“I was at the local store early one morning in late 1973, when I saw an army car pull up to my house, carry a man into it and drive off. As it drove past me, I recognized that the man in the car was my father, my sole caregiver. However, as a child of 12, I could not fully comprehend what had just happened. I went back home, only to find that it had been turned upside down and my father was nowhere to be seen. I picked up my father’s shirt that was laying on the bed and smelled it and all of a sudden, my father’s absence sunk in. It was the saddest moment in my life.
Gathering my wits, I hitchhiked to the nearest city and stayed with some of my father’s friends. A month later, some of them were executed by the army. Everyone was terrified by the events that were unfolding in Chile.
Realizing I was endangering my father’s friends by staying with them, I decided to leave. Thus began a new chapter in my life –surviving on the streets, sleeping in river beds, in dirt, covering myself with sand. I even woke up once to find rats around me, but I was beyond caring and continued sleeping.
A few weeks later I found out that my father was still alive. He had been arrested, interrogated, beaten badly and sentenced to 11 years in prison. My father was not a political figure, but he witnessed the social injustice in Chile and wanted to be someone who would do the right thing.
After speaking to some friends, I figured out the procedure that would allow me to visit my father in prison. I had heard that cigarettes were useful gifts for prisoners, so I brought to my father, the cheapest cigarettes I could find.
During these visits, I lied to my father and told him that I was doing well. I didn’t want him to know the truth. I didn’t want him to know that most days I didn’t know when I would be eating next, that I had mental notes on which friends I had asked for food recently and which I hadn’t so I could plan accordingly, that once I even stole a hen to feed myself and that the longest I had gone without food was two weeks.
That was my life until a man named Roberto Kozak* came along. He saw the suffering of the thousands of political prisoners in Chile and negotiated an agreement with Augusto Pinochet, to allow the prisoners to leave if they were able to obtain visas to other countries.
My father showed me the letter he had received from the IOM [then known as ICEM] explaining the process through which we could leave the country. Suddenly there was hope.
IOM organized the logistics and made travel arrangements, including obtaining passports.
On 15 September 1976, sitting next to each other for the first time in three years, my father and I left Chile for Norway, with our newly issued passports that said ‘Valid Only for Exit’. As we flew over the beautiful Chilean mountain range, I was finally leaving behind a life of hunger, misery and solitude and my father was leaving behind imprisonment.
Our lives recovered gradually. In Chile, I had terrible nightmares and would wake up in tears, screaming and sweating. In Norway, I stopped stuttering within two days, and I knew that the reason was that I was finally at peace and not terrified anymore.
I ended up going to medical school and then went on to work on human rights issues, which is what I’ve been doing since 1982.
People often ask me what I have learned through all this.
I have learned to have the capacity to listen to people’s stories and that no matter how bad things are, you can always give people hope and change their lives.
This is what IOM and Roberto Kozak did for me, for my father and for thousands of Chileans – it gave us new lives.
For a long time the unfortunate events of my childhood defined me, but I have slowly come to accept that I’m much more than that. My experiences have made me perseverant and adaptable. It has changed the way that I look at things. I realized that we can recognize the humanity in ourselves and others, and that solidarity through small gestures such as the offer of a sandwich or a place to sleep can make a huge difference.
My experiences have also empowered me to create similar opportunities and moments of hope for other people.”
* Roberto Kozak was the former Director of the IOM [then known as ICEM] and helped over 30,000 political prisoners, including Alfredo's father, leave Chile and start a new life.
Alfredo Zamudio’s story is part of an oral history project marking IOM’s 65th anniversary. Keep a look out for new updates and please share with us any inspirational stories from IOM’s present and past. Send them to IOM65@iom.int.
Photo credit: IOM/Amanda Nero