Santiago, Chile – Alejandro saw white. The 14-year-old had just run outside with his aunt and little brother after a teargas canister was thrown into his family’s apartment in the northern Chilean town of Antofagasta late last year.
Unable to breathe from the toxic fumes he had just escaped, Alejandro turned the corner and saw a street full of armed police.
“I saw them, I lifted my hands,” he recalled.
“I remember the carabineros laughing, and then they shot at me,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the federal police. “In this moment, I fell to the floor. I only saw white.”
Alejandro was one of the youngest victims to have suffered an eye injury in Chile’s violent crackdown on protests over inequality.
More than 445 people have suffered eye injuries in the nearly five months of unrest in Chile over social inequality. More than 34 have either lost an eye or their eyeball burst from an impact. Others have been completely blinded.
The crisis is so extreme that the image of an eye has become a symbol of the unrest in Chile. Protesters fly a black version of the Chilean flag with an eye replacing the star. Posters pasted on buildings depict an eye with a tear of blood.
The government has failed to settle nationwide unrest over deep inequality and the privatisation of public services, despite conceding to some of the protesters’ demands. After cases of vandalism, President Sebastian Pinera declared the county “at war”, and temporarily called the military onto the streets, opening wounds for those who had lived through Chile’s 17-year dictatorship.
While the size of the protests subsided just after the new year, they re-intensified in recent weeks. But they have since been brought to an all-but-complete halt as the number of cases of people with the novel coronavirus increased. Pinera announced a ban on gatherings of 500 or more people in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
It is unclear where demonstrations will continue as the country prepares to hold an April referendum on a new constitution, one of the protesters’ key demands. But Chileans are also calling for the resignation of Pinera, and justice for police abuses.
More than 30 have died, and nearly 4,000 have been injured, according to Chile’s human rights institute, which has filed more than 1,600 legal cases against the military and police for alleged rights violations.
Rosita waited with grandson in the eye trauma unit of Salvador hospital in Santiago late last year. The waiting room was full, with at least half a dozen faces with eye patches. Scrolling through her phone, she pulled up an image of the pellet that was lodged around his eyeball. It’s a little larger than a pea.
“Only people who have gone through this can understand the pain,” she said, adding that their lives had changed drastically since the incident. “Alejandro loved to play football and surf, and I’m worried he won’t be able to do that any more.”
Despite the injury, Alexandro maintains the optimism of a lively, energetic teen. “I don’t feel bad, and there’s only a little bit of pain. I feel normal.”
For Chile’s other injured, however, the trauma has taken a larger toll.
Christopher Rodrigo, 24, left his house to attend a protest last year that would change his life forever. He lifted up his sunglasses to reveal a sunken left eye, the red eyeball barely visible.
“I was attacked on the third day of the marches. People were shouting and jumping. It was about 6:30 in the afternoon, and we were dispersed by carabineros throwing tear gas. We ran away.”
He does not remember being close to the police, but when he turned a corner, he felt a sudden impact.
“I was in a state of shock. I lost sight immediately. I saw black straight away; I could only see the blood falling.”
Rodrigo was hit with a rubber bullet in the eye, shot by Chile’s carabineros. The use of these projectiles was officially suspended in almost all situations following a University of Chile study on November 16 that found the bullets were just 20 percent rubber and 80 percent other denser material, including lead.
Even before this wave of unrest, the risks of using these shotguns were known: a 2012 internal report by the Chilean police warned that people hit by pellets from these shotguns at a distance of 25 metres or less could suffer serious injuries, even death. At 30 metre,s the pellets could cause injuries that would result in eye loss.
“How is it possible that someone loses an eye simply for marching, nothing else. It’s not human,” he said.
Rodrigo feels the incident has broken him. He still feels physical pain, frequent headaches and a constant feeling around his left eye that something is wrong, uncomfortable. But the pain goes deeper: “I’m traumatised. I feel repulsed when I see police on the street. I can’t go to marches anymore because I’m scared for my other eye.”
He added that before the incident, he wanted to study psychology, “but this has changed my life a lot. It hurts so much that they’ve disabled many people, people who had dreams.”
Police have been accused of using excessive force against protesters, and protesters say they have been shot at the face, directly and intentionally.
“They aimed the gun higher than they should have done. It wasn’t an accident,” Rodrigo says.
It is a claim backed by investigations from NGOs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who have confirmed grave human rights violations have taken place at the hands of Chile’s military and police. Amnesty accused security forces of deliberately injuring and punishing protesters, citing cases of torture and sexual violence.
The level of eye injuries is so severe that it’s been described as an “epidemic” by Chile’s medical college.
“In terms of eye injuries, we have never seen anything like that in Latin America,” said Cesar Marín of Amnesty’s crisis team. “The case of Chile is very unique and is very concerning because of the level of harm. We have found the only type of comparison you can give to this level of injuries is in the Palestinian and Israeli conflict – and the number of people injured there will be a couple of hundred in six years.”
Marin told Al Jazeera there must be an investigation into who has been committing these serious injuries, but also, a deeper look into the institution to see if this action is accepted as general practice or a policy implemented by those higher up in the force.
‘People have been mutilated’
The families of those injured, and the victims with eye traumas, say Pinera is “directly responsible for the human rights violations”.
“People have been mutilated,” said Marta Valdez, at a recent demonstration outside the presidential palace in Santiago organised by the collective. “You see the victims today, but they are going to be living with this for the rest of their lives. We want truth, justice, reparations,” says Valdez, whose 17-year-old son lost an eye.
Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said in November that the Gatica case was “deeply painful” and that police protocols around the use of force needed to be revised. President Pinera’s statements have oscillated from acknowledging that there have been abuses and promising investigations, to claiming force is justified so as to maintain order, criticising violent protesters as a “powerful and implacable enemy”.
“It’s a disgrace, Pinera must resign,” said Elicer Flores, 30, who was out in Santiago’s streets, on October 20, when he received a police pellet in his left eye. “I felt cold in my body and wanted to vomit. I felt the most severe physical pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Flores, a father of two children of nine and 13 months old, will have to have a prosthetic to replace his eyeball.
It is a trauma for him and his family. But he, like many others of Chile’s wounded, are determined to continue marching, for dignity and a better quality of life. Now, they march for justice, too.
“It’s painful to think about my eyes. It’s an experience that I would never have wanted to live, but as long as the fight continues – fighting for Gustavo, for the rape victims, the detained – and at the end we see results, to have lost an eye is worth it.
“When my boy grows up he will ask me, how did you lose your eye? And I’ll say, I lost it fighting. Fighting for us, fighting for a justice that didn’t exist, for dignity that didn’t exist.”