Life is Beautiful: Etel and I

Two years ago I met Etel at a Chilean reunion party. It was an emotional event and I was re-connecting with other Chileans from fugee Cambridge that I hadn’t seen since childhood.

We’d been rounded up by Scapegoat Productions (Camila, Lautaro & Kip) who were working on their film ‘hora chilena’, a documentary narrating the story of the Chilean refugee community in Cambridge as the two protagonists come to terms with their past and passage to England.

‘Hora Chilena’ also documents the local people who went out of their way to welcome Chileans into their communities and offer immense solidarity. Cambridgians, including Etel set up the Cambridge Chile Human Rights organisation and offered invaluable advice and support with vital services for finding housing, language courses ( the Bell language school thanks to Julia Napier was a key provider of free English lessons for Chileans) & medical/psychological support for those who endured captivity and/or torture  (The Medical Foundation, Helen Bamber in particular, were at the forefront of handling torture cases).

Etel was sat on a bench outside the Cambridge University Social club. Camila pointed her out to me as I’d been asking who had known Santiago when we’d first arrived in the UK. I shimmied over to Etel, rather shy and nervous, and introduced myself as the granddaughter of Santiago Bell. Her eyes welled up with tears ‘I saw Santiago when he arrived’. She went on ‘He was so badly mistreated, he arrived a broken man’…

Having been knocked sideways by this, I made my apologies and quickly headed towards the bar. I simply couldn’t bear to hear any more. After a couple of berry ciders however , l composed myself and went back to talk to her and thank her for everything she had done for us and the community. That was the beginning of my friendship with this extraordinary woman.

Born in 1934 in the East End of London to a Jewish family who had escaped the persecution of Jews in Odessa, Etel became a member of the communist party until finally becoming  disillusioned with party politics and quitting in 1968. In the 1970’s Etel and her husband were living in Cambridge when they learned about the terrible situation in Chile. Etel along with a group of sympathisers and exiled Chileans began working in tandem carrying out important human rights work both in Cambridge and Chile. This was the birth of the Cambridge Chile Human Rights Comittee.

Since meeting Etel and not being in close proximity to my family, I have struck up a strong bond with her. The void that she fills is that of the matriarch storyteller. And what keeps me intrigued is the vast wealth of eye witness information she holds. In this context she represents a part of the Chilean exile experience that needs to be documented and told

I relish the long walks to her bungalow, contemplating what I will learn. The visits are never short and I’m often left emotionally and intellectually wrung out. Last Monday I spent the morning with her, sifting through letters she’d sent and received from Chile during the 1970’s and 80’s. Mothers documenting their son’s arrests, women searching for their husbands, families asking for asylum. Some they managed to save, others not. It’s the stories that this rapidly diminishing generation hold in their memories that are vital for us and the coming generations, for understanding and preserving our particular brand of history.


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