Karsten Mathiasen
februar 24, 2024

Translation: Mette Winkel.

I have sometimes been asked: "How do you forgive the unforgivable?" I can't give a theoretical answer; I can only answer through stories. One of the best examples is the story of Gonzalo Vargas'. I first met Gonzalo, when we invited him to a meeting in the Faxe peace-group, around Christmas 2007. It was the beginning of a warm friendship between our families. I have since spoken with Gonzalo many times to get to the heart of his story.

During the reign of the Allende government, Gonzalo taught the illiterate peasants of Chile literacy skills, so they could learn about their new rights. But after the coup against Allende's government (supported by the US) Gonzalo was arrested; allegedly he was a dangerous socialist ideologist.

Gonzalo was blindfolded and taken away by car.  In the darkness, he heard a voice he knew very well, namely that of his friend and secretary, Martin, who told him: "Just confess and nothing will happen to you!" He then knew it must have been his friend who'd been the cause of the arrest. Gonzalo had nothing to confess and he was gruesomely tortured. During breaks in  the torture he could hear the screams of the other prisoners being tortured. His sister was also tortured in the most bestial way. Children were tortured in front of the eyes of their parents.

Later Gonzalo was put in a KZ- termination camp in Patagonia, the Fire country, at the very tip of Chile, where the climate is incredibly fierce. He was told:"You will never leave this place alive". In the camp he managed to survive largely by keeping up his spirits by helping the other prisoners.            He was held without any legal procedures for over 2 years.

During the torture, Gonzalo had his first experience of being able to forgive the torturers. This came through a near death experience.

While the men where torturing him, he had an out-of-body experience where he found himself floating through a tunnel. It was an experience of total freedom and happiness in another dimension. But the torturers were still in their prison.

In his ecstatic state, what was happening to his body lost significance. The pain ceased, though the torture continued.

Gonzalo prayed to God: “Will you receive me?”

He received the insight that it is the system, which makes the perpetrators carry out these evil deeds and he realized that there was also good in these men. With this insight he was able to combat the evil through drawing on the  good.

“When I died, I woke up!” “Through this suffering I have gained more insight into human nature, than I could’ve gained through a whole lifetime of studying at a university. After this, it was easier to tolerate the incarceration. Through suffering I’ve gained a clear vision of what my priorities in life should be!”

Time after time I have come back to Gonzalo to hear his story again, and to try to understand the miracle that happened: “How was it with the first part of your forgiveness process?” I ask “During the torture you experienced floating above your body and in this situation you first forgave the men who tortured you. When you came back to your body, did you feel the pain from the torture anymore?”

“Theoretically the spirit of forgiveness has all the time been a part of my humanistic philosophy of life, but it grew stronger and more alive during my imprisonment in the camp. Through the pain I suffered at the hands of my fellow human beings, I gained a deep insight into  human nature. I was able to gain a better understanding of how my torturers thought. The moment I forgave my perpetrators, the pain subsided. It didn't hurt anymore.

In reality, forgiveness has to do with salvation, mentally you try to save the people who are hurting you - they are people too!! They are what they are, because they’ve been trained by a system that does not respect  human rights!” After this near death and forgiveness experience, Gonzalo was no longer tortured. He was released a couple of months later during an Amnesty international campaign, on the condition he remained in the town of Ponta Arenas, capital of the Fire country (Patagonia). Though the city was much more comfortable than the camp, it remained a prison and he longed for his home in Santiago, 4000 km. away.

“One day during my stay, I ran into Martin, my former friend and secretary.  I asked him without fear how my case looked, and he answered that all I had to do was wait and everything would be solved. Nothing more was said, it looked like an act of compassion on his behalf. He must have helped me gain unconditional freedom for shortly after, I received the “Salvo Conducto”, the document which would allow me to travel to Santiago. Once back home, I still felt watched and unsafe and through collaboration between Red Cross, Amnesty International and the UN I was able to escape Chile.” 

Gonzalo came to Denmark in 1975 as a political refugee. And although it was much better being a fugitive in Denmark in the 70’ies than it is now, it was still a tough experience. Gonzalo says: “It was like being punished again, like pulling a big tree out of the ground in order to replant it somewhere else. There was a feeling of profound loss, loss of identity, loss of nationality, loss of family, language, culture and traditions.”

After four years solitude in Denmark the charming Chilean met the love of his life, Else, “and that took a considerable amount of loss out of the punishment!” he laughs. Else’s father had been a Danish officer during the 2nd World-war and had been imprisoned for a year by the Germans in a KZ-camp. She had experienced the great psychological trauma her father suffered after the war, because he never spoke about what he had been through. This experience made it possible for her to help Gonzalo. She told him to tell his story. She invited him to tell his story to her class, which was a great success. Over time, he told his story to other school-classes, and he soon became a popular lecturer and ambassador for Amnesty International. Gonzalo also writes poetry about his hardship as a political prisoner and he has published a book of poetry - which is not for sensitive souls.[1]

From the book “Refugees and powerlessness”

Little friend

You, my little friend

I saw you yesterday

When the sun was shining red

Your loud awful screams

Shook the air

You begged for help

No one could help you my friend

Everyone was as helpless as you

You screamed for help

The soldiers dragged you like an animal

Your screams of terror

Slowly went with you

I have to follow your helplessness

Into a big black room

Gruesome torture

I felt dead

For your screams cut through my heart

You, my little friend

Never saw life again

You were so innocent

Yet you had to die.

This evil experience is burned into my mind

Because you screamed for help

And no one helped you

I’ll never forget

I’ll never forget

The day

When they took me naked

Into the chamber of torture

They laid me on an iron-table

They wired me everywhere









They sent, I don’t know

How many volts through

My body

I wanted to scream, scream

My unbearable pain away

But my screams never came

My mouth was full of blood

I had bit my lip

I was numbed

By the cold paralyses

The electroshocks caused

I’ll never, never forget

In all my life

But after several years in Denmark, he was still tormented by his terrible nightmares. He was still a prisoner. The nightly torment only stopped, when during a sleepless night he decided to fully forgive his perpetrators and the friend who had betrayed him. He decided to forgive them with all his heart, and only then did the nightmares fully leave him. The torture and all the cruel deeds they’d done no longer had any power over him. Only then could he fully leave the prison and the memories of torture.

All this makes Gonzalo’s story an archetypical story of forgiveness. It confirms the quote: “Not to forgive is a decision to keep suffering”

Several times I’ve asked Gonzalo what it is like to work with forgiveness. The first experience of forgiveness of the torturers waned in the shock of arriving in Denmark, a cultural shock. In a way the forgiveness had been hibernating since the torture stopped and which he had to awaken again to definitively stop the nightmares.

17 years after the torture, Gonzalo went back to Chile, where he bumped into his old friend, Martin. When Gonzalo greeted him he looked frightened, as if he thought Gonzalo was seeking revenge. When Gonzalo saw how scared he looked, he told him: “My friend, you have been forgiven. Don’t be afraid of me, I see now that you were a victim, just like myself. We’re both victims of a cruel regime, the system is wrong and must be fought, but we need to fight it without violence, hatred or evil deeds”

Gonzalo pulled the hesitant man into a nearby cafe, put his arm around his shoulder and once again told him: ”Te he perdonado” - “you are forgiven”, after which the man broke down in tears, speechless, just crying. He was obviously full of shame and scared. “I felt pity for him. He couldn’t look me in the eye. I put my arm around his shoulder to show him compassion. I felt no hatred towards this poor man, who was so full of fear!”

I ask Gonzalo: “I’m wondering if you’ve forgiven the US for supporting the dictatorship of Pinochet?” Gonzalo answers: “Forgiveness has to do with human beings, with what happens between two people. I forgive human beings. Forgiveness is an act of the heart and the mind. I’m still critical towards the dealings of the US in the third world!”

Gonzalo also tells me that he suggested that the Chilean authorities should establish some rehabilitation centres for ex-torturers, to ease their way back into a normal life. Nothing came of this, because during the democratisation process after Pinochet, these people where promised anonymity. They were afraid of being recognized. But it remains a fact that they need as much help dealing with what happened during the regime, as the people who were tortured do!”

The Chileans chose the same political strategy as Mandela in South Africa, which has helped the country get back on its feet after 17 years under a brutal military regime. Thanks to this policy the country has been able to rise from the ashes without revenge and with faith in the future. The only big difference to South Africa has been that there hasn’t been the big forgiveness process through truth and reconciliation committees. And the Chileans have chosen to let the torturers stay anonymous, to avoid revenge. Even so,  Chile remains today one of the best countries in Latin America!

Imagine how lucky Gonzalo was to escape the destiny of more than 3000 other victims of the regime. He has so much to give and so do a lot of other refugees. We just have to open up and receive the gifts!

Hundreds of students have through the years had the pleasure of experiencing Gonzalo’s teaching in Spanish and Italian. He is a much beloved teacher.Thousands of people have benefited from Gonzalo’s work as a storyteller and lecturer. Thousands of people have been inspired by his humanistic view of life. A lot of people have been inspired to act! Imagine what we would have missed if Gonzalo hadn’t been helped out of Chile. Let’s hear the stories of the refugees. Their situation in Denmark has become so much more difficult since 2001, than when Gonzalo first came in 1975!

Gonzalo Vargas & Karsten Mathiasen. “We are apostles of forgiveness” Gonzalo says.

Gonzalo & Jonathan. All young people listen when Gonzalo tells a story!

Not everybody has been happy about Gonzalo’s humanistic agitation. Up until the 80’ies he was a very active writer for the Danish papers. Unfortunately he had to stop writing, out of concern for his family, due to threats from, amongst others, neo-Nazis.  Gonzalo is far from the only one this has happened to! Such a situation poses a  problem in relation to what we mean by freedom of the press! It is a bit of a paradox to have escaped the dictatorship in Chile only to find himself dictated by a minute minority in Denmark! Hopefully he’ll succeed in getting a book published which will thoroughly tell the story of Gonzalo’s unique fight for a more humane society!On Amnesty International’s homepage you can read the following:

John Olsen 63 has since 2003 been active in the local association in Svendborg. This year he became a member of the local association council and is active in the project group, which co-operate with interested people in local associations right now to make a demonstration project about “efficient activism in local associations”.  On the question, why are you active in Amnesty? He answers: “I decided to make the jump from being a paying member to becoming an active one in 2003. I had just been travelling in South America; on coming home I had a chance to hear Gonzalo Vargas tell about his time of horror during his incarceration in Patagonia. And of how he got released with the help of Amnesty international. Later my engagement in the organization slowly grew. Today being active in Amnesty is part of my identity!”

Curriculum Vitae of Gonzalo Vargas:

Born 1941


1965, Licendiado in theology (master’s degree)

1969, Master’s in Philosophy

1970, was employed by the Allende government

1973-1989, the dictatorship of Pinochet

1973-1975 Gonzalo was in the prisoners’ camp

1975 came to Denmark

1979, married to Elsa, they have a son

2003, Elsa dies of sclerosis, Gonzalo nursed her at home

1989, publishes the book of poetry: “Invandrere og afmagt”

1992, Gonzalo visits Chile for the first time, since he fled the dictatorship, 17 years previously. He meets the man who betrayed him, and Gonzalo tells him, he’s forgiven.

Some of Gonzalo’s story can be read in Spanish on this webpage: www.dawson2000.com

To contact Gonzalo Vargas: gonza_1941@hotmail.com


Gonzalo´s thoughts on the three stages of forgiveness

The process of forgiveness is triangular, consisting of 3 stages:

1)    pre-forgiveness,

2)    conscious forgiveness,

3)    post-forgiveness

The three stages work together. Each individual is different, so there’s no given recipe for forgiveness. In the spirit of forgiveness there are always two parties involved. It’s important to know that all individuals are a product of various factors and that our personality is shaped in conjunction with the surroundings, which results in the formation of a particular identity.

Stage 1: Pre-forgiveness

Mental reflection over the action, the person, the situation, the inner/outer world, etc.

At this stage the victim often experiences an intense sense of alienation from self, which is the result of the assaults one has been subjected to. The victim feels extreme alienation from himself and his surroundings. He often experiences a feeling of disintegration of his personality and self esteem. Certain feelings arise that contradict each other. This stage is characterized by a very diffuse mental condition, which is why it is important to confront it, to get out of the ‘vale of estrangement’.  And this is done through the power of thought, because you are what you think.

There’s a battle between good and evil. This battle is within yourself, in your inner universe. The tool needed is understanding: you need to gain insight into human nature. During this stage, it is necessary to achieve an understanding of the relationship between the individual and society because it relates to positions and structures of power.

Understanding makes it possible to understand what your antagonist understands. Through reflection you become aware that it is necessary to forgive in order to move on. You analyse your situation. At this stage, it can play a crucial role that  you’ve heard stories of forgiveness.  Having a religious or ideological background which includes the idea of forgiveness can also be significant.

The stage, which I call pre-forgiveness, can be very hard to go through because it involves going back to the assault and re-living the pain again and again. Many victims don’t manage this and give up. The consequence is that they end up living an abnormal life in a normal society. But it is essential to go thought this stage and if you are not able to do it by yourself, you must get help from others!

It’s a sad fact that a lot of victims don’t receive the help they need in time. The spirit of our times can be hard and displays a somewhat uncaring attitude towards people whom have been tortured or abused. The biggest obstacle with regards to coming to a mutual understanding are the preconceived ideas the two parties have of each other. You have to ask yourself a number of questions, such as, which mechanisms play a role, how is the antagonist shaped by his environment, culture, upbringing or religious or political indoctrination. Is the antagonist driven by a sexual urge? What are the antagonists unmet needs? Who or what is to blame for or is responsible for his actions? What kind of a system is able to turn normal people into torturers? The individual always has a free will. Why do people feel this almost joyful narcotic-like rush when in positions of power?

And how to explain the strange interdependent relationship that evolves between the antagonist and the protagonist, where both feel a need for the other in order to survive/live? Really it’s about two poor souls who need to find each other on the road of suffering, because in the long run they both need to move on and release themselves from the chains of the past. 1

This is the most important stage in the process of forgiveness!

It is all about using our intellect to combat the instinctive urge for revenge. Forgiveness needs to be based on reason and not be an impulsive romantic feeling, because that can lead to a false sense of forgiveness. In the spirit of forgiveness you must use both your heart and your reason.

Stage 2: Conscious forgiveness

This is the fruit of forgiveness, which means you are now able to achieve conscious forgiveness. You are now ready to forgive your antagonist and you do it consciously, because you’ve gone through a long process of reflection and have come to the conclusion that you both have been victims of an unjust system, where evil could thrive! Since both antagonist and protagonist have been alienated, it’s of the essence that the process involves both parties! I also find it’s very important to be able to communicate forgiveness directly to the antagonist, to dare confront him personally and try and deliver the good message: “You are forgiven!” It is important to have a living, face-to-face dialogue between parties. The act of forgiveness is often followed by spontaneous healing.1) Alternatively, you might experience a healing process starting, for instance, towards the end of a long period of recurrent nightmares. There are many accounts of this. Indeed, scientific work ought to be done on the subject, which really is an expression of man’s ability to heal himself! It’s an expression of the fact that man is born good. We’re driven biologically  to heal through love, not hate! Through forgiveness and dialog one can reach the antagonist, and through him, to the wider society. 2

Stage 3: Post-forgiveness

The third stage is the last and it continues for the rest of your life. You have to keep updating your forgiveness and renewing it. This is an ongoing, permanent process. At this stage it is very important to communicate a message of forgiveness to other people, to try and prevent atrocities happening in other places, and this is what I do when I go out to give talks to people. It is important to know that there is a latent antagonist in all of us. And that it is possible to fight evil without violence, without hatred, without revenge, but with understanding and forgiveness. The aftermath of the assault you are in the process of forgiving can last a long time and it is important to keep working on forgiveness! 3

Only forgiveness can save our society. The alternative is a state of permanent violence, revenge and hatred, which doesn’t solve any problems. If the vicious circle is not broken, generation after generation must suffer under the heritage of violence, revenge and hatred.

About  the author

       and Think Thank for Forgiveness

Dear friends. I’m very happy to tell this:

There is a worldwide movement for reconciliation and forgiveness.

A movement that doesn’t receive much attention from the media, but nonetheless a very strong and on going movement.

In 2004 when I founded my Think Tank for Forgiveness I knew very little about this, and I still only know a little. There are so many peace groups working in the world, At the WEB you find thousands of sites about forgiveness and peacemaking.

It is impossible for one person to get a complete overview.

In Denmark we have a “conspiracy” among storytellers. We are an informal cooperation, which wants to find stories that lead the way to forgiveness.  Vigga Bro, who is a famous Danish actor and storyteller, formulated a slogan this way:  Lets tell the stories, that put their little sticks in the wheel of hate and revenge

Desmond Tutu said: “There is no future without forgiveness”. And it is well known, that forgiveness is the greatest healer on Earth.

The most well known process of reconciliation and forgiveness is South Africa.

Christian B.N. Gade from the advisory board of Think Thank for Forgiveness, is a PhD student at the University of Aarhus. He is working on a conflict resolution project about the philosophical underpinning of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In his work Christian gets many examples of UBUNTU in practice, case stories. Web:  http://person.au.dk/da/filcbng@hum

Christian and I are joining forces to find some typical stories told in Africa to teach the kids the UBUNTU spirit.  Those stories may not explicit be told for this purpose, but are enriching the youngster's possibility of developing humanity. We want to find a lot of stories, that communicate and promote the philosophy of UBUNTU.  I think all of you have some stories to share that creates UBUNTU in our hearts. I’m looking forward to hearing some of those stories.

If you want to send a story to me, my mail is cirkus@bella-donna.dk

Our website is in Danish, but take a look at the links, which are mostly in English. www.tilgivelse.dk

Love, Karsten

[1]               ”Indvandrere og afmagt” Gonzalo Vargas. Rostas forlag

1      Gerald Jampolsky: Forgiveness. Beyond Words Publishing, Inc. Hillsboro, Oregon 1999. K.M.

2      As expressed in the African UBUNTU philosophy, I believe Gonzalo is UBUNTO. K.M.

3     As Lilly says in the beautiful movie “The Secret Life of Bees”: “Sometimes I wake up during    the night and I have to forgive again!” K.M.

Enter your text here...

Tilgivelse.dk redigeres af Karsten Mathiasen

Jeg er født i 1952 og er livet igennem blevet rørt af historier om tilgivelse. Derfor var det naturligt at tage emnet op i historiefortællingens univers. Ellers fortæller jeg også gerne gavtyvehistorier og alt muligt. Mit hovederhverv er, at jeg er teltudlejer og klovn og direktør i Cirkus Bella Donna

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}