In late January 1973 I arrived in Chile overland from Argentina. I was travelling with a group organised by the adventure company, Encounter Overland, whose regular itinerary, up until that point, had been the hippy trail from London to Kabul. This was their inaugural, and very much experimental, South American journey.
Passing through the Andes and down to the Pacific coast we found ourselves in an extraordinarily beautiful country of rolling green hills and woods, bordered on one side by snow-capped volcanoes, on the other by the ocean. Wooden farmsteads dotted the landscape and traffic on the mostly dirt roads consisted of bullock carts, riders on horseback and an occasional very ancient truck.
But despite the rural idyll, all was not well in Chile. We soon noticed that shelves were empty in shops and essential goods were everywhere in short supply, the result of transport strikes that were crippling the country. Salvador Allende’s socialist government was under pressure from the right wing it had defeated in democratic elections, two years previously. Support for the conservative establishment was on hand in the form of CIA provocateurs who, among other covert activities, were stirring up the strikers. There was tension in the air and we were glad to leave the country for neighbouring Bolivia, a couple of weeks later.
Eight months after that, on 11 September 1973, the Chilean air force bombed the presidential palace in Santiago. (To appreciate the impact of this one has to imagine the RAF bombing Downing Street.) President Allende was killed, and the military junta took power under Augusto Pinochet, instigating a crackdown of exceptional brutality even by South American standards.
As the Pinochet regime murdered civilians by the hundred and world governments largely did nothing, a small group of Scottish factory workers decided to make a stand. Their story is told in the film Nae Pasaran (a Scottish play on the Spanish Civil War slogan, ‘No pasaran’, meaning ‘They shall not pass’). I saw it three weeks ago and was moved to tears.
Directed by a young Chilean, it tells how, a few months after the coup, half a dozen men at the Rolls Royce Plant in East Kilbride realised that the engines of Chilean warplanes were arriving in the plant for servicing and refused to work on them, facing down management in a steadfast display of outrage at what was happening in Chile. The engines were consigned to a corner of the factory where they eventually rusted away.
Through contemporary interviews with Chilean survivors of the coup, the men of East Kilbride, now in their seventies and eighties, come to learn of the full effect of the actions they had taken, the many lives they had saved, 45 years previously – and of which they had had no idea until this moment. The film is a testament to the principles of solidarity and humanity, and the power of humble ordinary people to take small but resolute steps that make a grand difference.
It offers an appropriate theme for the season of goodwill, as did the excerpt I watched last night from the BBC documentary about the Lockerbie air disaster. On 21 December 1988 I was staying for Christmas with my mother and stepfather near Hawick in the Borders, forty miles by road from Lockerbie. The explosion happened at seven pm and we learnt about it on the nine pm news. It was eerie to think that had we been outdoors at the time we might have seen it in the sky.
The documentary focused on the people of Lockerbie and the effects the disaster has since had on their small community. In a particularly moving sequence, a number of now elderly residents describe how they gathered clothes and other effects that had fallen from burst suitcases, retrieved films from undamaged cameras and had them developed, and tried to piece together possessions with their owners, even going so far as to launder and iron the clothes so that they could be restored in good condition to the victims’ relatives.
They did all this spontaneously, at no one’s request, but from a sense of natural decency and a wish to do something, anything that could help redress the balance, bring some comfort to the relatives, and make sense of the horror that had descended on their quiet small town out of a frosty December sky.
I confess that the kindness of the Rolls Royce factory workers and the residents of Lockerbie left me with a momentary glow of pride at being Scottish; although of course people in other communities throughout the country might easily have done the same things in similar circumstances.
But most of all, at a time of year when we’re supposed to reflect on what brings us together, and especially today in 2018 when there is so much that might drive us apart, these are two inspiring and welcome stories of basic human goodness.