Quintana: burned, but unbroken

THE face of Carmen Gloria Quintana is still grossly disfigured from two years ago, when witnesses say she was set on fire by Chilean soldiers during an anti-government protest. But Ms. Quintana says working for political change in Chile helps to ease the pain she continues to suffer from the incident.

Quintana, who turns 21 next month, returned home in early July after 22 months of medical treatment in Montreal.

``At first I cried every night and asked why did this have to happen to me,'' recalled Quintana in an interview in her parents home in Los Nogales, a working-class neighborhood of Santiago. ``Now I am using the pain to fight to make sure that it never happens to anyone again.''

Quintana was burned from head to foot on July 2, 1986 as she and fellow protester Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri were en route to an antigovernment demonstration. According to witnesses, they were stopped along the way by soldiers. Around them at the time were protesters who were carrying materials with which they could barricade streets with burning tires. The other youths scattered. Witnesses say the soldiers then carried the Quintana and Mr. DeNegri to another street, where they beat them, doused them with petrol, and set them on fire. After the flames died down, the troops reportedly drove the pair to the edge of Santiago and left them for dead along an isolated road.

Mr. Rojas later died from the burns, but Quintana lived to tell the story after spending several months in a coma.

A military tribunal has been investigating the case for two years. Quintana was able to identify the soldier she thinks was the leader of the patrol in a lineup last year. But the case has been bogged down by technicalities and delays, says Hector Salazar, Quintana's lawyer.

The latest snag is over whether tests on female hair found at the site where Quintana says soldiers left her and Rojas are admissible in court. Investigators first said they could not determine if the hair definitely belonged to Quintana. Lawyer Salazar appealed the decision, calling upon the court investigators to prove the hair was not hers. He won the appeal eight months later and says he is now waiting for the military prosecutor to order new tests.

That evidence, as well as photos taken of burn stains on the ground by someone who lived nearby, could disprove conflicting testimony from the soldiers. They claim to have transported Quintana and Rojas to a place where they could seek medical assistance. The officers also claim Quintana knocked over the petrol herself near an open fire and that it spread to her and Rojas accidentally.

What is important, says Salazar, is that the military has agreed to let charges be brought against specific officers. It's an almost unprecedented situation. The government was pressured into investigating the case because of national outcry.

Salazar doubts that a conviction can be had as long as the military is still in power.

``Once a decision is reached, they will probably conclude that it was an accident,'' Salazar said in an interview, pointing out that accused patrol leader Pedro Fernandez Dittus was promoted from lieutenant to captain last year. ``We will only be able to have real justice once the courts are independent.''

In between corrective surgery and physiotherapy sessions, Quintana is campaigning for a ``no'' vote in the Oct. 5 plebiscite. (The vote gives Chile a chance to say ``no'' or ``yes'' to an eight-year presidential term for Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.)

Quintana says secret police appear to follow her, but adds that they don't scare her. She also participates in street demonstrations against Pinochet rule - even though tear gas and the chemically treated water sprayed from hoses to discourage protesters hurt her scarred skin.

She spends much of her time telling groups about the regime's human-rights abuses and the need to replace this 15-years-old dictatorship with a democratic system that excludes Pinochet.

``People see me as a living symbol of the repression, of the dictatorship, and the struggle for life over death,'' Quintana says in a voice softened by the loss of several burned vocal chords. ``I am not seeking revenge. All I want is justice and punishment for those found guilty, just like there would be in any democratic system.''

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