Gudrun Mueller, right, eventually managed to escape the Colony but says she still suffers as a result of the beatings she endured there [Fadi Benny]
Al Jazeera Correspondent

‘We will always have the nightmares’

Gudrun Mueller endured beatings, forced drug use and electric shocks at Colonia Dignidad.

Gudrun Mueller joined Colonia Dignidad, a German sect in southern Chile, when she was in her 20s. Residents of the sect led by former Nazi army nurse Paul Schaefer, were regularly drugged and many of the children were sexually abused by Schaefer. The Colony also served as an experimental torture centre where opponents of the Pinochet regime were interrogated, tortured and sometimes buried, and as a haven for Nazi fugitives, who hid out there in exchange for overseeing the torture.

Here she shares her story.

I was young, in my early twenties, and wanted to do something good, and because I had already started to be religious in Germany, the idea of going to Chile to help the less fortunate appealed to me. I come from a very large family and they had all gone to Chile to join Paul Schaefer. So I went in good faith.

I … wanted to do good deeds, which I did. All [the] time I was there I did good for other people. But I did not know [about] the crimes – the torture and murder of political prisoners – that were happening there all those years.

The Colony – Extra

I only noticed a few things here and there. Whenever I said that I had seen something which I thought was not right I had to take a lot of beatings, and was forced to take a lot of drugs and medicine. I received electro shocks which caused my memory losses, and this went on for years.

I always wanted the truth and I also acted and spoke out. But Schaefer could not cope with that. For example, I told him to his face that life in the Colony was worse than being in communist Europe. His face totally changed. And then again I was punished with more medication and beatings, they wanted to erase my memory of everything that had happened to me. And they did, part of it, the majority.

But I found out a lot from acquaintances and friends after 2005. Before I hardly had the chance to even communicate with the others or to even have contact. Even contact with my siblings was sparse because I also did not trust them. I did not know anymore who would go to Schaefer to denounce me. To whom could I actually tell anything? And because I had already gone through so much, whenever I opened my mouth, I was then punished, with medication, with electro shocks, with being locked up.

I was in the Colony hospital for seven years, locked in with Matron Maria Strebe in her room, and was only allowed to go to work with permission. I had to report back in when I left work, or sometimes the lady who was my superior did that for me, saying “she is now leaving, make sure that she will arrive”. That’s how it was all the time – I was being watched all the time. I was not a free human being, I was not even allowed to have my own thoughts. Even those you had to say out loud. And that’s why Schaefer was so powerful, because everyone had to tell him everything. But he never told everything to everyone.

He always told partially that to this one, that to the other one, so that everyone only had a partial picture. That was his strength and that is why no one could take the power away from him. We did not even have a newspaper, no television, no radio, no contact. I was also not allowed to learn Spanish. My book was taken away when I arrived there – apparently to give to the students ….

I was too dangerous for him. And I would have been if I could have – I would have spoken out there too, but it just was not possible.

I only found out later that I had received electro-shocks. Other people told me that, and that is why I wanted to find out from the doctor herself, what it is and what did they do with me? Why did they give me electro-shocks? And she then admitted that they were supposed to create this loss of memory and I can notice it even now. I have a lot of memory loss, but not enough to forget everything. I remember enough to address the public with all this and finally reveal what happened in this place, what incredible things happened to the people there. That’s what we want to clarify and that is why we speak out now.

Foiled escape

I tried to escape. I left the Colony three times …. Once I managed to get to the Austrian embassy but then two gentlemen came. I don’t know who [they were]. I just know that I went to Ursel Schmidt the evening before and asked her to give me my passport telling her that I wanted to make a cover for the passport and that I needed the measurements and asked whether she could give it to me for one night. And on that night I ran away. How? I don’t know, that was all eliminated from my memory afterwards with electroshocks.

I only know from my sister that I managed to get to the Austrian embassy, because I was actually born in Austria. Then two gentlemen came from the Colony who claimed they only wanted to talk to me for two minutes. Apparently I said: “No I am not available to talk to anymore.” But then they nagged and begged so much that I gave in and went with them after all. Whether it was really just two minutes and what they did with me in that time I don’t know. I apparently then said: “I will go back with them.” I then ended up back in the Colony, back in the hospital. It took months, months until I could think clearly again.

Even contact with my siblings was sparse because I also did not trust them. I did not know anymore who would go to Schaefer to denounce me. To whom could I actually tell anything? And because I had already gone through so much, whenever I opened my mouth, I was then punished, with medication, with electro-shocks, with being locked-up.

by Gudrun Mueller

I would like to mention that I was not the only one who ran away. As far as I know, there were 30 people who went to the German embassy in Santiago, who were all sent back. The leadership of the Colony would be informed and the gentlemen would be sent to collect the people and take them back. What exactly happened in detail I don’t know. But that it happened, that is something I know because the hierarchy worked hand-in-hand with the embassy.

Firstly, the official residence was renovated by Ambassador Stretling, everything for free. In exchange they gave all of us German passports without us having to go to Santiago, to the consulate, to apply or sign for it. All secret. The German embassy cannot say that they did not know what was happening. They knew right from the beginning what was happening but they kept silent.

Why? Because Schaefer had everyone wrapped around his little finger. He had his nose stuck in everywhere. Police, people, all governmental departments, all of them were subservient. The more information he got, the more he was praised. They received money or parcels, food parcels, because we produced everything ourselves, and the local population was poor and were happy when they managed to get something. That is why it was actually really difficult to get away from Schaefer or to get out of the country. It just was not possible.

One day Schaefer said we should not run away, and that anyone who wanted to leave would be able to leave. They would get their papers. I was not a coward so I went up to him, three times … and every time he told me [I] should think about it again, and why, what don’t you like and I told him what I thought. But he didn’t want to let me go. The fourth time I went he told me: “Go to the kitchen, wait there.” That’s when I thought I will get my papers now. I was full of hope.

Instead, Kurt Schnellenkamp, the number two henchman at the Colony, came with a stick in his hand … and … without asking why or what [I] did … he just started bashing me …. I lay there like an animal and could not get up anymore. When he told me to get up and I couldn’t, he hit me again, several times and then took me over his shoulder just like a sack of flour … and took me to … the children’s house. It then took me weeks to actually be able to be seen again.

Blood on its hands

The men suffered from ill treatment and sexual abuse, but they said Eve was a woman and was to blame for the original sin, so we women had to be mistreated terribly and spat on because of our gender.

Finally, in 2005, after Schaefer was arrested I also found out everything else that had happened – the murders, the mass graves – and I told Wolfgang Mueller, with whom I had established a relationship, that I could not live there anymore, that there was too much blood on the Colony’s hands. We left, although I went back a few times because my siblings and my mother were still living there.

Today we live in a retirement home in northern Germany, thanks to the German welfare state

Both my husband Wolfgang and I have serious physical problems from the beatings, the hard work 364 days out of the year. Wolfgang has suffered strokes and all kinds of neurological problems from beatings and the forced use of drugs meant for people with epilepsy or schizophrenia, which of course he never had. He is relegated to a wheelchair and looks twice his age.

And we will always have the nightmares. Even here in Germany you can’t just wipe it all away.