demonstrations only with groups, to use other photographers as "an umbrella." That was the careful way of doing things. But Rodrigo went, time and again, alone. He seemed suspect to some at first. There is a core of photographers in Santiago, and when they saw this new kid some thought he was an informer for the secret police. The photograph of Rodrigo used for his memorial poster was taken by someone who was fearful of him as an informer.
But Rodrigo also had the sort of moxie that only naivete' permits. One day, five police recruits were walking in the metro and Rodrigo stepped up to one and asked to take a photo -- something no pro would have dared to do. The officer just smiled and said, "Sure, go ahead."
Rodrigo spent his days taking pictures, processing his film at the APSI offices, riding the buses, and learning, always learning. He was often lost and, like a tourist, he kept a map in his pocket. He sought out friends with a touching persistence, sometimes waiting outside a friend's house for hours, hungry for connection. He wanted it all to happen at once. "He was so eager to make contact with Chileans," says another APSI staffer. "The magazine was a base for him that way. People took to him and tried to protect him, too."
Late afternoons and often into the night, Rodrigo worked as a computer programmer at the University of Chile's medical school. Dr. Benjamin Suarez, who was a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health for several years until his recent return to Chile, invited Rodrigo to work on a project involving neurophysiology. For $ 50 a month, Rodrigo put in long nights in front of the school's Apple terminal. His skills were improving -- and so was his confidence. Suarez had seen all the discontent in Rodrigo when he knew the family in Washington, but now "Rodrigo seemed changed. He looked so much happier here."
And he was. His phone calls to his mother were full of enthusiasm and detail. "The only thing he never seemed to do was find his father," Veronica says. "He told me he was looking, but I didn't want to press it."
Nearly six weeks had gone by and Rodrigo began telling his new friends that he was sure to move back to Chile. Suarez talked to him about studying at the university. Sure, Rodrigo said, or maybe I'll open a photo agency with Marcelo. Even with the streets filled with police, even with his older friends constantly warning him to be careful, to work in groups, in Rodrigo's eyes the world seemed full of possibility.
On the last Sunday in June, Rodrigo took the bus to the shantytown of Nogales, a low-slung neighborhood where food is scarce and the walls are smeared with the graffiti of rage. Nogales is less wretched than some of the other shantytowns, which is to say it is more central and the roads are mostly paved. Still, says parish priest Jose Aldunate, "Things are getting worse. People are getting used to not eating. Young men have no future at all. It's appalling to see them sniffing glue all day. The poverty is getting worse." That Sunday was a celebration, with volunteers handing out free plates of beans and bread. There were games, sports, music. People painted their amateur Guernicas on the walls and listened on the radio as Argentina won the finals of the World Cup.
Rodrigo was in Nogales to take photographs and to help out. It was a fine day, with the sky clear and the Chilean winter coming on without bitterness. People spoke of the coming day of general protests and labor strikes against the regime scheduled for July 2. Rodrigo always wanted to know where the action was going to be. A local kid named Pedro Marcelo Martinez said that he'd be protesting in Nogales. Why not come along to take some pictures? Sure, Rodrigo said, what time?
IN THE DAYS BEFORE THE GENERAL PROTESTS, Ariel Dorfman, a friend and professor of Latin American studies at Duke, told Rodrigo to be careful. "I'm fine," Rodrigo said. "What could happen to me?"
Rodrigo slept at an old woman's house in Nogales on the night of July 1, the better to get an early start on the next day's demonstrations. And against the advice of his aunt and his friends at APSI, he went alone.
The morning of July 2, Rodrigo had expected to meet a group of about 10 people who were going to set up a barricade near General Valasquez Street, the main boulevard in Nogales. He arrived at the appointed spot with his cameras, but only two people met him there. They were carrying tires, a jerrycan of gasoline, and several small soda bottles filled with inflammable liquid -- Molotov cocktails used to ignite the tires from a distance. There was too much stuff, and too few people to carry it. And so someone asked Rodrigo to help by carrying one or two of the bottles. Rodrigo had already shown his naivete' by coming to the protest alone. He showed it once more, by agreeing to carry the bottles.
Purely by chance, Rodrigo and the other two youths met a group of five others, including an 18-year-old student who lived in the area, Carmen Gloria Quintana. They all decided to go to the demonstration together. But before they could set a tire on fire or paint a slogan on a wall, the army arrived in a truck. The panic was immediate. The group scattered. Rodrigo, who was probably still carrying the bottles, according to his family's lawyer, and Carmen, who was not carrying anything, sprinted down a side street. But Carmen stumbled, and the few seconds it took Rodrigo to stop and help her to her feet was all the army needed. They were caught.
It is impossible to know what Rodrigo was thinking at that moment. Did he believe he would be released after an hour or two in the local lockup? Did he think the cameras around his neck and the credentials in his pocket were a shield? Or did the imagery of torture -- his mother's torture -- prefigure what would happen next?
Within moments, some 25 army troops, their faces smeared with black jungle paint, led Rodrigo and Carmen to Yunge Street, a dismal, dusty place. With a young lieutenant named Pedro Fernandez giving orders, the troops began beating Rodrigo and Carmen with their gun butts and snapping questions at them.
A 25-year-old factory worker named Jorge Sanhuesa was walking to his office on nearby Eighth of January Street and heard shouts. "It was about 7:45 a.m.," he says. "A kid came up to me and started screaming, 'They've detained those kids!' Like a good Chilean I was curious and went to Valasquez Street to have a look."
Sanhuesa stood behind a wide utility pole and watched as the soldiers worked over Rodrigo and Carmen. Both Carmen and Rodrigo were barefoot; the soldiers had taken their shoes to prevent them from running away. He saw a soldier pull Carmen's jeans down to her knees and stick the barrel of his machine gun up her backside.
Next to the army truck were two unmarked pickups. According to witnesses, there were two civilians there who consulted with the lieutenant as the beaten youths writhed on the pavement. Hector Salazar, the lawyer in Santiago for Rodrigo's family, believes the civilians were officers of the CNI, Chile's secret police, and were giving the lieutenant his instructions. "We are at war against you!" one of the civilians yelled at Rodrigo, according to a witness. "It's because of you we have to get up early in the morning."
After the civilians drove off, Lt. Fernandez walked to a truck and brought out a jerrycan of gasoline that had been taken from one of the other protesters. Witnesses say he then calmly poured gas over the heads and bodies of Rodrigo and Carmen, who were in no position to resist. She was squatting against the wall and he was face-down on the sidewalk. Then the lieutenant went to a yellow pickup truck and got one of the Molotov cocktails. He told his troops to stand back. He walked back a few steps to the middle of the road and threw the bottle at the sidewalk. The Molotovs were designed to ignite when shattered. In an instant Rodrigo and Carmen were in flames.
"At that moment I heard one of the military men say, 'La cagamos!' 'We've screwed it up!' " says Sanhuesa. "But most of them were laughing and joking and talking while the fire was burning. I said to myself, 'Why can't we do anything?' There were so many people around but we were powerless."
Rodrigo struggled to his feet and frantically tried to pat out the flames on his chest with his hands. He tried to walk forward, as if he could somehow leave this terrible scene, but one of the soldiers smacked him across the back of the head with his rifle butt, and Rodrigo crumpled to the pavement. Finally, after the flames had gone down, the soldiers wrapped Carmen Gloria and Rodrigo in blankets and threw them into the vehicles like a couple of sacks of laundry.
Sanhuesa was dumbstruck. "One of the soldiers saw me and he yelled, 'You better get out of here. Do you want to be killed, too?' " Sanhuesa was far from the only witness. There were some 20 people waiting for a bus across the street, and others were watching from different vantage points. (Eventually a dozen witnesses would testify at length, including Carmen Gloria. Sanhuesa needed four days to muster the nerve to come forward.)
The army truck drove for about half an hour to Quilicura, a desolate place on the outskirts of Santiago with a few farms and shacks. The trucks pulled off the main road, and across from a farm they dumped Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria into a ditch lined with prickly blackberry bushes. The army left them for dead.
After the soldiers drove away, Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria regained consciousness and clawed their way out of the ditch. Their clothes were tattered and black. Both had third-degree burns on two-thirds of their bodies. Their skin was charred and falling off their bodies in scraps. Their hair had been singed away. They walked along the road as if by instinct. Workers who spotted them describe them as "ghosts." "They were like the zombies you see in movies," says a man named Dino who runs a tiny soda stand nearby. "The boy was calm and spoke in a low voice. The girl was crying, 'Mamita! Mamita!' She wanted her mother."
The workers called for the police, who arrived after a long delay. The officers, whom Dino described as "very sympathetic," said they had called an ambulance. But it never showed up. The police tried to wave down cars to take Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria to a hospital. Car after car ignored them. Finally the police waved down a Japanese-built blue van. Rodrigo walked to the van and was able to sit upright in the front seat. He seemed to be in better shape than Carmen. The police had to carry her to the van and lay her out in the back seat. At last Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria would get medical treatment.
LATER THE SAME DAY, WHEN THE NEWS OF the burnings had spread, Veronica went to her office in Rockville and saw a message marked "urgent." It was from Isabel Letelier, the widow of Orlando Letelier and a fellow at Washington's Institute for Policy Studies. Veronica reached her at home.
"What is it?" Veronica said.
"I have to tell you something terrible," Isabel said. "I want you to sit."
"I don't have to sit. What is it? Was Rodrigo arrested?"
"Yes. He was arrested this morning with a girl named Carmen Gloria. Do you know her?"
"No," Veronica said.
"But the most important thing," Isabel said, "is that Rodrigo is in the hospital."
There was a long silence. Right away Veronica knew something awful had happened. Even though she knew her name was on a computerized list of 3,700 people not permitted to enter the country, Veronica told her colleagues in Rockville, "I'm going to Chile. Rodrigo is dying." Veronica picked up Pablo at his day camp, then went to Isabel's house. Calls from Ariel Dorfman in Chile kept them informed. As the day wore on the news got worse. Terrible burns. The risk of infection. An awful beating. In Santiago, American Ambassador Harry Barnes arranged at the highest levels of the Chilean government for the special permission Veronica needed to enter the country.
The next day Veronica flew alone to Santiago. Let him live, she thought. We've had so many problems between us, Rodrigo and I, but we can solve them. Just let him live.
The LAN Chile DC-10 arrived in Santiago at 11:30 on the morning of July 4. At the airport were Veronica's sister Amanda and Jayne Kobliska, an American consular official who would stay by Veronica's side in the days to come.
As Veronica walked through the airport past the signs extolling Chilean "order," as she rode down streets lined with soldiers in jackboots, she felt it all come back to her, her last, miserable years in a place she had loved so well. At a hospital called the Posta Central, she hugged the parents of Carmen Gloria. "I was in a daze," she says. "I wanted only one thing. To see Rodrigo."
The Posta Central has many competent doctors, but its facilities have deteriorated under severe financial cutbacks. Its medicine cabinet is bare. Veronica herself would have to buy human albumin for Rodrigo. The conditions are not always sterile -- a particular danger for burn victims. Benjamin Suarez and doctors she knew had told her that they had already tried to transfer Rodrigo to a private workers' hospital where the doctors had superior equipment and were trained in the skin-grafting techniques necessary to keep victims of such large and awful burns alive.
A nurse brought Veronica to the fifth floor where Rodrigo lay burned, sedated and blind in an intensive care unit. More than half the skin on his body had been charred. The pain seared through the salve of even the strongest pain-killers. One doctor who examined him said the burns made it impossible to tell how badly Rodrigo had been beaten. At the door the nurse said, "Prepare yourself. What you are about to see is terrible. You won't recognize him." Rodrigo was a ruin. "His face was not anymore his face," Veronica says. "He was completely burned except some parts of his legs and he was covered in bandages. He was very tall and the bed was too short for him. There were so many needles in his arm.
"I gave him messages from all his friends and I told him how proud I was of him and how I loved him all his life and that of course sometimes I was upset with him but we are all human beings. I told him how important he was to me and his brother and how important it was that he live."
The flames had traumatized Rodrigo's eyes. He couldn't see his mother. He followed her voice with his head. One of his lungs had already collapsed. During his struggles, Rodrigo had breathed in flames, and now respiratory and renal complications had set in. His chances of survival were slim, but, Veronica says, "I never thought he would die.
"He wanted so desperately to talk to me. He was trying to push the tube out of his mouth with his tongue. He was trying to move his hands and his head, but he couldn't. The only part of him I was allowed to touch was the soles of his feet. They were so cold, so I started to massage them, sort of to hug him. I told him it was important not to move, and listen to the doctors. I told him that in the future we'll have time to hug."
Veronica asked Rodrigo who had burned him. "The marines?" she asked. He shook his head, no. "The police?" No. The army? Yes, Rodrigo nodded. The army. Indeed, in the hours immediately after the burning, an investigator briefly questioned both Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria. They both said the soldiers had doused them with gasoline and set them ablaze. The military denied any wrongdoing at first, claiming instead that Carmen Gloria had accidentally kicked one of the Molotov cocktails, setting the two on fire. Veronica looked at her son and thought, "His face is so full of pain that he can't communicate. He is dying inside."
When the nurse told Veronica the visit had to end, Rodrigo grew desperate and tried to wave his arms. For a while Veronica could not leave her son like that, so starved and scared. Finally, she had to go. She took off her shoes, and with the blood rushing to her throat and tears filling her eyes, she tiptoed out of the room.
THE NEXT DAY, VERONICA, BENJAMIN Suarez and a young doctor named Pablo Caviedes continued to urge the hospital officials to transfer Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria to the nearby private workers' hospital where a renowned burn surgeon, Jorge Villegas, practices. "But by that time, the transfer was no guarantee to save Rodrigo -- he might have died in the ambulance -- but we tried," says Caviedes. But the officials at Posta Central were unrelenting. At first they said that Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria were under arrest; then they refused on medical grounds, insisting the facilities were adequate.
Some, including Veronica and Suarez, believe the transfer was being blocked for political reasons. "The Posta Central was the perfect place for those kids to die," says Suarez. "They could demonstrate they were doing the minimal amount and still have them die as witnesses."
On July 5, Rodrigo's condition was deteriorating. Dr. John Constable, a burn specialist from Massachusetts General Hospital, boarded a plane that evening to help in any way he could. He would arrive just minutes too late.
On July 6, early in the afternoon, the doctors called Veronica to the hospital. Rodrigo was dying, they said; he could go at any time. Within minutes, Veronica stood at the edge of Rodrigo's bed and once more began massaging her son's feet. "The doctors looked at me as if I were nuts. But I was having a hope because his feet were not cold. I was working so hard to give him life. I was talking with him in silence. Then the doctors started talking about Rodrigo in the past tense, and the line on the screen, it went straight. Rodrigo was dead but I didn't want to accept it."
Rodrigo Rojas died at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, July 6.
Within hours he became a martyr in a country he hardly knew. Every opposition party tried to appropriate him. At the spot where Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria were burned, people built a shrine with huge murals, candles, flowers, and written tributes: "Sabi'amos que no eras nuestro camarada, pero sabi'amos que eras nuestro hermano." "We knew you were not our comrade, but we knew you were our brother." Soldiers rode by the site, occasionally trashing the shrine and threatening to "do the same" to the people there. But as the details of the burning came out -- when so many witnesses insisted that this returning exile had been burned deliberately -- the government discovered it had created a myth, a movement.
More and more witnesses testified, and the government was finally forced to accuse the army of at least some crimes. Even that did not quell the anger in the streets. Rodrigo's funeral became a pitched battle. With 5,000 people present, including Barnes and other foreign ambassadors, a service was held on the steps of a Catholic church. There were signs everywhere: "Podran cortar las flores pero no pueden detener la primavera." "You can cut the flowers but you can't stop the spring." Then, the mourners loaded the casket into a hearse for the drive to the General Cemetery. Before the procession began, the police arrived and commandeered the hearse, forcing it to steer off in another direction.
"It was confusion everywhere," says Rodrigo's friend Juan Pablo Letelier. "There were people bruised and gassed everywhere. But Veronica was remarkable. She never flinched." The mourners had to wait more than two hours until the hearse was finally allowed to go to the cemetery. There were people in every corner, on every walkway, and as Rodrigo's coffin was slipped into a small vault in a concrete wall the crowd sang the Chilean national anthem.
Sen. Jesse Helms, who may be Pinochet's most ardent supporter, castigated Barnes for attending the funeral. Barnes was "planting the American flag in the midst of a Communist activity," he said. Barnes says that if he had it to do over again, he would still go. A State Department official calls the killing "blatant" and "brutal."
Lucia Pinochet, the general's wife, said the lieutenant accused of setting fire to Rodrigo and Carmen Gloria had made "only one error." He was, she said, "perhaps too soft."
Soon all charges against the 24 soldiers in the army patrol were dropped. Only the lieutenant, Pedro Fernandez, is now in jeopardy. He is charged with "unnecessary violence" and is reportedly pleading innocent. He will be tried in a military court. The president of the Chilean Bar Association says he expects the trial "will come to nothing."
ACROSS A CITY SQUARE FROM THE presidential palace, a squat old man with a cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth sells the laws. For a few hundred pesos anyone can buy a copy of the latest palace decree. Business, he says, is no good.
The centre cannot hold. That line of Yeats could not be more true in this place where a general on the right seems to feed on the rage of his opponents. The one growing party in Chile is the Communist Party. The centrist Christian Democrats, still the country's largest party, are bewildered, undecided whether to woo the General toward reform or side with the moderate left. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
"In Chile we have a culture of death now," says a Christian Democrat leader, Mariano Fernandez.
Pinochet's credibility is such that when members of the Rodriguez Front tried to kill him while he was on his way from his mountain retreat to Santiago in September, many people doubted the story. When they saw his bandaged hand, they laughed. They thought the incident was staged so that Pinochet could then do what he did: declare a state of siege. "Do you know how Pinochet hurt his hand?" the joke in Santiago went. "He was holding his grandchild in front of him as a shield."
After the assassination attempt, in which five of his bodyguards were killed, Pinochet told members of the junta, "We are going to get tough. Those people talking about human rights must be expelled from the country. The war against marxism is on. The war is going to start from our side." A few days later, the right-wing "September 11 Command" vowed to avenge the deaths of Pinochet's bodyguards.
The opposition press has mostly been wiped out, and any demonstration lasts only a few seconds before the water cannons and gas bombs appear. In September, soldiers kidnapped Jose Carrasco, the foreign editor of the opposition weekly, Analisis. Two men broke into his house, dragged him out of his bed and drove him to a shantytown. He was found dead that morning with 13 bullet holes in his head. In the following days three more people -- an electrician, a schoolteacher and an accountant -- were found riddled with bullets. Three French priests were kicked out of the country. Enrique Palet, the executive director of the human rights group the Vicariate of Solidarity, has received constant death threats. One morning on his stoop he found the severed head of a pig with a gunshot through its forehead.
Despite U.S. pressure for a fair investigation into the case of los quemados, "the burned ones," as Rojas and Quintana are now known, lawyers and witnesses have been kidnapped and threatened. When Carmen Gloria was finally allowed to go to Montreal for treatment -- she is expected to survive -- her whole family went with her, exiles. One witness, Pedro Martinez, was jailed for carrying incendiary devices. Another witness, Jorge Sanhuesa, was kidnapped and driven around Santiago while "civilians threatened me, told me I'd better not testify." He and his family are now under church protection.
For Hector Salazar, the Vicariate lawyer who is handling the case for Rodrigo's family, "the country's situation is summed up in this one affair. A mother who was jailed and tortured then takes the family into exile. The son comes back to his country and is burned to death by the military." Salazar says the defense will emphasize "and distort" the testimony that Rodrigo was "probably" carrying a Molotov cocktail when he was apprehended. Salazar calls it "an outrage" that anyone would say Rodrigo was a terrorist: "He got caught up in an act of protest that goes on here all the time, and he was killed for it."
Salazar has handled such cases before, and he says, "We never win. If we had to characterize ourselves through results, we would have to admit we were the worst lawyers in the world. We see ourselves with historical vision. There will be a time of justice in Chile."
RODRIGO ROJAS DID NOT LIVE LONG enough to discover the affections that were buried inside him. Shyness, anger and youth prevented him from expressing all the love he felt for his mother, his older friends, his aunts and uncles. But Rodrigo never had any trouble with children. He cared for them deeply -- two in particular.
The first was his brother Pablo. Pablo often fought with his older brother, but he idolized him, too. Imagine the strength a 12-year-old boy requires to cope with growing up without a father and now without his only brother. Even with his mother and his friends around him, even with the support of the same Chilean community in Washington that Rodrigo learned so much from, life is lonelier. There are days when Pablo is filled with anger and grief. And there are days when he faces the world with grave resolution, wearing his brother's sweater like an emblem. "With Rodrigo gone, Pablo has grown up so fast," Veronica says. "He gets more and more like Rodrigo every day. He talks about visiting Chile, but I think that is impossible for now. Pablo is all I have left. I don't know what I would do without him."
In Chile, Rodrigo took another child under his wing -- his 8-year-old cousin Andrea. Rodrigo never did find his father Ramon; in fact, Veronica later discovered that Ramon has been living in Spain for the past six years. But he did discover the immediate connection of family. "Andrea adored Rodrigo," says her mother, Rodrigo's aunt Amanda. "She was devastated when he was killed."
In the months following Rodrigo's death, it became clear that his cousin was doomed to repeat the exile of his own childhood. One evening in October, Amanda DeNegri received a call threatening her and her 8-year-old daughter. "Leave the country," the caller said, "or you will leave alone."
The message was clear. Amanda and Andrea were both in danger. A few days later they reenacted one of the most common scenes in contemporary Chile -- the long goodbye at the airline ticket counter. The little girl, so jazzed by the sheer sense of occasion, hugged her mother and all her mother's friends as if she were leaving on a great adventure to the South Seas. Rodrigo had left Chile at the same age, also thinking it was a vacation.
Andrea, wearing a long white Chilean poncho, walked alone to the boarding gate for Canadian Pacific Flight 479 bound for Toronto. She carried her clothes in the same blue suitcase Rodrigo had brought with him to Chile six months before.
Several days later, Amanda decided that she, too, was not safe in Santiago. "But I hate the idea of leaving," she says. "That means they've won. They're trying to intimidate us, and they've won."
Soon only Rodrigo Rojas would be left in Chile.