Today, June 26, is what the UN recognizes as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, or even a couple of months, you’ll have noticed that we write a lot on torture, political violence, and human rights violations in Latin America. The region has certainly seen its share of these atrocities.
The UN’s website says, “Torture seeks to annihilate the victim’s personality and denies the inherent dignity of the human being.” This reminds me of a similar phrase I read in a 1990 publication of the mental health team for one of Chile’s most well-known human rights groups, the Corporation for the Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEPU): “All torture is psychological torture.” This simple phrase, while to some people may seem self-evident, broke down the dichotomy between physical torture and psychological torture and maintained that long after the physicial pain of torture has left the body, the psychological wounds remain. We see this throughout Latin America as individuals and societies try to make sense of the violent past, even as state violence and discrimination against marginalized groups persist. Yet we can also see glimpses of hope and healing as well.
This past week, I conducted interviews with former political prisoners of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. These men and women had been tortured, held for over a year in prison, and one woman gave birth in prison and kept her daughter with her until her release a year and a half later. It was obvious that each of them had come to terms with the experience of violence in different ways and to varying degrees, and the memory of it–mainly the psychological aspects–still haunts them. Yet they are determined not to remain “victims.” They do not deny that terrible things happened to them, and they do not wish to forget completely. In fact, they told me their stories so more people could learn about that part of Chile’s past. They just don’t want the dictatorship to have the power to keep them in an intransigent state of suffering.
So while we think of “victims of torture,” we should not pity them the way we pity a helpless animal, because that is the last thing these former militants, at least, would want (and I am speaking in the context of Latin America). We should, instead, realize how strong they are as they manage their own memories in everyday life. And we shouldn’t forget that the tortured have been given the immense responsibility of speaking for the executed and disappeared, who, for a long time, were held up as the greatest martyrs while survivors of torture shouldered the burden of marginalization, exile, and memory.
In short, the victims of torture are much, much more than victims.