This is a story about a jailbreak which meant more than just a jailbreak to the people who were accidentally involved. This is a story about memory, moral debt, and surprise.
“You never know what you might need – and from who – in later life.”
When S* was in her 40s, a group of revolutionaries entered her house and held her family hostage in one room for ten hours while they dug a 70cm x 70cm hole in her living room. The hole joined up with a tunnel from the prison across the street. While the family stayed in that one room, hungry and completely in the dark about what was happening, 111 men emerged from the narrow tunnel and escaped out of the back garden. It was one of the biggest prison escapes in all history.
But S’s lasting impression of that day is about the value of human connections, even in the most unexpected of situations.
Such an idea seems mind-blowing to me right now, listening to the tale on a humid Saturday afternoon in Montevideo, Uruguay. I am on a walking tour which began at the old site of the prison – now a bustling shopping mall -and has paused here, outside a seemingly nondescript house. Our guide is telling us about the escape and the role of this specific property when an old woman appears at the door. Oh, no, how awkward, I think for a moment. She wants to leave her house and we’re all here blocking her driveway and staring at her door. But the woman was not surprised to see us, nor was she trying to leave the property. She walks straight over to us clutching a pile of newspaper clippings, and the story begins. She is S. She lived here when the escape took place. It was her living room floor they dug up, and it was her who the Tupamaros chose to man the telephone and reassure the outside world should any of her neighbours call by.
The 111 escaped men were part of an organisation called the Tupamaros, a radical left-wing urban guerrilla group which was operating in Uruguay during the 1960s-70s. What the group stood for and did is another story – what you need to know right now is that a failed attack on a nearby town called Pando had led many of them to be incarcerated in the high-security Punta Carretas prison in Montevideo.
One of the orchestrators of the escape was one Henry Engels.
“He got out a stethoscope, I thought it was to check the health of the prisoners,” S tells us now, shaking her head. “But instead he put it to the floor to listen for the progress in the tunnel.”
Engels had begun a medical degree in Uruguay before his involvement in the revolutionary group interrupted it. Afterwards, though, he emigrated to Switzerland where he restarted his medical training and went to be one of the leading names in his field. Grateful to his roots, some years ago he set up a state-of-the-art medical facility here in Montevideo.
Decades had passed, but S had not forgotten the men who invaded her home and dug up her living room. So when she began to suffer from a medical condition in which she had heard Engels specialised, she realised that perhaps it was time to call in a favour.
It was a long shot, but to her surprise, Engels remembered her. He invited her to go to the clinic for the testing she thought she needed – and then greeted her in person, arms outstretched, “like a great friend”.
“I had done him a favour all those years ago, even though I hadn’t ever wanted to be part of it,” S reminisces, resting her palms against the stone wall which separates her from the tour group. “Now it was his turn to do me a favour.”
The group hung on her every word until we were pulled away by our guide. The description of the walking tour had not mentioned her presence; I never would have expected to make this connection during the short walk, just as she had never expected to need help from an ex-revolutionary.
Yet these connections are simply waiting to be found – even when we’re not looking for them. Like most cities, Montevideo is tattooed with remnants of its past: scarred with them, even. Below a restaurant down the street lie the ruins of the first tunnel the Tupamaros tried and failed to build to rescue those 111 men, months before the successful one was completed; in the city centre, a long fragment of wall rises incongruously from a patch of grass: what little remains of the city walls which once enclosed a much smaller civilisation; another ex-prison in the city has been converted into a cultural centre with art installations. And in the minds of its inhabitants lie the remnants of a turbulent century just gone, fraught with multiple dictatorships, military coups and revolutionary attacks, all in a country which has now been transformed into the most liberal and progressive country in all of South America. A country where one of those 111 escaped revolutionaries became President in 2010 and served for five years, pushing through most of the progressive social reforms which make the country what it is today.
It is a connection I will not readily forget.
* Unfortunately, I do not know the real name of the woman we met on this tour: only that it began with S. For this reason, rather than inventing a name, I have chosen to leave this letter as a simple placeholder.