A Lonely Vigil
To the north, another event took place, infinitely more modest in scale. The throb of West African drums and Andean pipes filled the little park at Dupont Circle; while chess-players hunched over their boards, oblivious, passers-by caught snatches of poetry, song, and personal testimonials that jarred with the sunny beauty of the day. Those who took a closer look noticed a low dais crowded with votive candles, each bearing the name of a country. One hundred and fifty candles in all, commemorating the victims of those nations that currently practice torture.
For the seventh year in a row, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) held a vigil in commemoration of the United Nations International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors. For a continuous 24 hours, starting at seven o'clock Saturday morning, human rights activists and torture survivors from every continent meditated, marched, danced, sang, and shared their stories of suffering and healing. Some spoke through interpreters; some spoke for others: friends, colleagues, sons, daughters and spouses who had not survived. With one voice, they called for an end to torture.
By any measure, it was a powerful event. In light of current investigations into the torture and death of Iraqi detainees at the hands of US military personnel, as well as similar incidents at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan, it could hardly have been more germane. High interest on the part of the media was to be expected. In readiness, TASSC had secured a prime space at the National Press Club for its press conference, issued an eloquent "Torture Survivors' Statement" addressing the situation at Abu Ghraib, and prepared a press-kit featuring the testimonials of survivors, many of whom were present and ready to talk with reporters.
"No one showed up." Disbelief strains the soft voice of Dr. Orlando Tizon, TASSC's Assistant Director. A survivor of detention and torture under the Marcos regime, Dr. Tizon helps foster the "Communities of Healing" that are central to TASSC's work and which now flourish throughout the U.S. and overseas. "There were survivors who were prepared, everything but no response."
Later, over the course of the day, a few foreign TV crews stopped by, as well as a member of Spanish press. The US media stayed away-unless one counts the appearance of a lone journalist from the Voice of America.
The June 26th vigil was the culmination of a week-long series of gatherings and advocacy activities involving TASSC members from all around the world. A key event was the appearance, mid-week, of several TASSC members before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Not a single member of Congress, however, attended the hearing-with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, who made a brief statement, but then left without staying to hear any of the testimonials.
Neris González of El Salvador-where death-squads operating with US support "disappeared" thousands during the 1970s and '80s-was among the TASSC members who came to testify before the caucus. Instead, she and her fellow torture survivors found themselves talking to "the secretaries of the secretaries." Says González, "It showed me that the members of Congress in this country don't have the slightest interest in knowing about or listening to the survivors of torture."
"I think everybody's scared," says Dr. Tizon. "Congresspeople are scared to touch this issue. And the press, I think, is scared. But that's not fair to the American people it's not responsible."
The pattern of silence and evasion is both frustrating and terribly familiar to TASSC's co-founder and Executive Director, Sister Dianna Ortiz. "We know that the use of the practice of torture by the United States government is nothing new," says Ortiz, an American Ursuline nun who formerly worked in Guatemala. "And we've been trying to make that public, but no one really wishes to listen to us."
Like all TASSC members, Ortiz speaks from personal experience. In 1989, while teaching in a rural Mayan community, she was abducted, tortured and raped by members of the Guatemalan security forces. When she was finally removed from her cell, it was on the orders of a North American to whom her torturers referred as their "boss." Her ordeal, and her subsequent efforts to penetrate the web of lies surrounding US involvement in the campaign of terror waged by Guatemala's military, are described in The Blindfold's Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth (Orbis Books, 2002), written with Patricia Davis.
While the official face of denial is far from new to Ortiz, she is perturbed by the media's neglect of torture survivors and their stories. In the wake of the revelations about Abu Ghraib, a number of TASSC members wrote Op Ed pieces; "We really feel that it's very important that the US public hear about torture from a survivor's perspective," she explains. But there has been scant interest in such first-hand accounts. Though Ortiz acknowledges the media's role in making the Abu Ghraib photographs public, she is dismayed by its unwillingness to go beyond the surface, to "go one step further, and try to examine and confront the reality of what torture does to people."
Equally disturbing is the occasional callousness of public response. "I've heard people say to me, you know, 'I'm tired. I'm experiencing torture fatigue,'" says Ortiz. Her expression is one of disbelief. "Meaning, that they are starting to get tired of reading all the articles, turning on the television, hearing about what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. and it's like, How dare you! Do you know what it's like for survivors to live with the memory of that experience?"
For many survivors, those memories have been starkly revived as the images from Abu Ghraib evoke flashbacks and nightmare visions of their own ordeals-many of which involved the same techniques as those depicted. Deeply distressing as well are references to what took place at Abu Ghraib as "abuse" or "mistreatment," the coining of such unconscionably glib terms as "torture light," and the Administration's attempts to variously re-define and justify torture.
What about that segment of the US public-recent polls place it at about 34%-that says it's acceptable to use torture under certain circumstances? Sister Dianna Ortiz is quietly adamant: "It's never acceptable." Adds Dr. Tizon, "They don't know what they're saying they don't understand what a person who is tortured goes through."
Helping promote this understanding has been fundamental to TASSC's mission from the start; it has now taken on a special urgency. TASSC members who are willing to talk publicly about their experiences become part of a cadre known as "Truth Speakers." As an organization, TASSC has spoken the truth again and again, and will continue to do so-even if many prefer not to listen.
Early last year, for example, TASSC issued a statement warning that "War and the threat of war lead to an increase in torture." The compelling "Torture Survivors' Statement" issued by the group this June 26th stresses that, far from being an isolated incident, Abu Ghraib represents the continuation of a long history of US intelligence agencies' use of torture. It urges the government to hold accountable the "intellectual authors" of the torture at Abu Ghraib, and to fully comply with its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention and UN Convention Against Torture. In doing so, TASSC shines a light on the stark discrepancy between word and deed that has become the trademark of this administration. Last year, President Bush issued an official statement on the occasion of the UN International Day in Support of Torture Victims-a full-page affirmation of values studded with stirring phrases: "Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right;" "Torture everywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere;" and, most resonantly, "The United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example." *
But TASSC's most crucial message goes beyond reminders of administrative doublespeak on human rights, or of the fact that there is a long series of precedents for what took place at Abu Ghraib. Sister Dianna puts it with characteristic clarity: "We're really trying to emphasize that torture is a form of terrorism."
This concept is one that neither US policy-makers, the media, nor the public are ready to confront. But among the one hundred or so torture survivors and TASSC supporters gathered on the grass at Dupont Circle, there is not the slightest doubt of its truth.
As the sun begins to sink and the shadows lengthen in the little park, a west wind rises. Gusts threaten the flames of the candles on the low dais; many of them gutter and go out. Sister Dianna hurries to light them again.
For more information, go to: tassc.org.
* When contacted about the availability of a Presidential statement on the occasion of this year's UN Day in Support of Torture Victims, the response from the Office of the Press Secretary was terse: "We didn't put out one."
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This story was published on July 06, 2004.
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