On Storytelling and the “Other 9/11”

Lina Srivastava
7 min readSep 11, 2023

First lessons in narrative and human rights

A still from the film ‘Missing’ (1982). Copyright is likely owned by Universal Pictures.

Fifty years ago, on September 11, 1973, a U.S.-backed coup d’ėtat in Chile overthrew the democratically-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. The coup transformed Latin America’s long-standing democracy into a brutal dictatorship that lasted nearly two decades under Augusto Pinochet, with social and political ripple effects that continue today.

Pinochet’s regime inflicted countless horrors on Chilean leftists and cultural actors and those who supported them. One of their crimes was to execute Charles Horman, a young American journalist who had uncovered U.S. involvement in the coup. Charles’s wife Joyce, who had been in Santiago with him the day he was disappeared, tirelessly pursued the truth of his murder and accountability for those involved. She filed suit against the Nixon administration and Henry Kissinger. (When the Clinton administration declassified documents in 1998 regarding the ’73 coup, it became evident that Charles’ abduction and murder were known to the US government at the time, possibly even sanctioned.) She collaborated with and supported lawyers, judges, human rights advocates, and families of the disappeared. And she went on to establish the Charles Horman Truth Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving memory and history around the coup, and to supporting applications of universal jurisdiction around the world.

Joyce and her father-in-law, Ed, were the subject of Costa Gavras’ 1981 film “Missing.” It’s through this film that I met Joyce and the CHTF in 2002, marking my first foray into the profound interplay between human rights advocacy, accountability, and storytelling, a connection that has shaped the trajectory and mission of my career.

Joyce and I met in the months after New York City’s 9/11 — another day, on the same anniversary, that sharply transformed our world with social and political ripple effects that continue today. It was a difficult time in New York City, but one of solidarity and caring. We were together in our grief at so many who were killed; in anger (and for those of from these communities, in fear) at Muslim, Arab, South Asian victims of hate crimes seeded by jingoistic fervor, some locally grown but mostly from saber rattling outside the city; and also in our will to bring the city back from survival to thriving. We visited each other and opened our homes. We baked for strangers and donated blood (even when there was no one alive left to receive it). We threw parties and congregated in echoing abandoned spaces in downtown Manhattan. (I often go back to this passage from the writer Syreeta McFadden, which so beautifully memorializes the beauty that was to be found in New York City in the day’s aftermath: “You should know that New York’s response to this epic tragedy differed from the flag waver’s imagination. In those early days and weeks, we were kind, thoughtful, and united. We loved each other and strangers like family, converting offices and churches into shelters and relief centers for first responders and rescue workers. Our generosity as a city of nearly 8 million turned us into a singular community.”)

It was a fraught time in the U.S., and the world, though. Demonstrating a profound lack of imagination and care, with the noise of saber rattling and the sight of flag waving ramping up around us, the U.S. fueled a violent movement towards war as a means to address the rip in New York City’s soul.

It was with these two opposing narratives in the air — of solidarity and care against violence and revenge — that I started to look for entry into human rights work. Over a year before 9/11, I had (with so much joy) quit the practice of law and, following a long and very fruitful period of reflection, I committed to working in human rights and social impact. The post-9/11 environment lit a fire under me to look faster for this work.

I had the idea of combining art and story with human rights advocacy — it seemed the right way to forward the solidary and care narrative over the one about violence and revenge — but I didn’t yet know how. I was introduced to Bruni Burres, then the director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, who was generous with her ideas and her contacts and who gave me insights into how the medium of film in particular could — and then to Cynthia Brown, an amazing woman in programs at Human Rights Watch who had dedicated her life to rigorous research and power documentation as tools of effective human rights advocacy. (Cynthia would become an advisor and friend as I grew my career and practice, and her counsel was essential. May she rest in peace.) Cynthia recommended that I meet Joyce, who was working with David Lerner from Riptide Communications to organize an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the release of “Missing” and to continue to promote accountability for the crimes of the coup.

I was named to the event committee and started a six-month deep dive into the role of storytelling in the fight for accountability and justice. Working with the CHTF brought me into dialogue with an international community of lawyers, activists, and storytellers (a trinity of changemakers that, as Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights says, is essential for bending the world towards justice). This community has sustained my practice over the past two decades; far more importantly, it has been instrumental in the fight for justice around the world for the victims of regimes after each 9/11 (and beyond) who wielded violence and oppression. The event itself — held on May 15, 2002, which would have been Charles’ 60th birthday — was a celebration of the work of Chilean and international activists, lawyers, and performers, and of the way film, cultural expression, testimony, and lived experience shaped community, shared history, and collective advocacy.

Photo of the invitation to “Honoring Missing” 2002. Image via the Charles Horman Truth Foundatoin

It was my first set of lessons in how the acts of telling and receiving stories are critical tools to break down the barriers of ignorance and apathy that often hinder progress. As in so many other atrocities, from the Holocaust to Srebrenica to Syria, stories of the coup showed how narratives of “othering” can lead to dehumanization and harm to those seen as obstacles to the accumulation of power. But stories also provide us with the language and the emotional vocabulary to articulate our shared humanity, enabling us to recognize one another as reflections of ourselves. Through storytelling, we can immerse ourselves in the collective tapestry of human experiences, identities, and emotions, awakening us to new possibilities for shaping our lives and societies, and creating a shared space to reconcile with our past and reframe our conversations. The lesson I started to learn was the mechanisms and methodologies by which stories play a crucial role in healing toward shared futures.

A little over a decade later, Joyce organized another event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the coup — and to celebrate the work of Joan Garcés and Baltasar Garzón, two Spanish justices who who applied universal jurisdiction to move to arrest Pinochet, and Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia, the Chilean judge who investigated and prosecuted Pinochet. She created an event that was again an act of healing, celebration, and community. With ten years of seasoned storytelling practice under my belt, David from Riptide asked me to write a reflection about CHTF and the role of storytelling in atrocity. We called the piece “Storytelling, Memory, and Justice: 40 Years Later.” Sitting here ten years from that piece, fifty years after the coup, over two decades from our 9/11, this sentence stands out to me:

To tell or listen to a story creates a bond of recognition between teller and listener: “I too have seen this. I too have suffered. I know you had a name, a way of dressing, a favorite food, a naughty secret, or a man or woman you loved and held. As do I. “ When we can empathize, we can act more justly to shape the policies that affect individual lives.

Every time I remember 9/11, even though I only lived directly through one of them, the two anniversaries are paired in my mind. It gives me an opportunity to realize, on a very personal level, that one of them led to my initial lesson in storytelling, setting me on a mission that has guided my life, and the other spurred me into action. I’ve returned to this idea in many forms, exploring memory, lived experience, accountability, justice, and the construction of a better world through story. Ultimately, at the foundations of all the strategy and structure, I think about the people who were lost because of each event and its aftermath, each person who had a name, a way of dressing, a favorite food, a naughty secret, and a person they loved and held. What world could we build together?

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Lina Srivastava

Founder of Center for Transformational Change https://transformationalchange.co. Using narrative to cultivate community power towards just futures.