Torture, Real Torture


As I wrote early on, I work for an international human rights organization. The main thing we do is treat survivors of torture. That is, people who were tortured by their own governments for protesting government corruption, or union organizing, belonging to a certain ethnic group or religion, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m not a clinician. I do research and I write a lot of grant proposals. I hope my blog posts don’t sound like grant proposals.

We work in about a dozen countries and also with survivors in Minnesota, but the local rehabilitation takes place in a clinic separate from my office. So I rarely have face-to-face interaction with torture survivors. However, I review a lot of reports and find myself crying out in my heart, “Those poor people!” as I read about mass rapes used as a weapon to control populations and what goes on in the unbelievably-named Insein Prison in Burma.

Last week we had an event at which three survivors told their stories. I helped with rehearsing the program so I heard each story two or three times.

There was the man who had almost been burned alive, the young woman who, as a child, had witnessed her mother and father being beaten and dragged away to prison by police in the middle of the night, and the man who was blind in one eye from being beaten by the police in jail after distributing pro-democracy leaflets.

The one I can’t get out of my head…I won’t describe the details but it involved meat hooks. And this is not an HBO series—it’s happening to real people all over the world, right now.

And so I always catch myself from saying things like, “Sitting through that meeting was torture!”

You may be wondering, “Why would anyone work for such a place!? Answer: I’ve been fascinated with everything international, and have felt a calling to help make the world a better place, for as long as I can remember. I’m no saint or hero. I find human rights issues intellectually challenging so I get a satisfying career out of it. I am paid relatively well to read, research, think, and write about torture and other human rights violations all day long. And sometimes they send me to exotic places.

You could say I should feel reassured that the US government doesn’t torture prisoners. Oh wait, it does! Because solitary confinement, water boarding, stress positions, and other things we do are considered torture and/or inhumane under international law. Well, our gov doesn’t torture low-level drug offenders like Vince. That’s true, that’s good. I can’t imagine being the parent of a political prisoner in Cameroon or Syria or Russia.

One upside of working directly with torture survivors is that the therapists see the whole person and they see him or her recover. People are not just torture survivors. They want to get their studies or careers back on track. They make jokes, have hobbies, go to church, and they need to have fun and have friends like everyone else.

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