IN December 1976, Carlos Contreras went out into the streets of Santiago to buy bread and was never seen again.

Maria Anderson-Contreras was just three years old when her father disappeared under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in 1973.

Business consultant Maria, who now lives in Hove, was born in the city of Concepcion in central Chile and has few memories of her father, who was an opponent of the Pinochet government.

The 46-year-old said: “I only saw him a handful of times.

The Argus: Carlos Contreras at the age of 29, before he disappearedCarlos Contreras at the age of 29, before he disappeared

“My mother tells me that despite the danger to his own life, he would come to my kindergarten just to see me playing from afar. It’s heartbreaking.”

As the councillor of the municipality of Concepción between 1971 and 1973, Carlos was a prime target for Pinochet’s fierce regime, which persecuted tens of thousands of people – including those who had supported the Popular Unity government of former president and socialist Salvador Allende.

Maria said: “I remember being a child in Chile and seeing the poverty. It was shocking and I will never forget those faces.

“My father came from a wealthy family who were self-made but he felt very strongly for people who did not have anything. He was a great orator and he used to speak in the squares to people about justice and equality.

“The left wing president Salvador Allende got into power democratically and he was all for the people.

The Argus: Carlos as a young manCarlos as a young man

“Things started to improve as people were able to get work and they were no longer starving to death. But the rich in Chile found this to be very threatening.”

On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in Chile’s capital city and seized power. There is evidence to suggest the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US President Richard Nixon supported the coup and helped to consolidate Pinochet's regime. 

Maria said: “Overnight, it was all over.

“Anyone who was a communist or supporter of Allende disappeared.

“But what that really means is they were tortured and killed.”

Exactly how many people were “disappeared” by the Pinochet dictatorship between 1973 and 1990 is unknown as bodies are still yet to be discovered and at least 1,000 are still listed as missing.

After Maria’s father disappeared, her mother, also called Maria, risked her own life to take a stand against Pinochet’s government.

The Argus: Maria, right, with her brother Pablo as children in ChileMaria, right, with her brother Pablo as children in Chile

Maria said: “She did a lot of campaigning in Chile which was very high risk. She went on a national hunger strike, which was the most ridiculously dangerous thing to do, especially as she had two young children.”

Maria’s mother eventually decided to flee Chile and was able to move to England in 1979, thanks to her husband’s mathematical skills.

Maria said: “My dad was a genius in maths and before he went missing he had a place to study at Cambridge University. My mother wrote to Margaret Thatcher’s government to ask if we could still come to England and they said yes.

“I was only six and the sound of the English language was very strange to me but I remember feeling safe for the first time in my life.”

After marking the International Day of the Disappeared last Sunday, Maria decided to delve deeper into her past.

The Argus: The street named after Maria's father in Concepcion in central ChileThe street named after Maria's father in Concepcion in central Chile

She said: “My whole life I never felt safe talking about what happened because in Chile if anyone said anything they would be killed.

“But I’ve had to go on my own healing journey and I recently discovered this documentary about Chile with a young Jonathan Dimbleby.

“When I braved to watch it, I cried a silent scream because at four minutes in they interview a group of women and the last woman was my own mother. I saw this infinite grief in her eyes.”

The Argus: Maria Anderson-ContrerasMaria Anderson-Contreras

Maria’s father Carlos has been honoured in Concepcion and even has a street named after him, but almost 44 years on, his family still has no answers.

Maria said: “It is one thing to have a family member die and to grieve and have a funeral.

“It’s quite another to be left hanging for a lifetime.”