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Meet the Aussie who survived Pinochet's 'torture van' and is now battling cancer

Combo image: Hugo Alvarez and his daughter Karen (inset) and smoke pouring from the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, in this Sept. 11, 1973 file photo Source: SBS, AAP

Hugo Alvarez found sanctuary in Australia after fleeing military dictatorships in his homeland Chile and neighbouring Argentina during the '70s. He's now fighting another battle for his life in the form of cancer.

On September 11, 1973, armed militants led by General Augusto Pinochet bombed Chile's La Moneda Presidential Palace.

The event marked the beginning of the military dictatorship which ruled over the country for 17 years - resulting in the death, torture and persecution of thousands of people. 

It is estimated that in September 1973, 598 people died, 274 disappeared and 19,083 were tortured, according to the Truth Commissions.

Sydney-based former refugee Hugo Alvarez was one of the victims of this dark period in the country's history.

Today, the 68-year-old continues to fight for his life. This time he's in a fight against cancer.

Hugo junto a su hija menor Karen en 2017.
Hugo with his youngest daughter Karen in 2017.
Facebook

While receiving treatment for the disease at Randwick Hospital, Mr Alvarez spoke with SBS Spanish about his experiences. 

"I knew what repression was about, at the highest level. There were more extreme cases than mine, they lost their lives. People disappeared. But, I was deprived of communication in jail in solitary confinement," he said. 

"I did live the experience of being placed in a 'grill' to received electroshock, to being forced to get naked. I experienced all those things.”

Smoke pours from the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, in this Sept. 11, 1973, file photo, after being hit by rockets fired by the air force Hawker Hunter jet fighters
Smoke pours from the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, in this Sept. 11, 1973, file photo, after being hit by rockets fired by the air force Hawker Hunter
AAP

Mr Alvarez realised that Chile was no longer a safe country for him on a day in 1973 when he regained consciousness in the middle of the night, naked and bloodied near a paddock on the outskirts of Melipilla, a town in Santiago.

He had spent the 21 days previously in a jail cell.

That dark chapter in his life began when at the age of 23, members of the Military Intelligence Service broke into the classroom where he taught history and geography in front of a handful of students. 

It was past 7pm, one day in December 1973, when he was detained.

Along with other Chileans opposed to the military regime, Mr Ramirez was blindfolded and forced to board a refrigerated truck headed for Rapel, a settlement located an hour away from Melipilla. 

Smoke pours from the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, in this Sept. 11, 1973 file photo after being hit by rockets fired by the air force Hawker Hunter jet fighters
Smoke pours from the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, in this Sept. 11, 1973 file photo after being hit by rockets fired by the air force Hawker Hunter (AAP)
AAP

It was there, with the sound of the river water in the background, that his torturer began their interrogation. 

"I remember that I was the last one they interrogated. I must have left at about half-past one on the truck. I did not see anything. I was blindfolded. But I felt that I was walking on an uneven street, with stones," he said.

"They put me in another vehicle that had been fixed for torture. You could tell it was a van, it felt like a smaller truck. There they had a device mounted with electricity.

"It was a metal bed and the guy who interrogated me - now I know his identity thanks to the books of Javier Rebolledo. It was Captain Jara, from Tejas Verdes [prisoner camp]. 'Here, we have two methods to interrogate,' he told me. He did not like what I told him back. There, they stripped me and they gave me electroshocks, they beat me until I lost consciousness."

With the help of the Vicariate of Solidarity and Amnistia Internacional, Mr Alvarez managed to escape Chile by crossing the Andes mountains into Argentina in February 1974, leaving behind his studies at the University of Chile and his parents who would never see him again - they died during their first years in exile.

Members the Argentinian Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, carrying a banner with images of people missing
Members the Argentinian Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo carrying a banner with images of people missing during the dictatorship (AAP)
AAP

Four months later, Mr Alvarez would meet Gloria, who would later become his wife and the love of his life. 

"I remember it was sweltering in those days in Buenos Aires. We got a leased place, near the 11th district of Buenos Aires. It was the cheapest available," he said. 

"It was practically a tenement house. The owner was a Spaniard. I remember that on the roof, he put pieces of tin, there was a lot of demand for accommodation at that time, that's why this guy was renting those tin cabins, it was the cheapest, and that was the accommodation that I could get with the money when I arrived in Buenos Aires. "

However, the tranquillity in Buenos Aires would not last more than two years.

A new military coup, this time in Argentina, threatened the Chilean exiles in that country with living under another repressive government.

In those days, the first attacks on the streets of the Argentine capital began to be reported, Mr Alvarez said.

Everything happened following the death of Argentina's president Juan Peron in July 1974.

Faced with fear, Mr Alvarez sought refuge in ten embassies while in Argentina - Canada and Australia responded to his call.

After passing the medical examinations, and with his wife and their four-month-old baby Victor Hugo, the family crossed the Pacific Ocean and arrived in Sydney on Australia Day, 1976.

Like thousands of refugees who for decades arrived in Australia, the Alvarez family stayed is is now the Villawood Detention Centre.

Constructed in 1949 as the Villawood Migrant Hostel, the complex housed newly arrived refugees from war-torn Europe following World War II.

In the 1970s, a section of the complex, named the Westerbridge Migrant Hostel, became the first home for many Chileans, Argentines and Uruguayans who escaped the military repression in their countries.

Mr Alvarez said he misses the "generous policy" which was in place for asylum seekers in Australia during this period.

"Nobody puts their family in a boat because they want to know Australia."



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