SANTIAGO – Nicol has not been to a check-up for her injured left eye since March, roughly the same amount of time that Albano has gone without medical care. Felipe has been a bit more fortunate and last week was able to see his prosthetist for the first time in just over two months.
All three were left virtually blinded in one eye after being struck by pellets and tear gas fired by Chilean security forces late last year, when violent protests against cost-of-living increases and inequality left 30 dead and shook the foundations of what had been regarded as Latin America’s most stable country.
The three say they feel completely abandoned and fearful that their conditions will deteriorate after a government ocular restoration program was put on “stand-by,” with no indication given of when it will be reactivated.
“They called me from one day to the next to cancel my appointment, and no one has contacted me to ask how I’m doing,” Albano, a 41-year-old nurse who was treating injured people at an Oct. 21 rally when we was struck by a police-fired pellet, told EFE.
The projectile shattered his glasses and caused a piece of glass to puncture his left eye and destroy his cornea.
He said he has felt pain in recent days and believes that a cataract is forming, but no specialists from the government ocular restoration program are located in Iquique, the northern city where he lives and was injured, and he is unable to travel to Santiago due to coronavirus-triggered mobility restrictions.
“There was talk about us at first, but now they’ve forgotten us,” said Albano, who is awaiting a third eye operation scheduled for June but believes it will be canceled due to the spread of the respiratory disease in Chile, which thus far has 100,000 confirmed cases and 1,200 COVID-19-related deaths.
“All resources are being allocated to COVID-19. I understand, but we also need help. They were the ones who maimed us,” Felipe told EFE.
In his case, a tear-gas canister struck him in the face while he was demonstrating in Plaza Baquedano, epicenter of the protests in Santiago. The gas mask he was wearing saved his life, but the impact fractured his skull and left eyeball.
Today, he is barely able to open his left eyelid.
Eye injuries have become a sort of badge of honor for demonstrators and serve as evidence of Chilean police brutality, a scourge that has been denounced by the United Nations.
The “UTO” – nickname of the Hospital del Salvador’s Ocular Trauma Unit that has treated most of those who suffered eye injuries in the protests – last year received a flood of young victims with bleeding eyes.
“In my profession I’ve been in lots of hospitals, but I’d never seen anything like it. It was a war zone,” Albano recalled.
According to the National Human Rights Institute, an independent government authority, 460 people sustained eye injuries in the protests that began on Oct. 14, 2019, in response to an increase in the Santiago Metro’s subway fare and are still ongoing.
Although the Chilean government initially spoke of “isolated accidents,” amid an undeniable avalanche of cases it launched an assistance program days later that victims have criticized as insufficient.
That program consists of a team of ophthalmologists and surgeons, a psychologist and an occupational therapist, according to an association known as the Coordinator of Ocular Trauma Victims (CVTO), which told EFE that due to the pandemic that medical team is only attending to emergency cases.
EFE tried on several occasions to speak with the leaders of that health care team, but has not received a response.
“They destroyed the lives of those kids, and the government should help them for life,” CVTO President Marta Valdes told EFE.
Valdes is caring at her home in Santiago for a teenage son who suffered an eye injury from tear gas, while other victims whose appointments have been canceled and have been unable to obtain prescription medication have been seeking her help.
Nicol, a photojournalist who specializes in conflict-zone reporting, lost 95% of the vision in her left eye, but that is not her biggest challenge. Six months after sustaining the injury during a protest, she suffers from nervous tics and panic attacks.
“The kids are all on pills and doped up. They give them really strong medication,” the 30-year-old said, adding that she does not plan on returning to the UTO until the pandemic subsides.
“We’ve had friends of ours who have been with COVID-19 patients in the emergency room with no type of safeguards. That’s indicative … of the state’s negligence and neglect,” Nicol added.
Felipe also said the psychological wounds weigh heaviest on him. He has removed the big mirror he had in his bedroom and placed it in a corner of the living room. He says he can no longer look at his reflection.
“I’m 40 years old. Since I was 18, I’ve been a welder in the mining sector. I can’t work anymore … I’m going to have to reinvent myself. I know what I can do, but the state isn’t giving me the conditions to do it,” he added.
Valdes’ association, meanwhile, is seeking to hold Chilean authorities accountable and is prepared to resort to international tribunals.
“We’re not going to rest until there’s truth and justice. Maybe we won’t find out who fired at them, but we know perfectly well who gave the orders,” she said.