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Parents Who Torture

2014 July 24

JaiDoctor Waterboardl Sentence for Doctor Who Waterboarded his Daughter

In mid-April, author and former pediatrician Melvin Morse was finally convicted and sentenced for waterboarding his young daughter. He will serve three years in prison, with two years of probation to follow. Morse, whose medical license had previously been suspended, repeatedly held his young daughter’s head under a faucet as punishment (though his defense counsel unsuccessfully tried to pass it off as washing her hair.) In July of 2012, neighbors had seen him grab her by the ankle and drag her home across a driveway, after she had tried to escape to a neighbor’s house. It was during the investigation that followed that his use of water torture came out.

Morse’s abuse of his daughter had apparently gone on for some time with the knowledge of her mother, who pled guilty to misdemeanor endangerment. The court is allowing her to have supervised visits with her daughter, who is in foster care.

Morse had become a best-selling author with his research and writing on “near death” and “paranormal” experiences. He has been interviewed on television by Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, as well as profiled on PBS and in Rolling Stone. His books have included reports of near death experiences by children, though he claims that he was “merely disciplining” his daughter, not experimenting on her.

I’ve also posted previously about the 2010 case oTaborf Washington state Iraq veteran Joshua Ryan Tabor, who was arrested for waterboarding his 4-year-old daughter “because she refused to recite the alphabet.” According to neighbors Tabor had “anger management issues.” Police had been called out when he was reported walking around the neighborhood wearing battle gear and threatening to break neighbors’ windows. Tabor received a two-month slap-on-the-wrist sentence.

In a more recent incident that I have so far only found reported in the New York Daily News, a couple in Belgium have repeatedly been accused of imprisoning and waterboarding their four children, beating them with iron bars, and subjecting them to a variety of other horrors over a period of several years. The story notes that teachers became alarmed at the condition of the children and their clothes and notified authorities, who placed the children in foster care — but evidently only for two months.

And Huffington Post carried a story from last year, of a Montana man who waterboarded not only his own two children (9 and 12 years old), but two neighbor kids as well. He claimed the abuse was not meant as punishment, but as “a learning experience.” Though he did spend a little over two months in custody pending trial, the man then made a deal with prosecutors for a suspended sentence on four counts – misdemeanor counts – of child endangerment. According to court documents, “His girlfriend at the time said he broke her wrist and some fingers when she tried to stop him from waterboarding his sons. She said the man straddled each boy with his hands over the child’s face and mouth, and dumped water on their faces to simulate drowning.”

So what is going on here? At one level, it’s no doubt true that there have always been some parents who abuse their children, and most of us agree that none of the explanations that have been advanced for such abuse make it in any way acceptable. What’s behind child abuse in general is a long discussion that I may revisit in future posts.

BuZD3-3t what “abuse” means has changed over time. It was not terribly long ago that “spare the rod, spoil the child” was widespread parenting gospel. Not every parent practiced it – maybe not even most – but few would have risked publically criticizing a neighbor who did, short of serious, visible injury to the child. Prosecution was rare and, as we have sadly come to realize, real damage, physical as well as psychological, was sometimes done.

ZD3-4Severe physical punishment by parents hasn’t disappeared, but it’s frowned upon and it’s less common. But the legitimization of waterboarding, by the Bush administration – not to mention its glamorization in the popular film Zero Dark Thirty – may, at least in the minds of some, have made it seem like this particular form of “discipline” is no big deal. The Bush administration did it…and defended doing it. The Obama administration doesn’t do it anymore, they say, but has announced that, though it’s perhaps regrettable that things like that occurred, no one should be prosecuted. For all practical purposes, waterboarding – and perhaps some other weapons in the arsenal of “enhanced interrogation” techniques – are still on the table for any future administration to dust off and put into practice for the next “existential conflict” that comes along.


Updates on Recent Posts

2014 May 7

ExecutionArchitects/planners call
for professionals to resist

This week’s horrifying reports on a botched execution in Oklahoma, gives new and more urgent meaning to the campaign by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (reported on here in January) which calls on members of those professions to refuse to participate in the design of “spaces intended for executions or prolonged solitary confinement.” A recent email from the group notes that their initial petition has now been endorsed by American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapters in San Francisco and Portland, as well as by a number of prominent architects. They’ve also launched another petition campaign targeting architecture professors and educators.

Taking the shackles off pregnant prisoners
An excellent recent article in the Boston Globe reported on efforts to ban the use of handcuffs or other shackles on women during delivery in Massachusetts − a national movement reported on in our previous post. Some of the comments received by the paper were, as usual, hostile and abusive, referring for example to “selfish criminals that give birth to addicted babies,” while others were supportive (“What total morons decided to have women in labor shackled? Did it ever occur to them what shackling might do to the fetus as it was placed under the same stress as the mother?”)


The Rights of Torture Survivors

2014 May 1

Video Focuses on Torture Survivors’
Right to Redress and Rehabilitation

Some of the internationally recognized rights of survivors of torture are outlined in a short video from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights,which litigates cases that seek to hold state and non-state actors accountable for violating the rights of the most vulnerable.  The program highlights some barriers to torture rehabilitation as well.

NovakThe video features former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak (at left), who discusses the rights torture survivors have under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. “Torture is one of the most serious human rights violations,” Nowak comments in the video: “Torture survivors are in need of whatever support and rehabilitation is available to overcome their experience.” Also interviewed in the video is Dr. Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, of the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims.

“Rehabilitation centers for the victims of torture often operate in an environment characterized by insecurity and violence. Their engagement with victims of torture, the provision of medical services, and particularly the documentation of torture cases make them frequent targets of those who inflicted the suffering. As a consequence, physicians, forensic experts, psychologists, administrative staff and volunteers all work under considerable personal risk and are often confronted with harassment, threats, assault or even killings.

“Furthermore, the recent global financial crisis has had a tangible impact on many centers, forcing them to cut back existing services because funding from private foundations has decreased.”

2010 report to the United Nations General Assembly
by then Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak

So what’s a rapporteur?

The word refers to someone who has been designated to investigate a particular issue and report back to a “deliberative body,” in this case, the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has been mandated to “examine, monitor, advise and publicly report” to the Council on human rights violations. Special Rapporteurs act independently of all governments. They are not members of the UN staff, and are expected to operate “impartially, honestly, and in good faith.” The current Special Rapporteur on Torture is Juan Mendez, a lawyer and human rights activist from Argentina who, early in his career, was arrested by his country’s military dictatorship and subjected to torture for 18 months.

The Special Rapporteurs do not receive any financial compensation for their work, but get staffing and logistical support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Interestingly, at one time the code of conduct for Rapporteurs did not allow them to address the media about their findings and recommendations, but this is no longer the case.


Insanity is lurking on the other side…

2014 February 27

Rock Band Bills Pentagon for Use of Music as Torture

Just a couple of hours after uploading my recent post about music as a weapon of torture, I found out that a Canadian band has actually sent a bill to the Pentagon for using their music to torture prisoners. According to Steven Hsieh, writing for The Nation:

Skinny Puppy, an industrial rock band from Vancouver, wants $666,000 in royalties for the use of their music “as an actual weapon against somebody.” Keyboardist cEvin Key says the band learned that its songs were played at Guantánamo from a former prison guard, who happens to be a fan. “I am not only against the fact they’re using our music to inflict damage on somebody else but they are doing it without anybody’s permission.”

“We heard through a reliable grapevine that our music was being used to musically stun or torture people,” Key, the group’s founder, told The Independent, “so we thought it would be a good idea to SkinnyPuppyinvoice the US government for musical services.” The journal noted that “despite the band’s aggressive sound, they said they had never envisioned their music being used in such a way.” Skinny Puppy is also said to be thinking about suing the U.S. Defense Department.

“Asked how he felt about their songs allegedly being used in the detention camp, Key replied: ‘Not too good. We never supported those types of scenarios…Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.’”

Both the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music for interrogation. In his Nation article, Hsieh cites a Der Spiegel  interview with Ruhal Ahmed, who was detained without trial at Guantánamo and says that he suffered extensive music torture there. Interrogators reportedly shackled his hands to his feet and his feet to the ground, forcing his body into a squat, while music blared for days. Describing that experience to Der Spiegel, he said, “You can’t concentrate on anything. Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You’re pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side.”

Revelations about music as torture go back almost to the beginnings of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A CIA spokesperson at the time was quoted by as saying that the music was used only for “security purposes, not for punitive purposes — and at levels far below a live rock band.” According to an AP article in Today/Music, however, the tactic has been common in the U.S. so-called war on terror, musicand used on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. “Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, ‘to create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock.’”  

Other artists who have objected in recent years to having their work appropriated by the military and CIA include groups like Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails, as well as Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf. Yes, even Sesame Street tunes have been deployed in Guantanamo interrogations by our military, not to mention that ultimate in high-tech weaponry, Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I love you, you love me,” also written by Cerf. A 2012 documentary by Al Jazeera follows Cerf “while he learns exactly how his music has been used to torture the men held in that infamous legal abyss.” See the trailer for the 52-minute documentary.

In a 2009-10 Reprieve campaign called “Zero dB,” some of these groups struck back. “Taking issue with their music reportedly being blasted at ear-bleeding levels in an attempt to break uncooperative terror suspects,” noted The Associated Press, “a diverse and growing coalition of musicians including R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg is demanding that Obama close down Guantánamo.” According to BBC News, R.E.M. announced their participation in the coalition, saying, “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of these torture tactics without their consent or knowledge is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”

…and nothing has changed.


Shackled During Childbirth

2014 February 23

What Would You Call it if Not Torture?

My email inbox today included an online petition campaign from the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is trying to get legislation out of committee to end the practice of shackling women during labor and delivery. While several jurisdictions have already outlawed this practice, in at least 30 states including NoShacklesMassachusetts, women may be – and often are – handcuffed, shackled, or otherwise restrained during childbirth. An article by Christina Costantini on the digital network, Fusion, notes that the American Medical Association has called the practice “unsafe, medically hazardous, and barbaric.”

While none of the sources I checked referred to this practice as torture, I don’t know what else you would call a procedure that causes severe psychological distress, physical pain, and emotional humiliation – and has no rational necessity.

As Pat Nolan writes on the website of the Justice Fellowship, “In the case of pregnant inmates, there is little chance of escape…women in labor are hardly capable of leaping off the bed and escaping.” She cites the video testimony of an Arkansas inmate, Shawanna Nelson, incarcerated for passing a bad check. Nelson’s attorney, Cathleen Compton, describes the scene like this: “The officer is in there the whole time, with a gun, OK? So now you have a woman who’s delivered a nearly ten-pound baby, and there’s an officer with a gun standing by…What’s the chain for? Why’d they need to chain her? I just can’t wrap my mind around that.” (See the video at the bottom of this post.)

Costantini writes that “cases involving immigrant detainees are particularly controversial, since some detainees haven’t committed any crime beyond being in the country without status, or crossing the border without authorization.” She cites the cases of two women in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County Arizona:

“Both women, who were in jail for immigration-related offenses, say that they were shackled to their hospital beds with a leg restraint before and after they gave birth, without their husbands and in the presence of a prison guard. Chacon says that she was restrained even as she gave birth.

“Mothers in some jails are permitted ongoing access to their newborns in the days and months after they’ve given birth, but both Mendiola-Martinez and Chacon say they that was not the case for them. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.”

You might be inclined to discount this story, given Maricopa County’s reputation for extreme insensitivity to human rights, but there are countless similar accounts, from all sections of the country including – as noted in the first paragraph above – liberal, progressive Massachusetts.

(Poster image from the website of the Strong Families Movement via ACLU of Massachusetts.)


Refuge Documentary Now Available

2014 February 17

REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture

The public launch of our hour-long documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, has taken longer than planned, but it is NOW AVAILABLE. Take a look at the trailer below, then visit our newly-redesigned website for more information and to order copies of the film.

Over the past several months, Refuge has been “premiered” at the UNSPOKEN Human Rights Film Festival, and featured at the national conferences of the American Public Health Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. It will be shown in May, 2014, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture, and is also scheduled for an upcoming symposium on “The New Immigration,” in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Check out two recent reviews of the documentary by Video Librarian and World Without Torture (an online publication of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.)



New Resources: January 29, 2014

2014 January 30

Music as Torture

The latest issue of Torture, the quarterly journal of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, has an unusual focus: music as a means of torture — yet sometimes also as a strategy of resistance.

“Despite the tendency to focus on music’s benign and positive role, we are confronted today with clear disclosures of its role in torture and human rights violations. Recent revelations of music’s use in the detention and interrogation centres of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ have underlined music’s potential to wound and cause suffering…Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have attracted global media attention, but by no means are they unique cases. Is it music in itself or the high volume and repetition that transform it into torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment…?”

“Can the use of music in detention be beneficial for the prisoners,” ask the edition’s editors, Anna Papaeti and M.J. Grant, in their introduction, “or is it always aligned with an intention to subdue, break, and often ridicule them?”

wall-1All but one of the articles in the journal focus on uses of music for purposes of punishment or torture. The exception, by Johann Buis, looks at the positive use of song and dance by Nelson Mandela and other prisoners in South Africa’s Robben Island prison during the apartheid period. “He suggests that music and dance formed an internal cultural grounding for the political prisoners,” write the editors, “which not only enabled their survival in prison, but was also instrumental in shaping public policy later on when Mandela chose forgiveness instead of retribution during his term as president.”

All articles in the current issue of Torture, are available free online, as are back issues from the journal’s archive. You can also sign up to receive email notices of each new issue, or to subscribe to the print edition.

While you’re on the IRCT website, check out the Testimonies Wall for first-hand stories from survivors of torture around the world.

wall-2Psychological Assessment

“Torture is widely prohibited — and widely practiced,” writes Kenneth S. Pope in his valuable article, Psychological Assessment of Torture Survivors.  “Those who conduct psychological assessments of people who have been tortured face complex challenges in reaching conclusions that are valid and useful.” The essay sets out to provide guidelines to achieving accurate assessments, that can lead to appropriate and effective treatment. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this resource before, but it has been updated somewhat, so is worth bringing to your attention again. Ken offers the article free online, but notes that it has also been published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Volume 35.

(The photos in this post are from the IRCT Testimonies wall – see above.)


Code Name: Caesar

2014 January 26

Smuggled Photos Document
Torture and Murder of 11,000 Syrians

A recently revealed trove of more than 55,000 photographs, smuggled at great risk out of Syria, documents the torture and murder of thousands of defenseless prisoners under President Bashar al-Assad. The images are particularly chilling because – like the photos documenting the  crimes of the Nazi concentration camps or of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison – they seem so coldly bureaucratic. You can almost imagine the instruction sheet:

  • Ensure that all ID numbers are in proper sequence
  • Arrange the subject with all marks of torture clearly visible
  • Take five photos from different angles (time est. 15-30 minutes)
  • Repeat 11,000 times

The location and identity of the photographer himself, currently living under the code name “Caesar,” are secret – although the Syrian president and his agents clearly know who he is. Caesar’s former responsibilities had been documenting crime scenes and accidents for the military police but, as reported by the online magazine, “when the revolution started in 2011, Caesar-1he was entrusted with a whole new task: take photographs of real or supposed opponents who had been tortured to death or executed in cold blood in the government’s prisons.”

When he could no longer stomach the assignment, the magazine reports, Caesar joined the rebellion. It took almost a year before he and his family – and the photos – could be smuggled out of the country, but the devastating pictures have now been authenticated by an internationally recognized panel of legal and forensic experts, who have also attested to Caesar’s reliability as a witness.

Often naked or covered with rags, the bodies bear traces of different types of torture: laceration, strangulation, electrocution, mutilation. On most of the chests, numbers written with a marker identify the victims. For others, it’s a piece of cardboard placed at their feet: “It’s the number that’s given to the detainees when they’re arrested and when they’re pronounced dead,” explains Emadeddin Rachid. “The numbers follow each other,” he says. “It’s assembly-line killing.”

Rachid is one of the Syrian opponents of al-Assad’s regime who were instrumental in getting the roughly 55,000 photos – as well as the photographer and his family – out of the country. “Killing its opponents is the regime’s routine,” explains Rachid. “Registering torture is nothing more than the continued pursuit of the routine.”

According to CNN, the images “paint a horrific scene. Stomachs, faces and even legs are concave – sunken, rather than convex. On some torsos, bruising and bleeding is so severe that the victim’s skin is a Caesar-2mosaic of black, red, purple and pink. Oblong and parallel wounds, a mix of bruises and torn skin, line one man’s chest and torso, covering every inch of the victim’s body from neck to pelvis.”

The British newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that the report’s publication “appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.” Any firm action resulting from the already divided and acrimonious conference, however, seems unlikely.

“The evidence could underpin a charge of crimes against humanity, without any shadow of a doubt,” said Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and one of the authors of the report. Unfortunately, as the CNN article also notes, “Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. The only way the Court could prosecute someone from Syria would be through a referral from the United Nations Security Council.” But as long as Russia — which has veto power over Security Council decisions — continues to support Assad, that’s not going to happen.


Architects Take Stand Against Torture

2014 January 20
by Ben Achtenberg

A group of architects and architecture students have called upon the American Institute of Architects to take a formal stand prohibiting “the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” AIATheir petition campaign on has succeeded in gathering almost 1,200 signatures and the campaign had begun to receive significant press coverage, including an in-depth story by CBC radio (Canada).

Participating in the design or construction of such spaces, they have stated, “is fundamentally incompatible with professional practice that respects standards of decency and human rights. AIA has the opportunity to lead our profession in upholding human rights.” In particular, the campaign is focusing on so-called “supermax” prisons and the detention of juveniles in solitary confinement.

According to the group’s statement, “In 2011, United Nations bodies determined that long-term solitary isolation is a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by international law, and made special reference to the United States use of supermax prisons and juvenile solitary confinement as violations. All international human rights bodies have also long included abolition of the death penalty as a necessary ultimate step in realizing human rights. AIA‘s code of ethics already includes the statement ‘Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,’ but this standard is unenforceable without reference to international human rights standards.”

The organization, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), has also demanded that the AIA “Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: should prohibit the design of “spaces for killing” such as execution chambers. The group’s petition campaign welcomes signers who are not architects.


Federal Shutdown and Sequestration

2013 December 21

CDCThe Impact of Budget Cuts
on Services to Survivors

Programs serving survivors of torture operate on a very frayed shoestring, and – no surprise – are seriously affected whenever their funding sources themselves face cutbacks. Here are a few examples of how recent cutbacks at the Federal level affected the San Diego organization, Survivors of Torture International, courtesy of the organization’s November, 2013, newsletter.

  • Sequestration resulted in a 3% cut in the organization’s grant from the Department of Health & Human Services. That may not sound like much, but for an organization whose budget doesn’t contain any fat, it’s significant.
  • The U.S. also cut back on its contribution to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. The Fund, in turn, had to cut back on its funding to organizations serving survivors.
  • During the government shutdown, hearings for asylum seekers were postponed for more than six months, a severe hardship for many if not most asylum seekers who had already exhausted the very limited government benefits available to them. Many had to turn to voluntary agencies such as Survivors for help.
  • Funding cuts led to more asylum seekers being released from federally-contracted detention centers – a positive step in one respect, since many were being detained unnecessarily, but one which at the same time led to increased demand for services from other agencies.

On another front, Survivors of Torture International applauds the fact that the coming Affordable Care Act will include coverage for refugees and those who have been granted asylum in the U.S., but notes that it will not include those who do not have refugee status or who are seeking, but have not yet received, asylum. (Photo from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)


Paul Aussaresses Took Pride in Use of Torture

2013 December 17

French Officer Who Refined the Use of Torture During
the Battle of Algiers Trained Chile’s Secret Police as Well

AussaressesA New York Times obituary on Sunday noted that General Paul Aussaresses “stunned France in 2000 when he asserted that he cold-bloodedly tortured and summarily executed dozens of prisoners during his country’s brutal colonial war in Algeria decades earlier died Tuesday in La Vancelle, France. He was 95.” *

What it didn’t say was that he also, in that long and evidently happy life, trained other countries’ armies in the lessons of the Battle of Algiers, including United States Army Special Forces, who applied what they’d learned in the Vietnam era Phoenix Program.  That Program was designed “to identify and ‘neutralize’ (via infiltration, capture, terrorism, torture, and assassination) the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Viet Cong.)”

It also fails to mention that he helped train the forces of Latin American dictators during the 1970s, including those of Chile. His Wikipedia entry says that “Aussaresses moved to Brazil in 1973 during the military dictatorship, where he maintained very close links with the military…”

“According to General Manuel Contreras, former head of the Chilean DINA, [secret police.] Chilean officers trained in Brazil under Aussaresses’ orders, and advised the South American juntas on counter-insurrection warfare and the use of torture that was widely used against leftist opponents to the military regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.” [Wikipedia]

In his book, Special Services: Algeria 1955-57 (English version:  Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-57), “the general wrote of beating prisoners; of attaching electrodes to their ears or testicles and gradually increasing the intensity of the electrical charge; of pouring water over their faces until they either spoke or drowned. Whether a captive talked or not, he said, he usually had him executed anyway, often doing the job himself. [New York Times]

In addition to “routine” torture in Algeria, he ordered his subordinates to fake the suicides of captured leaders, and once had one of his officers throw an Algerian lawyer from a sixth floor window.

Though the French government denied knowing of his abuses, Aussaresses claimed that the tortures and killings were a matter of policy and were well known to his superiors, both in the military and in the civilian government.

Photos of Aussaresses frequently show him with a rather dashing looking eyepatch, but his injury was not incurred in combat, of which he evidently saw little in person. It was the result of a cataract operation gone wrong.

* Other sources compared France’s “stunned” response to Captain Renault’s in the Humphrey Bogart movie, Casablanca:
…………CAPTAIN RENAULT: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
…………CROUPIER (hands Renault a pile of cash): Your winnings, sir.


The Past, Still Present in Today’s Chile

2013 December 14

Chile: Living in the Present,
Coming to Grips with the Past

On Sunday, citizens of Chile will vote in a presidential election runoff between two childhood friends, Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. The candidates’ fathers, both generals in the Chilean military, were friends and neighbors as well. Yet, when the military overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, Alberto Bachelet remained loyal to the constitutional government, while Fernando Matthei joined the plotters. Bachelet died of a heart attack after being tortured in the basement of the Air War Academy, where his old friend Matthei had been appointed Director. The two daughter’s family histories mirror the tensions and contradictions that characterize a Chile still coming to grips with its recent history.

In September of this year, my wife, Emily, and I had the opportunity to visit Chile as part of a delegation organized by School of the Americas Watch. We were there to memorialize the fortieth anniversary Chile 4756BDRof what Chilenos refer to – at least in talking to us Americans – as “our 9/11.” September 11th for the people of Chile is the anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup against the popularly elected president Salvador Allende.

The 17-year dictatorship that followed the coup claimed at least 40,000 victims – that’s the official figure of those known to have been detained, murdered, or “disappeared.” Human rights activists say that hundreds of thousands more were tortured in the years that followed the takeover. An estimated 200,000 Chileans were exiled.

According to the report of the Chilean National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, also known as the Valech Report, more than 1,100 sites “were utilized as centers of detention, torture and extermination.” They ranged from hospitals and soccer stadiums to police stations and private homes. There were more than 250 such sites in the capital, Santiago, alone. We visited several.

Victims in such sites were blindfolded, kept naked, and beaten to the point of broken bones, shocked by being tied to electrified metal-framed beds, hung in stress positions, burned with cigarettes, raped, forced to witness the torture and rape of other prisoners. At least 1,000 were simply “disappeared.”

Casa de Jose Domingo Cañas No. 1367 was part of a circuit of torture centers, in which prisoners were moved about for different levels or types of torture, by different torturers. Some had specialties; here, it was sexual violence, and interrogation of Chile 4418BDRmembers of the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left). At least 58 men and women have been identified as having been killed here, or disappeared after being tortured. We were told that, at the time, children in the neighborhood begged their parents to do something about the screams coming from the center. There was nothing they could do then, of course, but many of the present-day neighbors have volunteered to help develop a memorial on the site.

The original house was destroyed by a subsequent owner to prevent its becoming a focus of criminal investigation.  In its place is now a small but elegant modern museum and community center. The shell of the one-time swimming pool remains as well (it was used to torture prisoners with simulated drowning) along with a large, spreading palm tree. “If only it could talk,” says Carolina, the center’s director. Carolina’s own father was arrested by Air Force troops on 9/11/73, when she was 10 years old. He was killed later that month.  She says that her family became “lepers,” but her mother, who had been a professor, saw to it that they were educated nonetheless. “Life has marked me,” she says of her work at the Center. “It has obligated me.”

One of the centers that had the greatest impact on me was Casa Nido 20, in a residential neighborhood of Santiago – perhaps because it seemed so typically and quietly suburban, down to the ornamental weathervane on its chimney. Yet in this small, two or three-bedroom home, the Chilean Air Force operated a clandestine torture center for at least two years. Casa Chile 4188BDRNido 20 is now the “Casa Museo Alberto Bachelet Martinez,” named for the presidential candidate’s father. It is one of a number of torture centers that have been restored as “memory sites” by committees of citizens. Inside, they have replicated some of the mechanisms of torture, including a metal bed frame where prisoners were strapped down and shocked with electrical currents, and a tiny closet where victims were locked up, in extreme stress positions. The torturers played loud music to mask the screams of the tortured. I asked one of our guides whether people in the neighborhood were aware of what was going on inside: he said that no one will admit to having known, “but they always passed by on the other side of the street.”

Our guide at the former Tres y Cuatro Alamos Prison, Carlos, told us that he himself had once been a “guest.” Now he works with an organization that seeks to have it recognized as a national historical site. They’re also trying to locate and register the names of everyone who passed through the facility, and now have about 3,000 out of a potential 6,000 names. Converted Chile 4140BDRfrom a Catholic retreat center, the prison and torture center was run by a Carabiñero officer described as a “psychopath and misogynist famous for his cruelty.” Carlos, who was 28 years old at the time, was held incommunicado and beaten severely – suffering seven broken ribs and a dislocated kneecap. He told us that the other prisoners helped him to survive, “and now I can joke about it.” There was also a fourth unit at Tres y Cuatro Alamos, run by the DINA (secret police). Prisoners who entered that section were never seen again.

We were not allowed to take photographs inside, because part of the complex is currently in use as a prison and rehabilitation facility for young offenders. “The children say they hear things at night,” Carlos told us. He said that, to him, having a youth facility here is “like having a childcare center in Auschwitz.” Yet the center appeared to be humanely run, at least from what we could see. “Life is a great irony,” one of the youth workers told us. “This is still a place of great pain, but we are hoping to transform it.”

As we visited these and other sites, I was frequently reminded that what I was seeing and hearing about is not ancient history. The middle-aged men and women telling us what happened in their country were not describing something they learned about in school; they were talking about their own experiences, the experiences of their families. Everywhere we Chile 4008BDRtraveled we saw posters for the coming election, and were reminded again of the family histories of the two leading candidates.

One afternoon, while eating lunch at a harborside restaurant, we saw an apparition through the offshore mist: the beautiful four-masted sailing ship, Esmeralda. Today it represents Chile at “tall ship” events around the world. Few viewers know that, from 1973 to 1980, it was a floating prison, where more than a hundred prisoners were tortured – in at least one case, to death.

I felt the tension when we were walking the streets of Santiago or Valparaiso on our own. Talking to people in shops, or asking directions on the street, I wondered which of these mostly friendly people supported the actions of the dictatorship; which of them were its victims. Which of them might have turned their neighbor in to the secret police? Which of them spent time in prison, or in internal exile in Patagonia? Who prospered, and who had to flee the country, leaving friends and family behind? When we visited torture centers, tucked away in quiet middle-class neighborhoods, I wondered: what did the neighbors hear? What did they know?

Yet it also occurred to me that these are questions to which many of those who live here know the answers. They know which neighbor or friend turned their father or sister in to the DINA. They know which bank teller, shopkeeper, school teacher was a spy for the secret police. Or maybe they don’t know, and can only suspect…

With the unreconciled past still very much alive in the present, tomorrow’s turnout at the polls, and the choices that Chilenos make about their leadership for the next four years, may have a significant impact on the country’s future.



The military junta headed by Augusto Pinochet held power for 17 years, in part through the exercise of unrestrained violence, torture and murder. In this post I have focused solely on the aspects of our trip related to that reality – and to some extent on the long-term impact of torture on Chilean society. For a broader picture, please see the following posts by Emily Achtenberg, for the North American Congress on Latin America:

In Chile, Remembering 9/11: Reflections
Chile’s 40 Year Anniversary in Photos: Recovering Memories
Chile’s 40 Year Anniversary in Photos: Resistance, Past and Present


Asociación de Familiares de Ejecutados Politicos / Association of Family Members of Those Killed in Political Executions

Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos / Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared


U.S. Didn’t Always See Mandela as a Hero

2013 December 10

Changing Times or Faulty Memories?


Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. “terrorist watch list” until 2008 – five years ago – according to the Washington Post. Try to keep that in your head while you listen to the effusive praise coming out of our halls of power this week. Reporter Catlin Dewey writes, “It’s easy to forget that the U.S., in particular, hasn’t always had such a friendly relationship with Mandela.” In the 1980’s, both the Reagan administration in the U.S., and Thatcher’s in Britain, were allied with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and regarded Mandela’s African National Congress as “encouraging communism.” Both Britain and the U.S. were major trading partners with  apartheid South Africa.

For those of you who weren’t around during that period, please also keep in mind that apartheid didn’t just mean keeping people “separate but equal” — the phrase often used to justify racial segregation in the United States. It was a system of near total control and brutalization of the majority of the country’s population by its minority. For one quick “snapshot” of what that meant on the ground, take a look at contributing SATorturewriter Margaret Green’s report on the involvement of white healthcare professionals in the torture of prisoners, both blacks and their white supporters, in South African prisons.

On his blog, Dispatches from the Edge, Conn Hallinan recalls – from a west coast focus – the struggles of many in the student movement to raise consciousness about apartheid South Africa at a time when their interest was focused on Vietnam. As he says, “It is hard to get Americans to look beyond their shores unless a lot of body bags are coming home.”

Hallinan describes the long, frustrating, but ultimately successful campaign of students at the University of California in Berkeley to force the university to divest – to pull its invested endowment funds – from South Africa. It’s a struggle that was waged by students in other parts of the country as well, though it may be true, as Hallinan claims, that Berkeley was in the vanguard.

“The turning point in the fight against apartheid came in 1984, when students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley demanded that the biggest university in the world divest its billions of dollars of investments in companies that did business with South Africa…

“The students built shantytowns on campus, besieged the Board of Regents and took over historic Sproul Plaza for six weeks. The University responded in typical fashion: tear gas, arrests, expulsions and stonewalling, all of which was like trying to douse a fire with gasoline. Civil rights groups and trade unionists joined the demonstrations, along with people throughout the Bay Area…

“The pressure was just too much, even for the powerful and wealthy Board of Regents. In 1986 UC withdrew $3 billion from companies doing business with South Africa, dwarfing modest divestment decisions by universities like Harvard. [Congressman Ron] Dellums re-introduced the divestment legislation, and in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed it. It was the death knell for apartheid.”

(But, as my wife has reminded me, it was our own town, Boston, that was the first city in the United States to impose sanctions on banks and other companies that did business with the apartheid regime, and Boston was the first stop on Mandela’s triumphal visit to the U.S. in 1990, after he was finally released from prison. In the header photo above, he’s flanked by Senator Ted Kennedy and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn during that visit.)

As Hallinan notes, under growing domestic and international pressure, the U.S. did eventually legislate trade sanctions against the apartheid state but, as Mandela’s then wife Winnie said at the time, “[They] continue to condone the activities of thSArealitye South African government…It appears that their interests in this country far outweigh their so-called abhorrence of apartheid.”

In U.S. News & World Report, Steven Nelson notes that, in 1986, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are still serving today voted against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The Act demanded Mandela’s freedom and sought to impose economic sanctions against Apartheid’s minority white rule. Representatives Joe Barton of Texas, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, Howard Coble of North Carolina, and Ralph Hall of Texas, all Republicans, though Hall was a Democrat at the time, voted against the bill, which had previously passed the Senate. The legislation nonetheless passed, but was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. On the vote to override the President’s veto, Barton, Rogers, and Coble once again voted “no,” and Hall failed to cast a vote.

This week, Barton, Rogers, and Coble all praised Mandela – without any acknowledgement of their previous refusals to demand his freedom. Barton noted that “The world lost a great leader.” Rogers went a bit further, saying that “The world has lost a remarkable leader.” And Coble said that meeting Mandela “was one of the highlights of my life.” Hall had no comment.


NOTE: As I was writing this piece, friends sent me a link to Mandela’s statement from the prisoner’s dock during the Rivonia Trial, which resulted in his being sentenced to life in prison (he ultimately served for twenty-seven years). It is a remarkable document. The struggle of the African National Congress, he said in his conclusion:

“…is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

SOME OTHER SOURCES: A couple of other interesting resources I came across in writing this post are the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University — for example see here for some background information about groups involved in the Boston area divestment campaign — and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.


New Resources: December 4, 2013

2013 December 5


Meet the Somalis
From the Open Society Foundations’ project, “At Home in Europe, comes this charming but entirely down-to-earth collection of immigrant narratives in comic book form. The fourteen stories are based on somali-1interviews with Somali immigrants, over a period of six months, in seven European cities: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmo, and Oslo.

From the introduction: “Meet the Somalis includes stories of young and old, happy and troubled, comfortable and poor. Some were born and raised in Europe, are professionals, and have families whose identities united Somali and European cultures. Others, recently arrived and having left behind violence, fear, and refugee camps, are still trying to make sense of their new lives in an unfamiliar land…The people we spoke to told us about their life (or their parents’ lives) before leaving Somalia, the hardships and fears they encountered on their journey, the memories of what they left behind, their lives now in Europe, and their hopes and expectations for the future.” The book’s researcher and author is Benjamin Dix, and the artist, Lindsay Pollock.

birdoverwireTortured & Detained
Tortured & Detained: Survivor Stories of U.S. Immigration Detention is a joint publication from the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis and the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition in Washington, DC, along with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. (NOTE: Both CVT and TASSC are featured in our recently completed documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

“After a journey that may be long and treacherous, survivors of torture who arrive at the U.S. border in search of asylum often believe they have reached a destination of safety and protection,” the authors note  in this disturbing report. Yet the reality may be very different. Thousands of asylum seekers are instead arrested, shackled, and confined in dehumanizing conditions. In interviews with researchers for the two organizations, survivors recall “the utter state of confusion they feel as they are held with limited access to information about their situation and without knowledge of when – or if – they will be released. Many suffer an ongoing sense of dread at the possibility they may be returned to the country in which they experienced torture.”

NabeelaWill I Be Next?
U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan

“On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes. Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.”

“I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?” says Mamana Bibi’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Nabeela. Since the U.S. government refuses to release any information about the number or impact of its drone strikes, it’s left to groups like Amnesty International to piece together the facts about their circumstances and impact. Will I Be Next is based on research into nine of 45 reported strikes in the North Waziristan tribal agency of Pakistan. “The report highlights incidents in which men, women and children appear to have been unlawfully killed or injured. By examining these attacks in detail, Amnesty International seeks to shed light on a secretive program of surveillance and killings occurring in one of the most dangerous, neglected and inaccessible regions of the world…Based on its review of incidents over the last two years, Amnesty International is seriously concerned that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”


Documentary Premieres at Major U.S. Conferences

2013 December 2

refuge-1APHA and ISTSS Welcome
Refuge for Professional Education

Refuge had its first major presentation to the “caring professions” on November 5th, at the National Conference of the American Public Health Association. I will be forever thankful that I submitted the film for showing at APHA, since that commitment provided the deadline that kept me working on the final version at times when I felt like easing off the pressure.
…………APHA is a huge event however, with an enormous number of simultaneous workshops, and film screenings are relatively low-priority for most attendees. Refuge showed to only about 40 people, scattered around a room that could have accommodated ten times as many, and at least some of the attendees seemed to just want a dark room to take a nap in. I got kind comments from a few viewers, as well as from session organizer Gary Black and the house projectionist (who was enthusiastic about the technical quality of the camerawork and audio – comments I passed along to Refuge cameraman Bruce Petschek.) On the whole, it was not an outstandingly affirming experience. At least APHA was here in Boston, so getting there only cost me a couple of subway fares (and I get the senior rate these days.)
…………Presenting at istssthe International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies meeting in Philadelphia, on the other hand, cost me plane fare and a ridiculously expensive night in a midtown hotel – but it was well worth it. ISTSS is also a big event, but the focus of its members is more relevant to the film, and the audience there reflected that.
…………I had two additional factors working for me. First of all, Michael Hagedorn, who organizes the film screenings for this conference, had arranged for the films to be shown as “brown sspcbag lunch” events, at a time when they would not be competing with any other workshops. In addition, Psychologist Judy Eidelson whom I met when showing an early rough cut of some of the film to a conference of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and who lives in Philly, had spread the word among many of her colleagues, so the turnout this time was terrific, with the audience consisting primarily of people who themselves work with survivors. The discussion after the showing was excellent.
…………Thanks to the efforts of Brandon Kohrt, one of the film’s interviewees, the documentary will be shown next May, by the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture, in San Diego. The conference theme is “Trauma, Recovery, and Culture.” Other conference bookings would be welcome. Get in touch with me by email if you have suggestions or questions. (Images above from Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture.)


Human Rights Film Festival Features Refuge Documentary

2013 November 25

Unspoken-1Refuge Featured at
UNSPOKEN Film Festival

I hope the regular readers of this blog haven’t given up on me. The last few  months have been stressful and time-consuming, what with getting the DVDs of Refuge finalized and packaged, preparing for appearances with the film at a film festival and two major conferences, classroom appearances, and all the other things that go along with launching a documentary in the educational market. I expect to be posting much more regularly from now on, both about what’s happening with the film and – as usual – more broadly on issues related to torture and impunity. So…here’s some of what’s been happening:

YES, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture is now available for sale. Within a few weeks I hope we will have launched a new and more up-to-date version of the Refuge Media Project website, complete with shopping cart software to make purchasing easier and more convenient, but in the meantime feel free to contact me directly – and remember that checks are always welcome as well. The standard price for university and hospital purchasers will be $265, and prices for other organizations and individuals are negotiable. Organizations that provide services to survivors of torture, and are not part of a university, hospital or other major institution, can write me to request free copies.

Unspoken-2In mid-October, Refuge was featured at the UNSPOKEN Human Rights Film Festival in Utica, New York. This city of only about 60,000 has been host to more than 13,000 refugees over the past 30 years, many of them torture survivors. Oneida County, where Utica is located, has the fourth highest concentration of refugees in the United States. Preceding the festival was an excellent and well-attended two-day conference on Restoring Dignity – Healing from Trauma and Torture, with speakers including Jim Lavelle from the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, Kate Porterfield from the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, anUnspoken-3d Mark Cassini from the National Partnership for Community Training/Florida Center for Survivors of Torture. Hosting the combined conference and festival was the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, represented by its Director, Shelly Callahan. Michael Patrei is a co-founder and was the organizer of this year’s film festival.

NOTE: Refuge was featured at two important national conferences recently. We’ll have a report on those in a few days. The photo to the right is from an exhibition of artworks by young immigrants in Utica, part of the UNSPOKEN Festival and Conference.


Short Takes: October 10, 2013

2013 October 10

Denial of U.S Citizenship Based on Law That Doesn’t Exist

article314A recent Associated Press article reports that “an untold number” of people have been turned down for U.S. citizenship based on a nonexistent provision of the Mexican constitution: “For more than two decades, Sigifredo Saldana Iracheta, 49, insisted he was a US citizen, repeatedly explaining to immigration officials that he was born to an American father and a Mexican mother in a city just south of the Texas border. The federal government rejected his claims, deporting him at least four times and at one point detaining him for nearly two years as he sought permission to join his wife and three children in South Texas.
            “In rejecting Saldana’s bid for citizenship, the government sought to apply an old law that cited Article 314 of the Mexican Constitution, which supposedly dealt with legitimizing out-of-wedlock births. But there was a problem: The Mexican Constitution has no such article.”  Read more…

Post-Traumatic Stress – Not Necessarily a “Disorder”

A release from the University of Vermont describes a program of the school’s Behavior Therapy and Psychotherapy Center, directed by Karen Fondacaro. The Center has provided psychological services to more than 300 traumatized refugees from 29 countries, sixty-seven percent of them torture survivors. Fondacaro criticizes the commonly-used label, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), instead referring to “PTS.” “These are not disordered people,” she says, stressing that what is “disordered” is the experience they have been put through. “You’ve been given a story that nobody would ever ask for, and you have the right to tell whomever you want or never tell anybody.” Given control of the timing and manner of the telling, the article notes, even those survivors who were initially resistant, have ended up sharing their stories.  Read more…

MilgramFamous “Shock Machine”
Experiments Revisited

In a recent Boston Globe article, Christopher Shea looks at the 50-year impact of Stanley Milgram’s seminal experiments demonstrating the extent to which ordinary people might be willing to subject others to pain – in effect, torture – when told to do so by an authority figure. Shea, a contributing writer for the Journal of Higher Education, surveys a range of analyses and critiques over the decades, noting that one problem in confronting the question is that Milgram’s experiments – or anything like them – cannot be replicated under current standards of research ethics.  Read more…


Passings: Summer, 2013

2013 October 8

Saul Landau: “The alternative is to go shopping…”

Landau-1Filmmaker Saul Landau died recently at the age of 77. Landau never hesitated to take chances in his work – politically or personally. One of his most widely-seen films, 1979’s “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (with Hollywood cinematographer, Haskell Wexler) exposed government efforts to cover up evidence of widespread illnesses caused by above-ground nuclear testing in the western U.S. in the 1950s. Jacobs, a journalist and co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, and the centerpiece of this multiple-award-winning documentary, believed that the cancer that was killing him was caused by his exposure to the tests.
Landau-2           Landau made over 50 documentaries and published 14 books. His films included six on Fidel Castro and two on Chilean President Salvador Allende. One of his films on Allende led to his friendship with then Chilean Ambassador to the U.S., Orlando Letelier, who was later imprisoned in Chile following the right-wing coup against Allende. Landau and other supporters helped to organize Letelier’s release and a job at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 1976, however, agents of Chile’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, murdered Letelier and his IPS colleague, Ronnie Moffit with a car bomb, in Washington, D.C. Landau’s book, Assassination on Embassy Row (with John Dinges) documented the Pinochet government’s responsibility for the attack.            
            Landau’s New York Times obituary quotes him saying “You want to do what you can while you’re on this earth…The alternative is to go shopping.” 

(Note for readers in the Washington, DC, area:  the Institute for Policy Studies, where Landau was on the Board, is hosting a series of screenings of his films. Some have already been shown as of this writing, but the series continues.)

Jerry Berndt: In combat zones, metaphorical and real…  

Berndt-4If you google Jerry Berndt’s photographs, what you will find – mostly – are his well-known images of prostitutes and strippers in Boston’s “combat zone” of the late 1960s. That’s also the emphasis of the Boston Globe’s obituary, which noted that Jerry’s photos “lent permanence to people many scarcely noticed, if they saw them at all.” The newspaper’s tone was nostalgic: for a long-gone Boston the Globe was happy to say goodbye to at the time, as urban renewal “disappeared” the combat zone.

“There are photographs I really love from the Combat Zone. I couldn’t use a flash so I had to make a developer that would really push the film, get that ASA up there leaving the grain on the photograph looking the size of buckshot. I watch kids now at exhibitions walk up to them and say ‘wow, look at the size of those pixels.’ It cracks me up.” [from a 2012 interview by Sean Samuels on the "United Nations of Photography" website]

Berndt-1I guess I was feeling nostalgic too, trying – unsuccessfully – to find Jerry’s photos of student demonstrations during the same period, or of the Venceremos Brigades to harvest sugar cane in Cuba, that he and many of my other friends participated in during the same period. Those were the pictures I saw on the walls of my friends then, and still see sometimes today – but not on Google. 
            I’m not meaning to say anything negative about the Combat Zone photos. They are gorgeous, disturbing, compassionate, resonantBerndt-3 images – but they’re just one aspect of a long and varied career. Though at various periods he had to survive by taking on commercial work, Jerry went on to produce powerful photographic essays in Haiti, Armenia, Zambia (see the photo on the right) and other conflict zones around the world, and his works are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Bibliothèque National in Paris, among others. When Sean Samuels interviewed him for the 2012 article cited above, he was selecting images for a new book.
            “Jerry Berndt’s life and career have taken many unexpected turns,” Samuels wrote. “He has come a long way, and with so much to give.” In July, he was found in his Paris studio, dead from an apparent heart attack.


Video Game Goes Inside Guantanamo

2013 September 16
by Ben Achtenberg

gametanamoPlayers of Gitmo Game
Take Role of Torturer

I’m not into video games, so tend not to pay much (or any) attention to developments in that area. However, one of my recent searches for new developments in the world of torture prevention and treatment popped up a headline I couldn’t NOT check out: “Realistic game,” it said: “gets you right inside Gitmo to torture prisoners.”

According to a comment by Jesus Diaz on the gamer site Kotaku, “Tom Clancy’s new Splinter Cell: Blacklisttakes players right into Guantanamo Bay prison camp to torture an inmate – and then lets them ‘decide to spare or kill their interrogated target’.”

spareorkillReading on, in the original post/review by the site’s editor, Stephen Totilo, it appears that the game player him or herself doesn’t actually get to carry out the torture – or even decide whether it will happen – but they do get to watch the hero (presumably representing the player) do so. They also get to make the “spare or kill” decision.

I was glad to see that Totilo’s take on the game was fairly critical. I won’t go on, but check it out if you’re concerned about what your kids (or friends) may be doing on their computers late at night.


One Million Bones on the National Mall

2013 August 31

Today’s post is the third from our guest writer, Jane McPherson, LCSW, and the second on the “One Million Bones” campaign (see prior post). Jane is a doctoral candidate in social work and human rights at Florida State University, and a  social services consultant with the Torture Abolition & Survivor Support Coalition in Washington, D.C.  Jane is the principal organizer of One Million Bones Florida. She can be reached at

Tourists & Lawmakers Confronted by a
Symbolic Representation of Mass Violence 

Imagine a sea of human bones on the PrepNational Mall, seeming to spill out of the Capitol and stretch as far as the eye can see. This is the sight that greeted — and I hope haunted — visitors to Washington, DC, for three days this past June.

With my family, my students, and at least four thousand other volunteers, I was there to create this symbolic mass grave in our Nation’s Capital. Dressed in white, we gathered at dawn on Saturday, June 8th, to unpack and lay to rest over a million handmade “bones” in front of the Capitol building.  The installation was the culmination of One Million Bones, a global arts and activism initiative that challenged individuals to learn about mass violence and to demonstrate solidarity with the victims and survivors of ongoing conflict in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Syria, the Sudan, and Somalia.  (“Panographer” Jonathan Brack has posted a rather amazing panoramic view of the bones installation.)

The project emerged from the vision of Naomi Natale, its founding artist. Years before we converged on the Mall, Naomi had imagined our Capital’s lawn covered in bones, and it was this powerful image that galvanized organizers and fueled the passion of volunteers around the country and, indeed, the world. The bones, that Natale has called “the art of the uncomfortable and the inconvenient,” were made in each of our 50 United States, as well as in a number of foreign countries (including, remarkably, the Democratic Republic of Congo). Bones were made by the young and the old, by high school students and Holocaust survivors, by refugees and Rotarians. In the process, the project raised $500,000 to help survivors in conflict zones.

Jane&BonesFor the previous 20 months, my own life had been consumed by Bones. As the project organizer in Florida, I threw myself into planning events, recruiting volunteers, speaking to groups, and supervising the making, counting, and firing of over 23,000 bones.  My house became a mausoleum, and we joked that our children lived in an ossuary.

Why did we all feel so passionately about this unlikely vision?  On the simplest level, the spectacle of one million bones on the Mall was meant to be beautiful and arresting. Indeed the sight was breathtakingly beautiful, but it was painful as well. Laid out as they were on our national lawn, the bones were intended to invoke a collective sense of national responsibility. They were meant to provoke questions: To whom do these bones belong? What role does U.S. policy play in the lives and deaths of the individuals represented by these haunting symbols? As citizens and voters in the United States, what is our responsibility to victims of mass violence?  What can I do to help? We knew what we hoped for, but what did we achieve?

  • We helped survivors: Through an incredible partnership with Students Rebuild, a not-for-profit organization that enlists young people to address urgent global issues, each of  the first 500,000 bones we made generated a $1-per-bone donation to CARE International for its work with young people in conflict zones.
  • We made headlines:  The installation was covered by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, MSNBC, CNN, NBC News, PBS, the Huffington PostMother Jones, and many others.
  • We had political impact: On Monday, June 10th, our volunteers literally carried bones into the halls of Congress as they joined with the Enough Project, a nonprofit that opposes genocide and crimes against humanity, to take a stand on U.S. policy in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other zones of violence. And our voices may have been heard: After these legislative visits, President Obama named Senator Russell Feingold as the first U.S. Special Envoy for Congo; the Senate passed the Sudan Peace and Security Act by unanimous consent (the Act is now waiting on a vote in the House); and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) spoke from the floor of the House of Representatives about One Million Bones and the need for Congress to address genocide.

But what about our larger impact? What about the hearts and minds and voting behavior of the thousands of visitors who viewed the installation? Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to run these questions by Susan McAllister, the Project Manager for One Million Bones and by Myra Dahgaypaw, a survivor of mass violence who is now the Campaign Coordinator for the U.S. Campaign for Burma.Scull Myra’s personal reaction to the Bones remains etched in my heart: She lifted a skull from the multitude of bones and declared, “This is my father.”

Susan and Myra agreed that the full effect of One Million Bones will only be felt over time.  Susan said, “We don’t know how big the impact will be, with all the ripples.” For Myra, the days of the installation were an opportunity to connect with and educate visitors to DC, as well as the general public. “This is what opens people’s eyes,” she said.

Of course, all of us are hoping that the image of the bones was burned into the minds of our visitors and that a critical mass of those viewers will have gone home and become activists —reaching out and educating their families, their networks, and their politicians.  Myra believes that the experience of walking through all those bones was enough to wake people up and realize “I must do something.”  She continued, “We need a lot of voices, for the noise to be as loud as possible. The bones can amplify the message we want to send to Congress and to ordinary people.”

As of today the bones are in storage. We’re looking for a home to create a permanent exhibition, but our responsibility to the victims remains very present. The horror of mass violence continues to terrorize people throughout the world. We believe that the impact of One Million Bones is still being felt.  My students put our sense of accomplishment and concern into words last summer in a collaborative poem:

The clink of fired claybarebones-4a
How many bones will it take?
Arms, legs, ribs, fingers.

How many days will it be
Before these people find peace?

Loss, anger, pain tears.
Will they get a proper place?
Will we change the world?

We must change the world, and we cannot wait for others to do it. Quoting the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In my view, if we want that arc to be shorter, we need to get in there and bend it ourselves. The impact of One Million Bones is ongoing.  Please join this effort to stop mass violence and protect all people from these grievous human rights abuses.  To get involved, please contact the Enough Project.


Second photo above, showing the author (foreground) and others organizing the display
on the mall, is by Jennifer MacNeill. All others are courtesy of One Million Bones.