New Internationalist 327 September 2000
THIS MONTH'S THEME
'Life is a mirage, you know. You are walking to reach the water, but it keeps flowing back and back. You begin to count the minutes and seconds, waiting to see what will happen.'
In the light of the life experienced by the speaker of those words, they appear somehow less desolate. They could almost be consolation.
Babek, were he not flesh and blood, might be a mirage too. He is careful not to use his name when I introduce myself and, in the story he recounts, all the names of his family members are similarly suppressed. I have no telephone number for him, no e-mail address and I promise to destroy the tapes of our interview. When we finish and he leaves, there is a sense that we will never see each other again. He has come to treasure anonymity.
But there is other evidence that he is real - quite apart from the fact that he has been vouched for by the London-based torture-survivors charity the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. It's in his bolt-upright bearing and control, as if all hell would break loose if he let that slip. And it's in the tears that track silently down his face as he continues to speak as calmly as he can. And it's in his apologies for his tears.
'I used to be a teacher of literature in Iran. The reason why I was arrested was because I was trying to stop children going to war and dying for nothing. I was also like other people trying to talk about our rights and asking the government to deliver on its promises. So that's why I became suddenly, overnight, a communist. They have to find a label to stick on you.' It was 1980 and Khomeini's reign of terror was taking hold. The dreaded Revolutionary Guard were becoming a law unto themselves and, with the advent of war with Iraq, people found themselves imprisoned and awaiting execution for the vaguest of charges, sentenced in secret without access to defence lawyers or a jury. Khomeini believed 'criminals should not be tried; they should be killed'. In the first four years of the war half a million Iranians left the country, a further two million became refugees, 10,000 were executed in wave after wave of terror (though Babek insists the true figure was closer to 40,000), thousands died in the Kurdish rebellion and nearly 100,000 were killed in the war with Iraq.1
Babek knew it was only a matter of time before they came for him. It first happened at three in the morning. He had taken a sedative to help him sleep and suddenly the door was kicked open, breaking it to pieces. 'There were these four Revolutionary Guards in my room. They just pushed me and said: "We are going to search the house." And when I said: "You have no right to search my house; where is your warrant?", one of them pulled a gun and said, "This is our warrant; don't talk too much."' He was kicked in the stomach and dragged to jail without being allowed to dress. He was released a few weeks later. 'That time it wasn't very difficult because they weren't a very established regime, so there was a fear that they might lose their control of the people.' By the time of his last arrest things were very different. Babek had already seen one of his brothers destroyed both body and soul after 48 hours of continuous torture. He died of his injuries.
The Guards came for Babek at a relative's house, saying: 'We just want to talk with him for a minute, then we will bring him back.' 'They dragged me out, blindfolded me, put a hood on my head, tied my hands and put me into a van. The Revolutionary Guards were insulting and kicking me, saying: "You fell into the trap like a mouse."' They drove to another city where he was herded into a yard with other prisoners. When the hood and blindfold came off, he saw that his 14-year-old brother had also been picked up. They were immediately separated and Babek was taken for questioning.
A gun's barrel pointed at his head, he was commanded to remain stock still. The slightest movement and one of the guards suggested chopping off a finger. They found his salary in his pocket and accused him of receiving money from a communist organization to fight against religion and the regime. When Babek tried telling them it was his salary he was put into a narrow, low-ceilinged room that had formerly been a toilet. 'There was dirt on the floor and blood stains on the wall. Later on I was told a prisoner who had been shouting anti-regime slogans had been shot in the head there.
'For five days they didn't open the door for me or give me any food or drink. My stomach felt like it was bleeding. I was bursting to go to the toilet. There was a cup, a milk cup with the name of a city on it. That's when I knew where I was. I urinated in it.' On the fifth day when a guard finally opened the door, he was made to drink it.
He was then taken to a place they called 'the basement', a word which has forever been sullied in his mind. 'They tied my hands and feet and I was on the floor. They attacked me. I was thinking, "Oh God, they are going to do the same thing to my brother. He cannot survive, I cannot survive." I thought they would kill me.'
He regained consciousness to find a guard leaning over him giving him water. 'He said, "Drink it, my son." And I remember the words I said: "I'm not your son, I'm just a prisoner." He said, "Drink it. Don't let them torture you. Tell them the truth." I said, "What truth? There's no truth. The truth is I am just a teacher and I haven't done anything, I haven't taken arms against the regime, I haven't killed anybody. I'm a human being. If that's a crime, you have to kill the entire country, kill everybody."'
Perhaps without realizing it, Babek had voiced the essential truth about torture. Whatever the stated aims might be (such as the extraction of information or punishment), the real reason it is used is to murder the spirit, to subjugate, to show who's boss. Babek was shown many executions and the bodies of the executed during his incarceration and told he would end up like them. Executions were also carried out in public places, the victims sometimes trussed to the arches of bridges, warnings as ancient as Calvary. The terror repeats itself today in the hacked-off limbs of men, women and children in Sierra Leone, the rapes of Kurds in Turkey which their loved ones are often forced to witness, the branding of criminals or ethnic minorities in Iraq or Kosovo, the shattered knees of teenagers in Northern Ireland. (Jane Caple writes of the intimidation of ordinary Tibetans on 'thought reform' of this issue.) It is a modern tragedy that no continent is free of torture today and regimes of all political persuasions have used it - in fact it's on the rise.
Torture is sometimes justified as a means of getting vital information during wartime, but in reality the torturers are likely to hear only what they want to hear. In Babek's case, he was called to write down answers to a list of questions. The torturers, suffering from delusions of omniscience that often plague the power-crazed, decided what was truth and what a lie and demanded alternate answers. Eventually, 'one of them said: "Take him downstairs and kill him. Empty 20 bullets into his headstrong communist head." I was back in the basement and they asked me if I wanted to write something to my family. So I said I wanted to write to my mother. I wrote: "Sorry I haven't been a good son and gave you a lot of pain." And I gave her my love. I was blindfolded and my hands and legs were tied together. Then they started firing, they were shouting: "God is great".' Babek listened to the shots ringing out, thinking his life would end at any minute.
In the interview room he asks me to stop the tape for a minute. It is now nearly 20 years since the event, but he feels he is in a time machine, reliving the experience. 'It is always fresh. You cannot say that it stops, it doesn't matter if one is tortured physically or mentally. The physical pain you suffer for a while and it disappears, but the mental scar in your mind and in your heart - it doesn't leave.' Babek remembers watching programmes about Jewish Holocaust survivors before he had experienced torture himself and wondering why these elderly people couldn't just forget about something that had happened so long ago. Now he knows why.
But his and their continuing horror says something about why victims of torture often don't rush to tell the world or even their nearest and dearest about what has happened to them. Accepting what has happened to them takes time. They have to learn to manage 'a constellation of psychological consequences'2, prominent among them being survivor guilt, shame, anxiety, suspicion and fear of authority. (Gill Hinshelwood writes in 'A day in the life of survival' of the long road from victimization to survival.) Sometimes the boundary between the mental and the physical gets broken, as when prolonged beatings so damage the nervous system that it keeps sending messages of pain to the brain even when there is no physical stimulus.
There is another rupture as well - of family and relationships. Babek's own family is left behind in Iran, out of touch. His mother is a shadow of her former self; his father, a once-proud man who never bowed his head to anybody, aged almost overnight when catastrophe befell his sons - he died four months after Babek's flight from the country. For other survivors, their experiences have echoed down the generations, bequeathing dysfunction to their children. Survivors of sexual torture have witnessed relationships wither away.
The rupture goes further still - into communities that get divided into victims, perpetrators and bystanders.2 The web of torture spirals outwards from the torturers and their victims to the staff that work in their prisons, the people who dispose of bodies, the medical staff who either have to treat 'torture cases' or are actually accomplices; to the wider community including members of the fourth estate who know what is happening but don't or can't speak out, to the PR advisors who spin the political angles and the politicians who sanction the torture or do business with torture regimes, to the trainers of torturers and traders of equipment (see Michael Crowley's article on one aspect of the trade), to... Eventually this web reaches you and me, in the form of media reports and survivor's stories. The choice then is, do I turn the page or switch the channel because it doesn't really concern me, or do I break the silence?
For silence is the intended goal of the torturers. Even though they need to get the message across to the communities they terrorize, they are aware of the evil they do and don't really want it observed by an audience other than the one intended. (Tom Morris examines the denial syndrome that afflicts modern torturers in 'Disguise and deny' and John Conroy looks at the kind of people they are in 'Up for it'.)
First, we must recognize torture for what it is. The definition adopted by the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment includes severe physical or mental pain or suffering inflicted with the consent of people acting in an official capacity in order to obtain information or confessions, to punish or intimidate. Torture doesn't just affect prisoners of conscience and human-rights defenders, it also targets criminals, members of discriminated-against ethnic groups, lesbians and gays, the socially disadvantaged and those unfortunates who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The rape of women in wartime and extreme persecution that makes life unbearable are also being recognized as instances of torture. The torturers can also be private individuals who believe the people they assault are worthless or deserving of such treatment. Legal sanction doesn't alter the fact - for years Israeli law has permitted the use of 'pressure' during interrogation (though there have been some changes for the better recently) and death row in the US is, as one writer put it, 'a torture chamber in which no-one has to lift a finger to hurt the inmates.'3 (For Harold Pinter's indictment of the US penal system click here.)
In order to act against torture we must be ready to bear witness to it, no matter how insignificant we may consider our contribution to be. When an organization like Amnesty International launches letter-writing campaigns they rely on thousands of people acting as individuals to ensure that the torturers know that they are being watched. And though not every fight they take up ends in success, there are people all around the world today who owe their freedom to this work. Sometimes just knowing that people are voicing their support can help detainees. Babek remembers the way his captors kept him and twelve others boxed-in in a cell designed for three, leaving them unable to think beyond the four walls that bore messages from prisoners who had died before them. He believes knowing someone from the outside world was thinking about them would have made all the difference.
Next month Amnesty International begins a year-long campaign against torture. Alongside action on individual cases they will be stepping up their lobbying of governments and international bodies to act on torture. Because, let's face it, when even a country like Saudi Arabia with its blatant disregard for human rights can sign up to the UN Convention against Torture, then we are living in a world where 'torture is prohibited, but not prevented'.2 Demand that your own government take torture into consideration when doing business abroad. Agitate - a handful of priests, nuns and students succeeded in stopping the US Army-run School of the Americas that had provided military training for Latin American officials who went on to unleash terror. Their campaign goes on to stop a clone of the School to which US Congress has given the go-ahead.
Support the work of human-rights defenders, who often face great danger themselves, and organizations working for the treatment and rehabilitation of survivors. Deplore the horrendous treatment of asylum seekers by the rich world with its 'detention centres'. Australia, which in April forcibly sent back hundreds of ethnic Albanian refugees to Kosovo in a manner described by local media as 'torture', declared a week later it's receptivity to offering refuge to white farmers fleeing violence in Zimbabwe.
Impunity is the burning issue for survivors and their families (David Ransom's report on one such struggle for justice appears in 'Sins of permission'). When regimes topple, torturers often negotiate the amnesty they so patently failed to grant their victims. But both internationally and nationally the law has a duty to try torturers, if only to prevent the violence coming full circle when those they have brutalized take matters in their own hands. The message from a country like Argentina - whose human-rights record still leaves much to be desired but where successful prosecutions against members of the former military government have occurred - is that though the odds are usually stacked against change, demands that it occur are still essential.
Babek knows that the situation in Iran still prevents justice being served against the men who ripped apart his family. He has come to view justice differently. 'I managed to achieve what I wanted, studying, having a job, marrying and having a family of my own and also thinking positively. My torturers took so much away from me, but I managed to take the smile away from them. They lost, they missed me.
'I will be the messenger for the lost blood. I am going to talk about it. I will never let people forget - what happened and what is still happening. People have to be reminded all the time.'
1 Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (IB Tauris, London, 1985).
This article is from
the September 2000 issue
of New Internationalist.
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