Surviving to tell the tale of torture
THE BURLAP BAG felt rough and scratchy against my cheek, but it also smelled earthy and deceptively comforting. Thick tape already covered my eyes, so the bag’s only purpose was to frighten me. And it worked. I knew I had entered another dimension.
A day earlier I had been a not-too-unusual 24-year-old American student from UC Santa Cruz, working with the Peronist Youth organization for social change in Azul, Argentina. For the next 16 months, I would become one of thousands of political prisoners and torture victims taken into custody as Argentina first declared martial law and then later suffered a right-wing military coup. But I was one of the lucky ones -- a survivor, thanks to family and friends in the United States who won my release on March 27, 1976.
When I returned home to California and testified about the torture, my stories horrified listeners. But we could feel safe here because torture was the province of brutal, unsophisticated despots. It was a time when the average American could not imagine our soldiers abroad participating in anything remotely similar. Now, three years into the Iraq war, we have seen the images of Abu Ghraib and read accounts of the atrocities at Baghdad’s Camp Nama.
Americans once shocked by my experience now hear officials defend torture as a necessary evil in the war against terrorism. But it is only evil.
In my secret torture chamber -- later it was confirmed to have been within the walls of the local police station -- a slight turn of my head could bring on a new barrage of insults and fists.
On one occasion, hands grabbed and pushed me up stairs. I could feel furniture and tried to use the contour of a chair, the edge of a table and sounds to get my bearings. I wanted to know exactly where I was: to the left of the table, to the right of the credenza or in front of the water fountain?
My torturers pushed me here and there. But I was determined. With my elbow, I felt the corner of a table, then a chair. Victory. They wanted me confused, but I knew my exact position. I was between the table and the chair. As long as my position was clear, some odd reasoning assured me, survival would follow.
They took me to another room. I sensed several new people. I heard men’s voices. They untied my hands and feet. They ordered me to take my clothes off. I hesitated, and they made it clear that it was not a request but a demand. Now naked except for the tape over my eyes, I felt hands sit me down on a bed and then push me back, spreading my arms and legs, tying them at each corner. If I know where I am, I can survive? The thought was less convincing.
Electric currents were applied to the most sensitive parts of my body.
All I could do was scream. The terror came after. They are going to do it again, I thought. Someone shoved a pillow over my face to muffle my screams. I panicked. To survive, I must be able to breathe and scream.
After about the third time the electric current surged, I figured out a brilliant maneuver. Right before the hands holding the pillow pushed down again, I turned my head sideways and took a breath. The timing of this took complete focus. It was a project. New reasoning kicked in: As long as I could get the timing right, I would survive.
Now, every time I read a story about U.S. forces participating in similar acts, it takes me back to that torture room.
The Argentine military had its own sick rationale for policies that would ultimately “disappear” thousands of men, women and children -- they were fighting an enemy from within. But the Argentine people had a better name for it: the “dirty war.”
As Argentina marked the 30th anniversary of the military coup last week, ex-Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, key implementer of that dirty war, was under house arrest, with thousands of people camped outside his home. The former general has been convicted for multiple cases of robbery, homicide, aggravated false arrests, torture and torture resulting in death between 1976 and 1981. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The people are demanding that he serve out that sentence.
Iraq has become our dirty war. To those who defend torture there, beware. There will be survivors, and they will tell their stories.