Category Archives: Torture

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

Some Cold Truths

When I mention I’ve been to Colombia, I get two reactions.

One: “Cool!  That’s the hot new destination!”

Two: “Isn’t there a drug war there?”

Number one is true, while number two used to be true.  As usual, I had intended to brush up on my destination’s history but never did it justice.  I read an article here and there about the peace process and upcoming elections.  A former coworker had just moved to Bogota, where her husband is teaching at one of the universities on a Fulbright Fellowship.  She was sending me photos and updates, including that her husband had been tear gassed twice.

Tear gassed. Her take on it was that Colombians, despite no longer living under a state of war for the first time in decades, still have plenty to protest.  Below is a cut and paste directly from Wikipedia.

“The Colombian conflict began in the mid-1960s and is a low-intensity asymmetric war between Colombian governments, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and far-left guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), fighting each other to increase their influence in Colombian territory. Two of the most important international actors that have contributed to the Colombian conflict are multinational companies and the United States.

“It is historically rooted in the conflict known as La Violencia, which was triggered by the 1948 assassination of populist political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and in the aftermath of United States-backed strong anti-communist repression in rural Colombia in the 1960s that led liberal and communist militants to re-organize into FARC.

“The reasons for fighting vary from group to group. The FARC and other guerrilla movements claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia to protect them from government violence and to provide social justice through communism. The Colombian government claims to be fighting for order and stability, and seeking to protect the rights and interests of its citizens. The paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements. Both guerrilla and paramilitary groups have been accused of engaging in drug trafficking and terrorism. All of the parties engaged in the conflict have been criticized for numerous human rights violations.

According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters) and more than five million civilians were forced from their homes between, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons. Seventeen percent of the population has been a direct victim of the war. 2.3 million children have been displaced from their homes, and 45,000 children killed, according to national figures cited by Unicef.”

The drug “lords” have been portrayed in recent Netflix series like Drug Lords and Narcos.  I intend to watch to see if they are glorified, and what mention is made of the US demand for cocaine which drove their business.

Michael recounted how his grandmother, as a child, had hidden in a trunk while her parents were murdered by some faction or other in the war.  He teared up.  He described in detail an incident in which he clearly felt his life, and the lives of his fellow activists, were in danger.  Again, he got emotional and wiped away tears.

 

“You’re traumatized,” I exclaimed, and gave him a gentle hug.  “You’ve got to get help and take care of yourself.  Traumatized people do risky things.”

 

“You’re different from most tourists,” he said.  “You’ve heard about the war and you know about the disappearances.”

I told him I work for a torture rehabilitation center and gave him my card.  Lynn mentioned she works for Oxfam, but he had never heard of it, despite it being one of the largest NGOs in the world.

This was when Lynn and I decided to friend him on Facebook.  He is surely being monitored by adversaries, and if they see he’s got XX “friends” in other countries it could be protective.  I don’t know.  I felt powerless.

Next was a memorial to Jorge Gaitán, believed to have been assassinated by the CIA in broad daylight on a crowded street.

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Poetry in Motion

Two days after the party, Michael and Gwen left for Rye on the train and Lynn flew down to Oxford for a day.

I made a last push to get my two proposals submitted, hit a road block, then turned my attention to the attic project.  I would leave in a little over a week and I hadn’t even started painting yet.

“I want your approval to recycle and throw some things out,” I said to Richard.  “I can’t paint if I can’t reach the walls.  Since Lynn is gone ….”

He was all for it, so we began carrying bags and boxes of old magazines and books and empty plastic bags and broken coat hangers and the posters from the wind turbine campaign down to the bins.

There were multiples of some books, including a collection of stories and poems by refugees. I seemed to remember that Christina, their Congolese foster daughter, had contributed to some such book.  They went into the recycling bin.

Richard carried down a dozen suitcases and valises and garment bags and overnight bags and added them to a pile for the charity shop.  Who uses garment bags anymore?  Well, maybe for storage.  Maybe someone would buy these garment bags at the charity shop and use them to store stuff in their attic.

I was painting in the attic the following afternoon when I heard Lynn come home.  I worried that she would inspect what we had tossed, but didn’t hear any protesting downstairs.

I came down a little while later to find the poetry books on a bench outside the kitchen. My stomach turned.  Richard exited the kitchen, head down, and headed upstairs without making eye contact.

Lynn was in the kitchen, chopping something with a large knife.  She didn’t look up when I entered.

“The…uh…uh…books,” I stammered.

Lynn set down the knife and looked at me.  “I’m not angry….” She started.  She was disappointed, which felt much worse.  “Chrissie contributed a poem to that collection.  It was part of her program of adjustment.”

I, of all people, should have known better.  I, who work for an organization that helps asylum seekers recover from trauma .

“I…I assumed she kept a copy,” I said lamely.

“Yes, well we don’t know that,” Lynn said.  “She’s moved from to Belgium with two children and who knows what she was able to take with her.”

“You’re right, you’re right.  I am really sorry.  I feel like an idiot—I guess I was focused on my goal and in my zeal to Get it Done I just didn’t think.”

I carried the books back up to the attic and stayed there, painting, until dinner.  The three of us were a bit quiet that evening, but by the next day things felt okay.

“I won’t be removing anything more from the attic,” I murmured to Richard when I caught him alone in the hall. He nodded in agreement.

It was a warm, sunny day so Richard set lawn chairs out in the garden after lunch and the three of us read and drank wine.

Richard fell asleep first.

“This is unbelievable,” Lynn remarked, “There’s an article here about an 18-year-old girl who has 27 million followers on Twitter, and if she says something about a product, they are suddenly swamped with orders!”

I was working my way through the latest issue of Private Eye, which is like Mad Magazine only strictly for adults and with British humor and inside jokes that I often don’t get.

“Ugh,” I responded lethargically.  “I’ve been writing blog posts of—what I consider good-quality writing for years, and I only have a couple hundred followers.”

“You should write about fashion,” Lynn suggested.

“Right.  Have you seen what I’m wearing?”  I had been rotating the same four outfits for three months.

“You could try to get her to Tweet something about your organization.  You’d get millions in donations overnight.”

“I doubt torture is her thing.”

But Lynn was asleep, and soon I was too, plus a dog or two.  It had been a busy week and guilt is exhausting.

Little Dramas, Big Traumas

After my action-packed day at the farmers market, Huntly Castle, and Bogairdy, there were days of routine, which was fine with me.

I needed to start looking for a place to live when I returned to the states in a month.  I had closed on the sale of my condo while I was in Eton, with my realtor standing in for me to sign all the papers.  I started to surf rentals on Craig’s List, and the perfect one popped up right away.  This never happens—I have always had to look at 25 places before I find the right one; I have always had to apply for 50 jobs in order to land a decent one; I won’t even mention dating here—the point is, I’ve always had to really hustle to get what I wanted. When I sent the owner of the perfect duplex an email she responded to say she had 10 people coming to look at it the next day so I should probably keep looking.  Darn.

It was weird to not have a mortgage or rent payment for a couple months.  I tried to give Lynn some cash for my keep but she fended me off, so I found other ways to contribute.

I was working on proposals to the British Department for International Development, or DfID, and another donor with an acronym everyone stumbled over—ELHRA.  During these intense proposal development times, the emails fly fast and furious.  I can easily receive 200 emails a day unless I hop on Skype (either chat or video/phone) to just talk through an issue.

I often had Skype calls in the late afternoon, and that was when the Internet slowed down.  Lynn and Richard’s theory was that, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, Internet was like an old-fashioned telephone party line. The kids came home from school and started streaking on Snapchat, the adults came home from work and logged on to Facebook, and everyone grumbled about how slow the connection was.

More than once, my Skype call would droop and I would walk through the house with my laptop yelling, “Can you hear me?” until I reached the library, where the router was.  Why being close to the router should help, I don’t know.  Richard would look up, startled, and abandon his desk to me, bless him.

“I was just shopping for flasks anyway.”  Richard collects antique flasks—pewter, leather, copper—they’re beautiful.

“You don’t need any more flasks!” Lynn would ring in.

It was around this time that I did problem solved with a donor, and this has possibly come back to my benefit.  It was someone at the US State Department; we had already been approved for a grant but she was having trouble opening one of our documents.  It’s a boring story but we went back and forth for an hour or so; I tried sending it via my Gmail account, I tried converting it to a different format, etc. until she discovered it was a glitch on their end.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I submitted a proposal to this same donor in the US Government online system, which is the most stressful part of the whole process.  That may sound silly, but if you do the slightest thing wrong they can disqualify you.  There can be technical problems with the online portal so we always allow two days before the actual deadline to upload everything.

I hit “Submit,” did a victory lap to the kitchen for some Girl Scout cookies, then logged off and left to take a much-anticipated day off.

I woke at 3am.  “Did I upload a pdf?!  Is that allowed?!”

This morning I checked and indeed, they require a word document, not a pdf.  I had pdf’d it out of habit.  My contact at State said it would be okay since I was letting her know ahead of the deadline.  I don’t think it was a quid pro quo; she’s just a reasonable, nice person.

This is my glamorous life in international development.  I have to keep in mind that, if we are funded, a thousand torture survivors will get help healing from their trauma.

A Fish Tale

I joined Lynn and Possum and their friend Andrew for a long dinner at the Italian restaurant.  Andrew was a former Oxfamer, now a finance consultant.  He was preparing to walk along the south coast of England to raise money for Oxfam, and we ribbed him about the impending stormy weather.

He laughed back at us, Ha, ha, I’m going to Italy for a week after the walk.”

When you work for an international organization, you meet such interesting people.  People who love to travel, people with good hearts, people with good stories.

The organization I work for supports survivors of torture and war trauma to rebuild their lives through counseling, physical therapy, and social work services.

You might think torture is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  Governments all over the world employ it to scare their populations into submission.  My own government has tortured people it suspects of being terrorists.  My organization estimates that about 1.3 million of the refugees in the US were tortured in their home country.  And there are likely tens of millions more in other countries.

One way for us to reach more people is to work with other organizations, and that’s why I had come to Oxford—to meet with some people about possibly partnering with Oxfam.  Oxfam is an international organization that started in Oxford, and the largest branch, Oxford Great Britain, is there.  OGB dwarfs my organization.  It had income of $565 million last year, compared our income of about $15 million.  Was there some way we could go in with OGB on funding applications, doing a small part of a big project?  It could make their proposals more competitive to add our specialized services, and we could reach more survivors.

That’s the theory, anyway.  It takes a long time to bring these partnerships to fruition, if they ever do.

I had meetings the next day in three different locations.  When I asked the driver of the #8 bus to Headington where I should get off, he gave me a rude and incorrect answer.  I ended up walking about eight blocks in the warm rain.

I still arrived early, so I did reconnaissance for how I would catch my next bus, and then looked at ads in an estate agent’s window.

This one is pure Oxford:

Yes, the house comes with a giant fish sculpture.  What’s so excellent and British is that there is no reference to it in the ad.   Entrance hall?  Check.  Three bedrooms, check.  Living room, yes.  Garden?  Yes.  Giant fish? Huh, what fish? Pay no attention to that fish plunging through the roof.

I found the coffee shop and had a lovely talk with a woman who worked for OGB for 17 years and is now a fundraising consultant.  Her two young children played quietly while we talked NGO-speak.

“Which sector are you under?” she asked. “Health, GBV, protection?”

“Usually health but with PRM we’ve been protection and also with this DFiD NOFO we’re responding to, and we’re thinking GBV for Iraq with OFDA.”

“That makes perfect sense,” she nodded.

It was nice to talk to someone who spoke the same code as I do.

I next boarded the #10 bus, which wound along Windmill Road, which turned into The Slade, then Holloway Road, then Between Towns Road.  I alighted at The Original Swan pub, from where I would walk to OGB.  I had walked this route every day when I lived here, but today—when I was running a little late—I got lost.

OGB is in a business park where all the buildings look alike and are arranged in a circle so you can go around and not realize you’ve gone around.

It’s a nice office park, as such places go.  There are fountains and trees.  But there are no signs or directories, or I missed them.  I was so sure I would remember the route, but I didn’t.  After my disastrous meeting in London I had invested in some big-girl professional work clothes and now they were damp with sweat as I huffed along.  I tried to ask directions from three passersby and they looked at me like I was insane and scurried off.