Exclusive Interview – By Dr Shahid Qureshi : –
Carole Concha Bell is very famous human rights activist based in the United Kingdom. She is originally from Chile. She agreed to do an interview with The London Post. Here are few questions we asked:
Please tell us about your life, childhood and family?
I was born in Chile during the Pinochet regime. At the time of my birth, my mother and father were living in clandestinely to avoid being arrested by the secret police who were sweeping the country for Allende sympathizers. Both of my grandfathers were part of the Allende Government in the Province of Ñuble (Southern Chile). When the coup on September 11th, 1973 hit, they were both arrested and tortured.
I spent my childhood in Cambridge with my maternal family including grandparents, my father and mother and her four siblings, who were in their early teens.
We were very fortunate as the people of Cambridge were extremely supportive setting up local organizations such as the Chile Human Rights Committee that not only listened to the terrible stories the Chilean refugees had brought with them, they also provided practical help with housing, English lessons and finding work.
On a typical day, I trawl news sites for relevant articles with a strong focus on human rights. I also try to drum up debate about current issues both here and back ‘home’.
My illness sometimes interferes with the continuity of my research and often I’m unable to physically participate in events but I try to stay in the loop though my networks, and continue with my projects when I’m stronger.
Tell us about your community in UK and how they are living?
My paternal grandfather Julio Concha was released from prison but my maternal grandfather, Santiago Bell was transferred to the notorious Isla Quiriquina concentration camp where he remained even when we all left the country for our exile to England in 1975. The family campaigned tirelessly for his release until he finally joined us in 1976.
How can you help in raising awareness about your country?
Around 3,000 Chileans came to the UK after the 1973 US backed coup led by General Pinochet, All fleeing the brutal right wing coup in which democratically elected President Allende was ousted in a violent confrontation ending in his death. The military immediately began its purge of left wing sympathizers by arresting, torturing and confining people to imprisonment in concentration camps where over 3,000 people were murdered and disposed of, never emerging to this day.
The Chilean community that settled in Cambridge from 1974 to the early 1980s was very cohesive. There were tireless campaigns to raise awareness about the human rights situation back in Chile and many political and cultural events (including theater productions & folk dance). My childhood as a result, was very sociable and colourful.
My parents received World University Service grants to study in Birmingham where we lived for around 8 years until we moved to London in the late eighties.
In 1990, after 15 years of exile and the very real prospect of a return to democracy in Chile, my father and I returned to Chile to my dismay. I lived in post-dictatorship Chile for around seven years finally returning to the UK in 1997 shortly after New Labour won the general election, having had trouble adjusting to Chilean culture and a country that was slowly emerging from a fascist dictatorship.
Please tell us about Chilean Refugees in UK?
Chilean refugees much like those in Sweden, have integrated so well into British society that the initially rather tight-knit refugee community has now become very diluted. Second & third generation Chileans may not have much contact with others from a similar background, particularly those who never went back to Chile and then married into British families. The ‘return’ back to Chile in 1990 broke communities up. Some ‘went back’ and many of those who did, returned to the UK, but to new cities often losing their networks in the process of readjustment. Social media however, has become very important in bridging that gap and a new type of exile community is starting to emerge online.
Growing up, I was surrounded by survivors. It was only in adulthood that it dawned on me that I had grown up in a severely traumatised family and community. Writing about the issues that affect my us such as long term exile, identity issues and post traumatic stress helped me address painful events in my own familial history.
Despite feeling a sense of disconnection and rejection from my motherland, I feel that being in touch with it is an important part of the healing process, That’s why I decided to create a page dedicated exclusively to exiles and our needs.
Tell us how your family treated in Chile?
People mistakenly assume that Chile is a modern democracy but in reality, it isn’t and that’s why many of us are still unable to return. Human rights abuses against the indigenous Mapuche people has become state policy under the new ‘terror laws’ and many torturers and human rights abusers are free, either having evaded justice altogether or placed in luxury prisons with millionaire state pensions. There is a silent discrimination that returning exiles face, a type of segregation that has its roots in the dictatorship. The hangover from Pinochet’s terrifying regime is still not over. The wrongs that have been done to my family have not been righted. I still have two uncles and one aunt, that were taken to concentration camps and never appeared again.
Your hobbies and how you spend time?
I have always been a linguaphile devouring every type of literature from comics to García Márquez, Writing poems and stories from young age. I studied economics & politics in order to become a journalist but went into public relations instead, believing it would be a more creative career however I was diagnosed with an auto immune condition and became unable to work in a conventional setting.
The more I researched and write about the Chilean community, the more testimonies I stumble upon. I became aware with the death of my grandfather, sculptor Santiago Bell, that the first generation of Chileans who came to the UK seeking refuge from Operation Condor, are quickly fading taking their stories to the grave. In this context, my researching & writing has a sense of urgency.
What are your future plans?
I intend to publish a book about the Chilean exile experience in the U.K. so that the incredible lives of my grandparents and their generation, those who attempted to carry out such a remarkable social experiment in Chile, does not vanish with the passing of time.
The circumstances in which I arrived in the UK are not comparable with those of today’s newcomers from Chile who are usually here to work and study. They have a choice but the refugees of my parent’s/grandparent’s generation didn’t, so our aims and needs are worlds apart. There undeniably exists a tension between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (those who are here to seek opportunities V those of us who were forced out).
What advice you will give to young and new comers from your country?
I would always encourage a newcomer to absorb the host country’s customs as much as possible and try to perfect the language through reading and speaking to others. It’s also important to be aware of the current issues in the host country in order to strike up decent conversations!
Thank you very much for your time.