September 11 in Santiago. (Photo: Ricardo Inostroza V./Flickr)

Exactly 28 years before the commercial airliners slammed into New York’s Twin Towers, the fighter jets of Chile’s airforce turned on their own presidential palace. With Marxist President Salvador Allende holed up inside La Moneda, the bombs rained down. He did not live to see September 12, 1973. An official inquiry earlier this year put an end to decades of rumours and speculation, declaring once and for all that the former president had committed suicide.

Within 12 hours, the generals had wrested control of the country, abolishing the rule of law and imposing strict curfews. What followed was a 17 year dictatorship that would claim the lives of over 3,000 political prisoners, a third of whom remain unaccounted for. September 11 was etched into the memories of Chileans forever. Prematurely.

Flash forward 38 years and for many it’s still a hot issues. Every year thousands of people pause on the infamous date to remember and protest the events of 1973. 2011 was no exception. During the day 7,000 marchers made their way slowly through streets of downtown Santiago. Among them were the widows of the ‘disappeared’, clutching photos of their lost loved ones in their wrinkled hands. Their faces were sad but resolute. According to the news reports that evening, the procession was peaceful – even sombre.

But only kilometres away, outside the city’s General Cemetery where the remains of Allende and many other well known victims of the dictatorship were laid to rest, there was chaos. Unruly protesters took to the streets, their heads covered with bandanas and their hands wrapped around rocks which they hurled at the legions of riot police who were waiting, prepared for a fight. The carabineros responded with water canons, flooding the streets and stoking the rage of the protesters even more. It resembled a battle zone.

The cameras zoomed in on a young man trying to stem the flow of blood gushing from his nose with a small water bottle. He screamed out in pain or perhaps frustration. It was hard to tell. The TV sequence cut to a police horse, striding on valiantly through the flying rocks and debris. Held high, its head was also covered in blood. A police officer on a stretcher winced as he grasped at his shoulder. All up 21 protestors were arrested and 10 police officers were injured. Both numbers seemed small after watching the violent images..

When the sun went down the skirmish finally ended. The vendors from the flower markets located at the entrance to the cemetery emerged with brooms to inspect the damage and begin the clean up. They had endured another September 11.

Throughout the rest of the night, the city was lit up by spot fires as people burned tyres and erected flaming barricades. Just as they had done last year, the year before and the year before that. The plaintive wail of sirens filled the air.

Out in Quilicura things were quiet until about 10.30pm when a volley of gunshots was fired into the air. The sound of firing bullets, crisp and loud, continued for the next half hour. Around 1.30am the shooting resumed. It didn’t seem to matter that it was now September 12.

Just like the people of New York, there were many santiaguinos who didn’t want to forget. Who couldn’t forget. They had vowed not to.

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