Helen Bamber: “I vowed
never to be a bystander…”
Historically, throughout much of the world, torture has been thought of as a perhaps regrettable but necessary form of interrogation and discipline. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the British Bill of Rights of 1689 – reaffirmed a century later in the U.S. Constitution – was its prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” The reality is that torture was far from unusual then, and that both countries continue to be complicit in acts of torture today, both within and outside their borders.
I’m not sure if there was such a thing as a torture treatment movement before Helen Bamber. In a 2011 piece in the Toronto Star, Heather Mallick wrote that “interviewing Helen Bamber is like interviewing the 20th century, but only the worst bits …” She goes on to describe “the fresh cookies that Bamber, 86, serves me in her comfy office in London, where she counsels people who had electrodes attached to their tongues and spines and then convulsed and screamed for death.”
The anti-torture and torture treatment movements, as we know them today, arguably began during and after World War II, in the world’s revulsion at the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps, as well as the creation of huge numbers of displaced persons, many of them survivors of torture needing resettlement and relief.
“Bamber, who is Jewish, has spent her life listening to victims, thousands of them, and coping with the aftermath of human viciousness,” Mallick wrote. “As a 20-year-old aid volunteer in post-surrender Germany in 1945, she saw camps thick with fetid scraps of corpses and near-corpses and looked into the eyes of the Germans, all the while wearing a Jewish Relief Unit badge – not an easy thing when returning Jews were still being quietly murdered.”
After her return to Britain, in addition to helping to found Amnesty International, Bamber, who trained as a psychotherapist, formed the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now known as the Freedom From Torture Foundation) and her own Helen Bamber Foundation, where she continued to offer therapy to clients almost until her death this past August. The most important thing, she was quoted as saying, was not to be one of those people who let torture happen as they watch. She swore “never to be a bystander.”
In her obituary in The London Economic, Ben Gelblum quotes holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, one of 732 children cared for by Bamber after the end of the Second World War: “We had reached the limit of our endurance. We were liberated in a state of exhaustion and emaciation…The vast majority of us survivors had lost our parents and had nobody left. It was to Helen that we turned.”
“She helped the orphans of the Holocaust rebuild their lives, Gelblum wrote. “Then later, the tortured, broken survivors of Pinochet, the Argentinian junta, African and Middle Eastern conflicts, and of a modern British approach to refugees that ‘disbelieves, destitutes and detains’ them.”
Actor Emma Thompson, Bamber’s friend and now President of the Helen Bamber Foundation, said “Entering Bergen Belsen concentration camp with the allied forces that liberated it had a profound impact on Helen Bamber…She dedicated her life to the weakest, most vulnerable in society.”
Robert E. White: “A diplomat in opposition…”
“I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally, definitely dismissed by Alexander Haig for opposing a military solution in El Salvador.” That’s Robert E. White’s own quick summary of his diplomatic career. It’s humorous and not exactly inaccurate, but doesn’t do justice to his enormous accomplishments as a “diplomat in opposition.”
As his New York Times obituary noted, Robert E. White “lived just long enough to witness his criticism of the Cuban embargo vindicated, when President Obama announced on December 17 that it would be lifted.” “For a half-century,” he had written in an earlier Times op-ed, “our policies toward our southern neighbors have alternated between intervention and neglect, inappropriate meddling and missed opportunities.”
I had the opportunity to meet White when the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund, of which I was then a board member, invited him to speak at our annual event commemorating the murders of six Jesuit Priests who were faculty members at the University of Central America, in El Salvador.
White’s career as a United States diplomat was cut short, at least in part as the result of two earlier political murders: Melvin A. Goodman writes in Counterpunch that, in early 1980, “Ambassador White informed the State Department that El Salvador’s leading right-wing politician, Roberto D’Aubuisson had ordered the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero…The CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, Robert Gates, suppressed all intelligence on the killing, part of the Agency’s effort to bury many of the truths of American policy toward Latin America in the 1980s.”
In December of that same year, Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, churchwomen working for human rights in the country, had been White’s guests at the American Embassy in San Salvador. The following day, they and two other nuns were kidnapped, and later found raped and murdered. White believed – accurately – that the Salvadoran death squads responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero had carried out these murders as well. “This time,” White was quoted as saying at their grave site, “the bastards won’t get away with it.” But the State Department refused to take action. Instead, when Reagan took office the following January, White was forced out of the Foreign Service.
“I regard it as an honor to join a small group of officers who have gone out of the service because they refused to betray their principles,” White said at the time. His suspicions of a cover-up were confirmed by declassified State Department documents, and he later testified in a suit brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability against two retired Salvadoran generals – by then living safely in Florida – who were accused of covering up the murders. (NOTE: See the CJA website for a listing of the organization’s many ongoing legal actions against the Salvadoran government and other violators of human rights. Also note The National Catholic Reporter’s moving tribute to White, in its January 21 edition.)
After leaving government, White continued to be a critic of government policy, serving as president of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. He died of cancer this past January at the age of eighty-eight.
Margaret Van Duyne: One With One
As I was finishing up this post, I happened to come across the obituary, in the Boston Globe, of Boston-area activist, Margaret Van Duyne, at 79.
As a filmmaker, I was interested – and may have felt a special kinship – when I read that she first became engaged in immigration issues through a filmmaking class, where she made a documentary, Room For All, on the problems new immigrants face in accessing services. She told the Boston Globe in a 1987 interview that the refugees she met while making the film were “thrilled to be here…but my film’s audiences were not thrilled to see them, even on film. I was unprepared for the prejudice.” A 1988 Globe editorial quoted Mrs. Van Duyne as saying many Americans believe “that because my grandparents had it tough, so should the new wave of immigrants.”
Her work is a reminder that, like Van Duyne, there is a small army of volunteers and non-profit staff workers around the country who have mobilized to supplement the pitifully inadequate support offered by our federal and state governments to survivors of torture and other immigrants. Her nonprofit, One With One, paired volunteer guides with nearly 2,000 immigrants from more than 70 countries and, according to the Globe, helped more than 500 immigrants to secure jobs. Self-sufficiency for immigrants was a central goal, and the group achieved, according to one of her associates, a 100 percent job placement rate. (NOTE: The Globe’s obituary was written by Kathleen McKenna, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)