Michel Nash:

A Young Man Who "Knew Everything About Life"



By Maxine Lowy for Memoria y Justicia
September 30, 2004

Idealistic teenagers during the brief years of the Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende lived the excitement of the moment to the maximum. That is how Michel Nash lived it: with seemingly inexhaustible energy. And that is the enduring image his mother Ana Saez and his sister Leila have of Michel 31 years after his execution and disappearance in Pisagua, northern Chile, that would mark their lives forever.

The Nash family lived on Santos Dumont Street in Santiago, a middle class neighborhood known as Recoleta near the foot of San Cristobal Hill. Michel Nash, senior, a Communist Party member, worked from the mechanic workshop he had set up at home. At noon Mr. Nash, a descendant of Syrian immigrants to Chile, would close the shop to share lunch and animated conversation with the family on history, politics, scientific advancements, and current events. The astronaut moon landing captivated them all and launched Michel flying in outer space with his imagination. He learned much from his father as well as life around him, his mother Ana Saez recalls.

Leila admired her older brother who she considered also a great friend. Michel had a lively personality, enjoyed a good joke and had great charisma. "He was an active member of the Jota (Communist Youth Organization). We lived in a conservative section of Recoleta, residence to many Arab businessmen. Never had any progressive group existed in that area. And in 1971 Michel was key in forming a progressive political group in his neighborhood. He discovered that the gentleman on the corner was a left leaning doctor, the lawyer a block away was also progressive, as were the architect and the day laborer that lived nearby. They were people of different social classes and political parties, but they all shared ideas in common."

Leaflets handed out on the street convened the first meeting. When the meeting began, someone asked who had convened it. Michel got up to the podium and admitted that he had written and distributed the leaflets. The group that came to be known as the Gamal Nasser Unidad Popular Command (CUP) united young people and adults in activities in support of the Allende government. "It must have been impressive," says Leila. "Just imagine, a kid organizing a political meeting. He was 16 years old at the time. When he spoke, all the old-timers listened to what he had to say."

At 14 years old, Michel worked on the Salvador Allende presidential campaign. Father and son loading trucks together to distribute rationed grocery items, during the critical months when opponents sought to destabilize the government by purposefully hoarding basic supplies. His mother recalls: "One day I was in line to receive grocery rations, because there was hoarding. Suddenly, I saw him run by with a cart filled with cans of paint and paintbrushes. Other kids came running along behind him and they painted graffiti denouncing the hoarding. He encouraged us, his parents, to participate."

Ana remembers that once Michel told her, "Mama, I know everything there is to know about life. I would not be afraid to die." The comment astonished his mother. "I asked him, How can you know all about life? You are so young and life has so much to teach you still. His words left me thinking."

When in 1972 he turned 18 years old, Michel was obliged to enlist in compliance with mandatory military service. His parents tried to obtain an exemption and a doctor declared that he had flat feet. Leila reminds her mother that "actually, Michel never opposed complying with military service. You [parents] did not want him to go." For young men like Michel, impassioned by the ideals represented by the Unidad Popular, it was a patriotic honor to serve the Salvador Allende government as a military conscript. "You are right," Ana concedes, "He was happy to serve."

And so, in April 1973 he was one among hundreds of crew-cut conscripts who boarded a train bound for the Granaderos Regiment N.2 in Iquique, where he had been assigned. Michel managed to write only two letters to his family back home in Santiago. "He was not big on writing. He was better at speaking than writing," says Leila. The first letter from Michel described his routine in copious detail. He told them that military discipline was strict but he was well. Perhaps due to his natural leadership ability or simply because of his appearance, he was assigned head of his platoon. Michel was tall, with a light complexion, light-brown hair and blue eyes, characteristics that corresponded to Army class bias of a military leader.

The second letter Michel wrote after the so-called "tanquetazo," the Buin Regiment tank uprising that menaced the Allende government on June 29, 1973. "He told us the treatment in the Army had changed. They treated him roughlly . Before, no one thought to hide their political views. People openly expressed their opinion with no fear." Once Michel phoned his family. "He asked us to write more. But the boy was fine so we were not worried."

After the military coup of September 11, 1973, the Saez family was concerned for Michel. Ana Saez sought help with the bus fare north to reassure herself that he was well, a harrowing trip still vivid in her memory. "On the road to Iquique, I fell asleep and woke up startled to find that soldiers were searching the bus. In Iquique I went straight to the Regiment and asked for my son.

As I waited outside, a lieutenant remarked, "So you are the mother of Michel Nash." And he told me my son was in Pisagua. I did not understand what he was doing there. The officer explained that Michel had to be separated "to prevent worse things from happening." His words alarmed me so much that I began to cry. Another military officer approached me and said, "You have to be cautious of these young men," as if Michel were a dangerous person. When the lieutenant saw me so anguished, he tried to obtain a meeting with Army Commander Carlos Forrestier, but he would not receive me. Then the lieutenant suggested I speak with the Army lawyer. This man assured me that my son was well where he was, that he had a bed to sleep on and had good meals."

Much later, the Nash family learned that Michel was shocked that he was forced to participate in raids on homes in Iquique on the day of the coup. He and a friend decided to ask to be released of their military obligation and allow them to return to Santiago. When superior officers asked why the two conscripts wanted to resign, they naively responded that they did not agree with the way the army treated civilians. The officers then accepted their resignation, but upon leaving the Battalion premises both were promptly arrested.

On September 12, they were taken to the Army Telecommunications Regiment and from there to Pisagua. Michel Nash was in the Pisagua Prisoner Camp a little over a week. At first other prisoners thought he was an infiltrator, sent to spy on them, and they avoided him. "Undoubtedly, it was very painful for him to be isolated like that. Only when he returned to the prison cell in bad shape from torture inflicted during interrogation did fellow prisoners realize that they had been mistaken. He cried in corner of the cell. The other prisoners then consoled them and tried to lift his spirits."

Several persons who were prisoners in Pisagua testified before Judge Juan Guzman Tapia about what happened on that day, September 29, 1973. In the morning, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Larrain, commander of the "prisoner of war" camp, ordered the 600 prisoners to line up outside their cells. After roll call, Larrain asked for six volunteers to paint the campgrounds. Then he announced that another six persons were needed for another job. These last six (Juan Calderon, Marcelo Guzman, Luis Lizardi, Nolberto Cañas, Juan Jimenez, and Michel Nash) were not volunteers. Each military officer chose one person. When the military officers later returned without the prisoners, the official explanation was that the six had attempted to escape, obliging the military to fire.

In 1990 the clandestine mass grave containing the mummified remains of 20 persons was discovered near the Pisagua cemetery. Of the six prisoners summarily executed on September 29, 1973 with the false justification of an escape attempt, the remains of Caños, Jimenez, and Michel Nash were not found in the grave.

Sufficient evidence indicates that Michel was not chosen for execution at random. Judge Juan Guzman became convinced of that fact and on April 12, 2000 he indicted the former Army vice Commander-in-Chief Carlos Forestier, former military prosecutor Mario Acuña and lower-ranking officer Miguel Aguirre as authors of aggravated abduction of ten people, including Michel Nash, who remain disappeared to this day. In 2001 the military report from the Dialogue Table named Michel Nash as one of 130 persons whose bodies were allegedly thrown into the sea from helicopters. But Ana Saez does not believe the report. "They tell us our loved ones were thrown into the ocean to make us stop searching for them and stop bothering the government about them."

In 1990 Ana Saez again traveled to Iquique, this time to the Medical Legal Institute, to participate in the recognition of the remains found in the mass grave. She still has nagging doubts about the identity of the bodies. "All the family members entered the room. All the bodies were well preserved and it was perfectly possible to recognize them. The bullet holes were completely visible as well as the expression left by their final scream. It was a terrifying sight that you cannot ever forget. One person insisted that a body was that of my son. But when I came closer to him, I saw that his mouth was open and his teeth were not those of my son. Michel was not there."

"Later they showed me another body that had been put together from Sack 20. The hand was in very good condition. You could have taken fingerprints from it. But I could not recognize him because the clothing was burned and the body was incomplete. I thought forensic studies would give us an answer. But they have never been able to tell us the identity of the remains of Sack 20. That is why I have my doubts. Judge Guzman told me that Sack 20 was sent to the United States for identification."

The Nash family was shaken by the execution of Michel. The house in Recoleta was raided and the father was arrested. Michel Nash, senior, died in 2002 with a great sadness due to the inability to locate his son. Ana Saez suffers from depression and is consumed by unanswered questions about the fate of her son. "Ever since they told me the news, I could never accept that my child was dead. I always believed he was alive. I made myself believe that somehow he had really escaped, and clung to that hope for many years."

Today both Ana Saez and her daughter Leila Nash know that Michel was killed in cold blood in Pisagua but they still have questions no one has been able to answer yet. They want to know what happened to Michel and where he was buried. And they want to know who was responsible for killing Michel. Ana Saez affirms: "Our hope is that all the truth be known and that those responsible for the crime be convicted. Otherwise, there is no justice and without justice democracy in Chile is incomplete."

See also In Focus: Pisagua and testimony of Alberto Neumann in Documents section.


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