It was the elegant pipe that finally provoked the tears. The pipe was lying beside a medical card showing a photo of a man in his twenties with thick bushy hair and a full beard.

Carlos Lorca Tobar was a surgeon who disappeared on June 25 1975.

He was the general secretary of the Socialist Youth Party, and a vocal leftie who opposed the dictatorship in Chile.

"He always smoked a pipe," says Patricia Abarzúa wistfully. "Look, there’s a photo of him with his friends and he’s smoking there."

Abarzúa leads me to a larger exhibition case containing a suit once worn by Arnoldo Camú. He was wearing it when he was assassinated by the national army. She points out the cluster of bullet holes in the trousers and jacket.

Camú was a lawyer and an adviser to president Salvador Allende, who was deposed when General Augusto Pinochet staged a military coup.

"He was very good looking," I mumble, for want of something to say.

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago explains what happened after Pinochet came to power and gripped Chile in a brutal dictatorship. His regime left 3,000 people dead or missing, 27,255 tortured and an estimated 200,000 driven into exile.

Since the population was only 7-million at the time, that eliminated a lot of people, Abarzúa says.

The museum also has a mosaic of thousands of small photographs of individual faces stuck onto a giant wall. A touch-screen display in front of it allows visitors to pick a name and read their details in the missing persons file.

But it’s always the little things that make such enormous brutalities finally feel real. Not the videos playing in an endless loop showing people being arrested by gun-toting policemen and shoved into trucks.

Not the picture frames displaying newspaper headlines or the now rusty prison door. Not even the English translation that runs alongside the last radio broadcast by Allende, as he refused to stand aside and told his people that one day justice and freedom would return.

Instead, it’s the dog-eared photographs and the personal possessions touched by someone who disappeared that make it tragically real.

We both struggle to hold back tears as we talk, muddling along with my mediocre Spanish and Abarzúa’s shaky English. I ask if any of these people were her relatives.

"Eran mis amigos" – they were my friends — she says.

She uses a word I don’t understand, then mimes being pregnant. One of her friends was eight months’ pregnant when she was kidnapped, she explains, but no one knows what happened to her or if her child was born.

A song from the Beatles begins to play and she says this is the music of their era, the music they loved. Me too. It was my era too.

Abarzúa only works four hours a day for a couple of days a week because it’s too emotional to be there any longer.

The numbers of Chile’s "Desaparecidos" (disappeared) weren’t massive compared to the slaughter of an estimated 30,000 people by Argentina’s military dictatorship, or the 21,000 who died under apartheid in SA, which features in a section of the museum explaining how the Truth And Reconciliation Commission helped to heal the wounds in several countries where brutality reigned. But in Chile there has been no justice, Abarzúa says.

A casual visitor to Chile who avoids the museum would know none of this. Santiago buzzes with a quiet vibrancy, big enough to be lively and small enough to navigate easily

She mans a gallery housing a special exhibition to commemorate 21 individuals who disappeared during the dictatorship, in an effort to keep up the demands for answers.

No records were found for many of the Desaparecidos, Abarzúa says, and their friends and families are still seeking truth and justice.

Outside it’s sunny but cold as I join a free walking tour of Santiago led by Tours 4 Tips. At one point our guide sits us down and tells us that Chileans don’t talk about the wounds of the dictatorship enough. Those who committed the crimes still hold positions of power, he says, and people are forgetting.

He explains how socialist reforms introduced by Allende had spooked the US during the Cold War, and how the Central Intelligence Agency supported the coup after rich Chilean landowners objected to Allende’s demands that their land be used for agriculture or repossessed for a low price and given to the workers.

He tells us that Allende called a referendum to see if he was still supported by the majority, but nobody got to vote because Pinochet staged his coup that morning and Allende was dead by the evening.

A casual visitor to Chile who avoids the museum would know none of this. Santiago buzzes with a quiet vibrancy, big enough to be lively and small enough to navigate easily.

It’s a modern city with a central core of pretty historic buildings, where the native population has been heavily changed by waves of European immigrants befuddling the gene pool.

On the way to the Central Market I pass a row of fortune-tellers in colourful booths.

The market has a seafood section where restaurants cook produce straight from the stalls. The prices get steeper the further in you go, so I stay on the edges and try a bowl of marisco — cold seafood stew. Judging by the shellfish display outside the stall, it has chunks of sea urchin and abalone, all swimming in a sharp lemon and vinegar soup.

The next day I find a foreign film festival and watch an American movie that has Spanish subtitles.

I’m early enough to enjoy the lunchtime set menu in the bar next door, with a bowl of broth, a small salad, a heap of lasagne, bread and wine for about R80. When the film begins there are only two of us in the foyer and the usher welcomes us in with a flourish, then positions a gas heater to warm us.

On the way home I unexpectedly emerge in Plaza de Armas, the central square.

A nine-piece band is in full swing on the bandstand and I enjoy the free concert for about an hour. A few couples perform an impromptu tango, winning as much applause as the fabulous trumpet-blaring, maraca-shaking band.

As the musicians pack up I wander over to a cluster of tables where men are playing chess. They’re lightning fast. I ask one young man if they play for money or just for fun, and it’s purely for fun, he says, inviting me to join. I decline, telling him my brain can’t think at these ferocious speeds.

He smiles from behind his thick black beard, and looks just like Carlos Lorca Tobar.

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