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A Chilean Woman Deals With Legacy Of Nation's Dark Past

SEVENTEEN years after his death, Chile's former President Salvador Allende Gossens was given an official funeral Tuesday, rites denied by the generals who overthrew him. But for Maria Gormaz, even though she spent the last 15 years as a human rights campaigner, the prospect of attending the ceremony was too upsetting. Her husband was a victim of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, having ``disappeared'' in 1976. And Mrs. Gormaz is still numb from the belated burial she gave his remains after their discovery two months ago.

Nearly three dozen other bodies, many of them in mass graves, have been unearthed in recent months. Public reaction has sent tremors through the military - still headed by General Pinochet.

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In the front room of her small bungalow in a modest Santiago suburb, where not all roads are paved, Gormaz tells her story in a tone of dazed serenity. Sitting beneath a grainy black-and-white photo portrait of her husband Eduardo, she tells a tale that illumines the tangled thicket of moral and political problems that President Patricio Aylwin's new civilian government faces in dealing with the dictatorship's human rights abuses.

Eduardo Canteros was a civil engineer - brother to two prominent Communists. Maria is convinced that is why he was seized, though he was not politically active. On the night of July 23, 1976, standing on the sidewalk outside their house, she watched three armed men drag her husband into a car before she was bludgeoned to the ground with the butt of a submachine gun.

``I never saw Eduardo again. The next day the search began, a search that lasted 14 years really, a search that began in the most ingenuous way. Because the first thing I did, I remember, was to go and tell the police.'' She also looked in the city's hospitals and first-aid posts. ``I'd heard so much talk about disappeared people, but I didn't want to believe that it had happened to me.''

On Christmas Day 1976, Maria went to the military junta headquarters to plead for mercy. ``The soldiers outside told me to go home, not to look any more.'' But neither Maria nor her five children gave up hope Eduardo was alive somehow, somewhere. ``Perhaps selfishly we thought that even if the others were dead, he had been saved ... that maybe Pinochet was holding all the disappeared people in secret to use as hostages.''

She clung to that hope through 14 years of uncertainty, even when told last May that one of three bodies found during construction of a road was believed to be Eduardo's. ``I was dreadfully nervous. I didn't know whether I wanted it to be him or not.''

It was, and he was reburied in June. But finding Eduardo has left Maria confused. ``I know how they took him away, and now I've found him. That's it. That's all there is. And now what?''

Does she not want to know who kidnapped and killed her husband, to see them punished? She is undecided.

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On the one hand, she says, ``I've filed a lawsuit against whoever was responsible for my husband's death. I want the guilty to be identified and I want justice to be done to my husband and to all the disappeared. To wipe clean this country's history, I think there has to be exemplary justice, exemplary punishment for the guilty, starting with General Pinochet - although I don't wish him dead, nor do I want vengeance.''

Whether justice will be done, and how, is an open question. President Aylwin has set up a commission, in the words of its chief lawyer Carlos Fresno, to establish ``the truth'' about the estimated 3,800 deaths and disappearances under Pinochet.

Still, the commission's report, due out in a few months, will not name names. ``We will not be setting out individuals' responsibilities,'' Mr. Fresno says. The commission will only say where ``an agent of the state was responsible.'' Maria says she has confidence in the commission, and that ``the only thing left to know is who actually did it. But the names don't matter to me very much.''

Torn between her desire for justice, and her support for Aylwin's efforts to reconcile Chilean society, Maria Gormaz is sure of only one thing. ``All I wanted was for Eduardo to come home alive. And it didn't happen.''

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