An undignified colony

Every once in a while there is a real life tale that is so extraordinary and so horrifying it seems more like the plot of a fictional Hollywood movie. The story of Colonia Dignidad is one of these.

Chile was still under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet when I first heard about the mysterious German sect living in an enclave in the country’s rural south.

Located just a couple of hours’ drive from the city of Talca, where my mother was born and I often vacationed as a child, Colonia Dignidad or Dignity Colony had been established in 1962 as a charity. A hospital located near the entrance to the enormous estate offered care to poor locals, but not even the local police could enter any deeper into what was widely described as a ‘state within a state’.

The Colony, with its forests, rivers and mountains, was a fortress surrounded by electrified barbed wire fences and look-out towers manned by armed guards. Trees and rocks hid hearing devises and cameras.

Its leader, Paul Schaefer, was a former Nazi army nurse.

Like many of the region’s powerful politicians and landowners, Schaefer was opposed to Salvador Allende, the socialist president who came to power in 1970. But his opposition took on a distinctly practical dimension when he allowed the Colony to be used as a secret training ground for right-wing paramilitary groups.

After Allende was overthrown in a military coup in 1973, Schaefer forged a sinister alliance with the Chilean army, the details of which are still being unravelled today.

A quasi-concentration camp

Winifred Hempel, right, was born in the Colony [Fadi Benni]

Many years later, as Chile was returning to democracy after 17 years of dictatorship, I learned that the Colony had been used as an experimental torture centre, and that with the help of his henchmen, Schaefer was ‘mistreating’ the 300 or so German colonists, whom locals claimed sometimes acted like zombies.

A few had managed to escape and return to Germany, where they revealed terrible stories of exploitation, punishment and forced drug use designed to keep them under control, in what they described as a quasi-concentration camp.

In 1990, I tried to enter the Colony to film a television report, but, like other colleagues, was chased away at gunpoint. Journalists who tried to uncover what was taking place there were fired at from long distance.

While the new, democratic president subsequently ordered that the Colony’s status as a charity be revoked, it was not shut down.

Then, in 1996, a lawyer named Hernan Fernandez dared to take on Schaefer, amid allegations that he had sexually abused scores of young boys, both German and Chilean.

By then I was no longer living in Chile and did not pick up the story again until 2006, shortly after Schaefer was finally captured and imprisoned for the sexual abuse of minors.

With the doors of the Colony finally opened to the outside world – or so it seemed – a shocking picture emerged. The bodies of dozens of Chilean political prisoners were buried in the grounds and a cache of weapons – submachine guns, grenades and rocket launchers - was discovered.

A window into darkness

By now the Colony had been renamed Vila Baviera, and a bid to reform its image began.

I was allowed to visit with my cameraman, but the residents, most of whom only spoke German, were reluctant to talk to journalists. It was hard to shake the sense that many were afraid. And with former accomplices of Schaefer still living there, it was not difficult to understand why.

But, while our official host was distracted, I did manage to speak to 50-year-old Helmut Schaak, who worked in the Colony’s flour mill. With a thick German accent, Helmut, who had come to Chile as a child, offered a disturbing glimpse into the lives of the residents. Until recently, he explained, the men and women of the Colony had not been allowed to mix and while he had eventually been permitted to marry “in order to produce more children”, he was now concerned that he would not know how to raise a “normal” family. Helmut, who said he had not been aware of the torture and killings that had taken place there, was afraid to leave the enclave to venture into an unknown world beyond its gates.

It was clear that there was much I still did not know about the workings of the Colony. But, thanks to a German friend, Volker Petzoldt, a former high-ranking UN official in Chile who has spent decades investigating Colonia Dignidad, a new window into its dark secrets was about to be opened.

Volker, who was key in producing our documentary, introduced me to Winfried Hempel, a young man who was born in the Colony and whose story revealed horrors the extent of which I could not have imagined. He and others we spoke to described, among other things, children being separated from their parents at birth, perverse sexual experiments and forced drug use and sterilisation.

With the help of Volker and Winfried, I discovered that all of this had transpired for decades under the noses of successive Chilean and German governments. In fact, it was not until early this year, 2013, that many - though not all - of Schaefer’s top henchmen were finally imprisoned.

Biological weapons?

During our investigation Hernan Fernandez, the lawyer who first brought charges against Schaefer, revealed that the sect leader had tried to murder him with a chemical weapon. “After Schaefer was imprisoned, the man who had been sent to kill me confessed, in tears, that he spent days trying to spike my car with sarin gas, but was unsuccessful because I didn’t own a car,” he explained.

There are strong allegations that biological as well as conventional weapons were produced in the Colony during the Pinochet years. In the 1980s, Chile and its larger neighbour Argentina came to within days of going to war and the theory is that Chile’s dictator was prepared to use chemical weapons in case of an attack. There is already credible evidence that biological weapons were used to eliminate domestic opponents.

So, why is it that an investigation into the production and use of these weapons has only just began? And what other secrets contained in the thousands of files discovered inside Colonia Dignidad are now being kept from the public by a Chilean judge for reasons of ‘national security’? Why was Schaefer allowed to get away with murder, rape and kidnapping for so long – before, during and after the military dictatorship? Just how deep into the Chilean establishment did his protection network extend? Why didn’t his victims rebel? And what has happened to them since?

These were the questions I wanted answered when we began filming The Colony: Chile’s dark past uncovered. I revisited Vila Baviera and spoke to many of the key protagonists in both Chile and Germany, where this saga began.

Today, the former Colony of horrors has been turned into a German-style tourist resort with its own hotel and restaurant.

Some, like Winfried – whose parents remain there – are outraged. But others feel they have a right to try to make a new life and living in the place where many of them sacrificed their youth, health and sanity.

Many of those who decided to leave, like Helmut Schaak - who in 2008 finally tried to start a new life far from the Colony - are now struggling to make enough money to survive. Now, in an unprecedented lawsuit, Winfried and more than 100 others from the Colony are suing the Chilean and German states for damages and moral reparation. They argue that both states were negligent and at times even complicit in allowing the suffering of the colonists for four decades. In the case of Germany, the constitution obliges the state to defend the rights of its citizens even on foreign soil. Up until the mid-1980s, however, many colonists who escaped and went to the German embassy for help were actually sent back to Schaefer.

In the process of making this film, I did find many of the answers I was looking for. But the more I learn about Colonia Dignidad, the more I realise how little I know and just how many layers of this story are still waiting to be exposed.