Tall, strikingly handsome and immaculately dressed, Kozak has been compared to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved 1,200 Jewish lives during World War II. Emilio Barbarani, an Italian diplomat in Santiago who worked with Kozak, sees a parallel between the two men. As he puts it: “Roberto was a success with girls. He was well-dressed, well-paid. He did not need to take political risks. It was not his job to do this. He did it because he was courageous.”
Kozak, one of 12 siblings, was born to a poor farming family in Argentina on May 14, 1942. The family moved to Buenos Aires, where his father made his living doing odd jobs. Kozak started working in a bookshop after school when he was just nine years old. He became an avid reader and attended evening classes, eventually obtaining a degree in civil engineering from the University of Buenos Aires. After a number of technical jobs, Kozak applied for a job at the Argentinian office of the International Committee for European Migration (ICEM), created in 1951 to help WWII refugees. Now known as the International Organisation for Migration, this body has 165 member countries and comes under the umbrella of the United Nations.
In 1970, Kozak was sent for diplomatic training in Germany and then to study English in England. After a stint in Geneva, he was transferred to Chile. Eleven months after his arrival in Santiago, on September 11, 1973, General Pinochet launched his coup against the elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende.
The coup wasn’t unexpected. But the military junta’s brutal crackdown on all opposition shocked many in Chile and around the world. Pinochet, who believed Marxism to be the root cause of all evil, targeted anyone with left-wing views or sympathies. But dragged into this bloody net were students, journalists, priests, musicians and even foreigners suspected of helping the opposition. Between 1973-78, about 70,000 people were detained, of whom an estimated 30,000 were tortured and approximately 3,500 killed. The most notorious of Pinochet’s detention centres was Villa Grimaldi, a remote farmhouse near Santiago.
Run by the notorious Major Marcelo Moren Brito of Dina, Chile’s secret police, it had around 4,500 detainees, most of whom were brutally tortured. Among them were the parents of Michelle Bachelet, who is now President of Chile. Her father, an air force general who supported Allende, died under torture. Michelle Bachelet too was tortured but later released along with her mother.
Rodrigo del Villar, a geography student, was tortured at Villa Grimaldi. In 1976, Kozak managed to secure his release. As Villar later told an interviewer: “If he had not got me out? Quite simply, we would not be having this conversation now.”
Kozak took enormous risks but he did not do it alone. He had a network of helpers ranging from foreign diplomats to Catholic human rights organizations such as the Vicariate of Solidarity. A modest man, he believed in teamwork and even his son did not know until many years later precisely what his father was doing during those dark and terrible years under Pinochet. As his widow Sylvia put it: “Roberto undertook a great task but he did not do it alone. He was part of a network. He would have considered it egocentric to claim responsibility. He felt his task was important but he never took centre stage. He placed great value on teamwork.”
But he was more conspicuous than the rest of the network because of his looks, his energy and his busy schedule. In 1986, when the worst seemed to be over, an ultra right-wing death squad of Pinochet loyalists raided Kozak’s office. Calling him a “communist son of a bitch,” he was made to answer questions at gunpoint after his co-workers were tied and trussed up on the floor.
Kozak’s incredible luck held again. They were looking for hidden weapons because left-wing guerillas had attempted to kill Pinochet five days ago. Unable to connect Kozak to the assassination attempt or to find weapons, they left without killing anyone. As one staff member later recalled: “He was green. It was a colour between yellow, white and green. But poker-faced, he went downstairs, calmly called Geneva to inform them of the raid and then went on with his work.”
ICEM was not a human rights set up and Kozak’s superiors in Geneva were not aware of precisely what he was up to in Santiago. Kozak realized that if he was going to help Pinochet’s victims, he would have to take personal risks with both his life and his job. He told his fellow staffers that they should not be content with being wheels in a bureaucracy and should do whatever possible to help the coup’s victims. Kozak’s stylish home as well as the ICEM office became clandestine places of refuge for people he had freed from military prisons. He managed to do that with a combination of diplomacy, daring and generous amounts of whisky. Kozak held regular late night parties at home, inviting officers from the junta and secret police and befriending them. He led a double life, with released prisoners hidden in his attic while their tormentors were entertained upstairs. Discovery would have meant an unpleasant end for Kozak and his family, but he managed to get away with it.
His second wife Sylvia recalls that he often suffered from acute stress, though he managed to look calm outwardly. Once, a death squad loyal to Pinochet raided Kozak’s office after the dictator escaped an assassination attempt.
Not all of Pinochet’s men were willing to put up with Kozak’s humanitarian work. The secret police chief Manuel Contreras took a strong dislike to him. But even Contreras was unaware of the scale of Kozak’s operation. Kozak sometimes negotiated and secured the release of scores of prisoners.
After getting them released, Kozak had to find them safe haven abroad by persuading friendly foreign diplomats to give them visas. A released prisoner, if he or she remained in Chile, always risked being arrested again. To prevent those freed from being instantly re-arrested, Kozak personally took them from the detention centre to his home or office and hid them there till a foreign visa was obtained, a process which could take several months. Once that was done, he would escort them to the airport and all the way to the waiting airliner.
Kozak knew that Pinochet’s men did not respect his diplomatic immunity and counted on the contacts he had with junta members, hoping the goodwill would hold. Getting Pinochet’s top men to drink, Kozak would ask them to sign expulsion orders for detainees. The ICEM’s drivers worked late into the night as Kozak’s waiters. As one staff member recalled: “the whiskey was very important…while Roberto was having a party for the military officials in his house, there would be refugees and political prisoners hiding in the attic. He was always playing with fire.”
Kozak daringly went all the way to the top, meeting Pinochet himself in 1978. He told Pinochet the same thing he told his late-night military guests – Chile’s international reputation was suffering because of its human rights record. But, if Pinochet agreed to release more political prisoners, Kozak would tell the press that the regime was at last working to improve its human rights record.
Living this double life, Kozak became heavily stressed. His wife said later that her husband suffered both due to personal risk and the tortures he saw being inflicted on people almost everyday and he was not always successful in getting his protégés out of Chile. Some were arrested again and killed.
In 1992, Chile awarded Kozak its highest honour, the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins. But Kozak was always modest about his achievement. While attending the opening of Chile’s human rights museum in 2010, his son Nikolai saw a man step up through the crowd to his father. Both began to cry.
The man turned to Kozak’s son and said: “Your father saved my life.”
“I then realized my father was not the man I thought he was,” Nikolai said.
Ron Schmidt Wednesday, 22 August 2018 16:20
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