VILLA BAVIERA, Chile – Winfried Hempel first experienced the outside world in 1997 at age 20. Up to that point, he had lived shut away in Colonia Dignidad, an unwilling member of one of the darkest sects in human history.
Winfried grew up without a father or mother. Without parental affection, he spent his youth experiencing stomach aches, trying to handle his sadness to survive the brutal beatings and other savage punishments dealt out by the colony’s leaders.
An electric fence surrounded the 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of Colonia Dignidad in southern Chile, from which only five people ever managed to escape.
Three hundred Germans were kept imprisoned in what Chilean authorities called a “state within a state” that operated from 1961 until 2005.
“Colonia Dignidad was the incarnation of evil,” Winfried said. He was taken from his parents at birth and put into a governess’s care, and starting at age 8 he was forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
The testimony of Winfried and other victims shows a world of terror controlled by Paul Schäfer, a psychopath who for almost 50 years subjected children, teenagers and adults to punishments and mental manipulation.
Schäfer, a former Nazi medic, recruited faithful Baptists after World War Two and emigrated with them to southern Chile. In 2005, he was arrested in Argentina and convicted of sexual abuse and torture in Chile, where he died in prison five years later.
Eleven years after the sect was broken up by Chilean authorities, the victims continue to be plagued with the memories and personality problems brought about by their sojourn in Colonia Dignidad. Few have been able to resume normal lives.
After the colony was broken up, 26 leaders of the formerly armed and self-sufficient German enclave were convicted on sexual abuse charges.
From its inception, the activities of the enclave – which was equipped with a school, hospital, cemetery and airport and protected by barbed wire and armed guards – were shrouded in secrecy.