I Too Was Tortured

Hector Mondragon of Colombia, 6/17/2004

Sojourners Magazine

Wednesday 09 June 2004

It was hard to see the photos of the torture in Iraq because I too was tortured. I saw myself naked with my feet fastened together and my hands tied behind my back. I saw my own head covered with a cloth bag. I remembered my feelings - the humiliation, pain....

Twenty-three years later at Colby College a sociology professor whose office was adjacent to mine and who is a member of School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) gave me a list of the Colombian army officials who graduated from the School of the Americas. What a surprise - there was the name of the official who had ordered my torture. SOAW has also distributed the "textbooks" from this school, in which torture techniques are taught to Latin American military officials. I have always refused to hate the people who tortured me. I know that they, too, have been wounded by the system of power that converted them into torturers. Learning of the SOA confirmed that for me.

Torturers are not "a few bad apples" who just need to be thrown away or have the rotten piece cut off. They are human beings who have been converted into instruments of the system of economic exploitation and oppression. None of them came to be this way on their own.

Condemning a few of them to jail might be "fair," but it is not going to stop the nightmare. For example, it's known that there are similarities between the treatment of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib and Israeli methods used against Palestinian detainees. There is a master. And there are methods. These are not isolated events.

Torturers are trained to generate the interior defeat of a person. When the moment came when the instinct of self-preservation wanted to die, the Nazi torturers in the Holocaust camp placed a knotted rope that could not be untied beside their victim. The desperate victim tried in vain to use it to end his or her life and escape the interminable pain. Failure to do so only intensified the tortured person's desperation and depression.

A letter from an Iraqi woman, Nur, jailed in Abu Ghraib, circulated one month before the photos. Its authenticity was denied. But I can say that the feelings expressed are authentic: "Before I say goodbye, honorable readers, if you have weapons, kill us all, this is all I ask, for the love of God." The greatest thing she asked of those who love her was that they help her to find death in those moments.

I remembered, as if it were today, the feelings I experienced during my torture 27 years ago in the Nueva Granada Battalion in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. I searched the floor with my knees and buttock for a piece of metal, even something small. Anything with a blade. This is how I spent the moments of rest from the torturers, dreaming of finding this piece of metal. While I didn't find any, I did discover my humanity in analyzing what I would do if I found it, given that I no longer had feeling nor movement in my arms or hands.

The master from 1977 is the same as that of the 2004 tortures, but I think that there is something worse now: porno-torture. In these tortures, women and men don't just torture, but they take pornographic pictures and exhibit their sadism. Troops have used sexual abuse throughout history. Stripping prisoners is an old tactic of torturers from the 20th century - the Nazis, the French in Algeria and Vietnam, and the Latin American military officials trained in the School of the Americas. Porno-torture is the technological innovation of the 21st century through which the dehumanization of victims and perpetrators is brought to degrading exhibition.

I feel in heartfelt communion with the terrible pain and humiliation of these tortured prisoners, but I also find this communion with the disgrace of the torturers and their human misery. I think that we all deserve redemption from this system of death and reconciliation to our dignity as human beings. The grotesque figure and soullessness of the torturers could end if the Schools of Assassins were closed and if its builders could no longer seek out the goals of money and power that would allow and require them to rebuild these schools and create these Frankensteins of modern torture with videos, CDs, and electronics.
* Hector Mondragon, an economist and advisor to campesino (farm worker) and indigenous organizations in Colombia, is a member of the Colombian Mennonite Church.

Mr. Mondragon's statement was published by Sojourners - a Christian Community and journal dedicated to world peace and social justice (http://www.sojo.net).