After the 1973 coup in Chile, Ambassador Frode Nilsen dined with the Pinochet dictatorship’s highest-ranking officers. Behind their backs, he smuggled dissidents to Norway.
Now, forty years later, he met one of the men again, a young scientist he saved from death row.
Known for his keen interest in each individual he helped, Nilsen is visibly troubled by the fact that he no longer remembers Victor Hormazabal. But Hormazabal remembers. Every detail of how Nilsen played a key role in saving his life.
“You helped me escape from Chile,” says Victor Hormazabal, 67, softly shaking Frode Nilsen’s hand. The former diplomat, now almost 90 years old, fights back tears, as he recognises him.
Hormazabal was arrested in November 1973. The Lieutenant interrogating him had emptied six bullets from his revolver onto the table, put one back and pointed the muzzle at Hormazabal’s head.
“Where are the guns?”, he had asked.
The 27 year-old chemist, a member of the Socialist Party and head of the local Hospital Workers Union branch, has no knowledge of alleged plans to kidnap the family members of military personnel. But they didn't believe him.
The revolver clicked. No bullet. “Where are the weapons”, screamed his torturer. “I don’t know,” Hormazabal repeated. Click. No bullet. Four times the revolver clicked. But then his torturer suddenly stopped. Hormazabal was led away.
“At first you are scared. Then you only think of survival. You reach a level where the body can take anything,” say Hormazabal.
He still has faint marks on his forehead where his torturers placed the electrodes.
On the other side of town, Norwegian diplomats had initially been optimistic about the leadership of Chilean military leader Augusto Pinochet.
“The Chileans are celebrating the coup like Norwegians celebrated 8 May 1945 [the day the Nazi occupation of Norway ended]”, reported then-Norwegian Ambassador to Chile, August Fleischer. He was mainly concerned that heating oil was again available in the capital, Santiago.
But Norwegian Prime Minister Trygve Bratteli, was furious. While other embassies opened their doors to refugees, Fleischer had refused, and it was an embarrassment to the Norwegian Labour Government.
Seasoned diplomat Frode Nilsen was despatched to Chile as a special Asylum Envoy, instructed to assist politically persecuted people. Having spent three years in General Franco’s Spain, he spoke Spanish and had assisted dissidents before.
“I was given a wide remit,” recalled Nilsen, suggesting that he defied most diplomatic codes to get the job done.
“I had our Minister of Foreign Affairs on my side, but I was careful not to risk deportation. If I had to leave the country, I could help no one. So I made sure I got to know the right people, those who made the decisions,” he explained.
He even dined with General Augusto Pinochet and his wife, Lucía Hiriart. During dinner he had the nerve to ask Pinochet directly to help him with a case.
“Later, at a diplomatic function, Pinochet waved me over and said to those standing beside him: ‘Gentlemen, this is the man who wants to save the world’,” Nilsen recalled.
“When my father talks to people, you feel he is there, just for you. You feel important. This is why people listened to him, how he got leverage with people in power”, his daughter, Randi Elisabeth Nilsen said.
“Each individual has value. This you should never forget,” Nilsen continued. “I was a cunning devil,” he laughed.
Between November 1973 and September 1974, he had a quota of 100 refugees cleared to go to Norway. He thoroughly investigated each case brought to his attention by a network of contacts. “I chose those who needed our assistance the most,” explains Nilsen.
Through a combination of distracting and befriending the military guards at the embassy gates, he smuggled people in and out. Sometimes it was as simple as a car passing slowly enough through the embassy gates to allow people hiding outside to crouch down and run past it right under the guards’ noses, quietly making it to safety.
“My First Secretary was a mean back alley driver,” said Nilsen, explaining how they then got dissidents to the airport and onto Scandinavian Airlines flights bound for Oslo.
In 1975, Nilsen returned to Chile as Ambassador, a post he also held from 1988-1992. He could then take advantage of a decree stating that selected political prisoners could be released if they secured a visa to another country.
Nilsen met Hormazabal in Santiago Prison in 1975: “Some Norwegian friends of yours are really bugging me to get you out”, said the formal, impeccably dressed man sitting in front of Victor.
“I don’t know anyone in Norway?” Hormazabal's mind was racing. Who is this Frode Nilsen who says he can help release him from prison, where he has been forced to drink water from toilets and eat mouldy bread left behind in cells?
Hormazabal’s “friends” were Oslo-based Amnesty group 6, which adopted him as “their” prisoner of conscience. The Bishop of Valdivia then received a letter asking if he could do something to save Hormazabal from death row.
After seven weeks’ anxious wait, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he could finally sleep again.
“I was sceptical, but I decided to trust Frode. He came across as sincerely interested in my case,” recalled Hormazabal.
Twice, Pinochet rejected his request for a travel permit. Later, Hormazabal was told that Mónica Madariaga – Chile’s then Minister of Justice, Pinochet’s cousin and the author of the infamous 1978 Amnesty Law that still protects many of the regime’s supporters from persecution – slipped his request in between a pile of letters, which Pinochet signed without closer scrutiny.
Nilsen said that Mónica Madariaga was one of his most valuable contacts. “I managed to convince her to help me,” he says.
“The support I got from Amnesty was also invaluable. When I negotiated, it helped if my request was supported by Amnesty.”
In March 1977, Hormazabal landed in Oslo. In his pocket he had the names of his Norwegian supporters, among them the leader of the Ljan Amnesty group in Oslo, Carl Halse.
He helped Victor get a job at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, where he worked until he retired recently. He remains an active member of Amnesty Norway.
In 1982, he received a letter saying that Ramona Albornoz de Carril, “his” adopted prisoner of conscience from Argentina, has been released. His local Amnesty group has campaigned for years to free her. It feels good to give something back.