Torture | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Torture

A center for the treatment of torture victims has opened in Uptown. Business is brisk.

by

comment

The man in the photograph is Rosendo Burciaga, a 43-year-old repairman of refrigerators and washing machines. He is lying where he was dumped--on a deserted road outside Monclova, in northern Mexico. Although he appears to be dead, he was in fact still breathing.

The detail in the shot is not good; it doesn't reveal that Burciaga's head was split open, that his face was deeply cut, that ribs and an arm and both legs were fractured, and that muscle and bone were plainly visible through the wounds.

If you could see beyond the borders of the photograph, you would observe that two police vehicles have pulled up about 100 yards away. The policemen, however, have not left their seats. They watch a group of Burciaga's friends, who have also arrived on the scene. One friend has cut the ties that bound the repairman's hands and feet. Another has donated a shirt for use as a pillow. A third man has covered Burciaga's swollen genitals with a cloth, although at that point, modesty was probably the last thing on Burciaga's mind.

The photo was taken last October 15, when Rosendo Burciaga was an opposition candidate in Monclova's local elections, one of the many candidates slated by the conservative National Action Party, and there is no doubt in Burciaga's mind that the men who kidnapped him, tortured him, and left him for dead were agents of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the party that has governed Mexico since 1929. Burciaga fled his country on crutches last winter. He has taken refuge with a relative in a Chicago suburb and is now a limping and well-scarred applicant for political asylum, recuperating through the help of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Victims of Torture.

The Kovler Center, located in the old Kemper Insurance building at Lawrence and Sheridan, opened its doors in January with funding primarily from the Marjorie Kovler Fund. The center shares its quarters and some of its staff with an outpost of Travelers and Immigrants Aid, the refugee-support organization. About two dozen other centers around the world have programs for dealing specifically with survivors of torture.

No one knows how many victims of political torture have taken up residence in Chicago. Tom Dixon, supervisor of the Kovler Center, says that some studies suggest that 30 to 60 percent of all refugees to the United States have been witnesses to massacres, have been victims of torture, or have had family members killed, dismembered, or raped. Dixon says that in its first seven months, the Kovler Center has worked with eight Guatemalans, eight Vietnamese, two Assyrians, one Iranian, two Peruvians, six Salvadorans, three Chileans, one Cambodian, two Nicaraguans, two Panamanians, one Laotian, and one Mexican--Mr. Burciaga.

Dixon, 26, came to the Kovler Center with fieldwork experience. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1984, he went to Chile to work on an agrarian reform project run by the Holy Cross Fathers. "The Chilean government has a policy of relocating anyone the government views as subversive to the most isolated part of the country," Dixon said in a recent interview. "We were there. They would arrive on a bus in the middle of the night with no food, no clothing, no place to live. That's how I started getting involved, because almost to a person they had been tortured. They arrived completely shaken, completely broken. It wasn't the job we expected to do--I went there to work on farms--but there was nobody else there to do it."

The Kovler Center's resident psychologist is Dr. Antonio Martinez, 38, who also oversees the Refugee Mental Health Program of Travelers and Immigrants Aid. Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico, was chosen for the job in part because of his experience with refugees, and migrants: In order to research his master's thesis, Martinez had lived in a squatter settlement in San Juan for three years, and for his doctoral dissertation he moved into a Puerto Rican ghetto in Springfield, Massachusetts. Later, he was hired by the Du Page County health department to work with migrant workers from Mexico.

Martinez came to what would be the Kovler Center when it was still in the idea stage, and not long afterward he began a therapy group for Guatemalans. Guatemala, with less than 3 percent of the population of Latin America, has 40 percent of the region's desaparecidos; more than 40,000 Guatemalans have disappeared since 1966. "What is happening in Guatemala is much like what has happened in Cambodia," Martinez told me. "In our group of Guatemalans, no one has had less than three family members killed. One woman has had 12, including two daughters who were also raped. Her brother was found without eyes, without fingers, with the testicles cut off, and the body burned. He was identified only by his teeth. Now identification in Guatemala is getting more difficult because they are taking the teeth out of the people that they kill.

"The people we are working with are in a lot of pain, and they have the added difficulty of being here, in hiding, afraid to apply for political asylum, which is very difficult to get. We are finding a population that is terribly traumatized, traumatized to such a point that when we tried to do this group, two months went by in convincing people to come forward. They were afraid that there were agents from the Guatemalan police and military here in the United States, and that there would be repercussions for them here. This is their perception. I don't know if it is true.

"What we need to understand is that the type of torture going on in these countries is not torture in order to extract information from individuals. That is not the norm anymore, at least in Latin America and in other parts of the world. More and more governments are using torture simply as a way of maintaining control of the population."

Amnesty International has determined that about 98 nations now practice torture, about 30 of them systematically, and that thousands of people are tortured annually. The techniques employed by torturers are often medieval and seem to know no frontier or border--what is done in Africa is duplicated in Latin America, what was done in Greece during the years of the junta turns up again in Chile. In one of the most systematic studies of torture victims in recent years, doctors in Toronto examined 104 people, 99 of them Chilean, between March 1977 and March 1980, and produced a grim catalog of torture techniques. Ten victims had been suspended by their hands and feet. Others had been immobilized in small boxes and/or had needles inserted under their fingernails. Five of those examined had suffered falanga, the beating of the soles of the feet. Twelve were forced to eat excrement or had it dumped over them. Twenty had scars from cigarette burns, and six had picana--flat, round scars, one to two millimeters long, reddish brown in color, that result from application of electricity. Twelve patients had hearing loss; 10 of those had been subjected to telefono--sharp blows over the ears with cupped hands. Nine of the 13 women in the group and 3 of the men had been sexually abused.

The sexual abuse reported by the Chilean victims is common among women from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and has also been reported by female prisoners in Poland, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uganda, and recently the Ukraine. While sexual abuse of male detainees is less prevalent, it is by no means unknown; a 1985 Amnesty International report on Uganda, for example, reported that cattle-gelding instruments had been used to crush prisoners' testicles.

Those on the cutting edge of torture, however, have turned to more psychological methods. In an article in the June 5 issue of the New York Times Magazine, James LeMoyne, the Times's bureau chief in San Salvador, reported that the United States has been training Latin Americans in the new techniques. A former Honduran army officer named Florencio Caballero told LeMoyne that he had been trained in Texas for six months in 1979 and 1980 by instructors from the CIA and the U.S. Army. According to Caballero, the Americans taught methods of interrogation designed as an alternative to physical torture.

"They taught us psychological methods--to study the fears and weaknesses of a prisoner," Caballero said" "Make him stand up, don't let him sleep, keep him naked and isolated, put rats and cockroaches in his cell, give him bad food, serve him dead animals, throw cold water on him, change the temperature. . . . The Americans didn't accept physical torture."

To verify his story, Caballero told LeMoyne to track down Ines Murillo, a Honduran victim who had survived, and LeMoyne eventually found her in exile in Mexico. Murillo, who admitted that she had belonged to a Marxist guerrilla group, said that for the first 35 days of her incarceration, she'd been tortured by the usual means: she was kept naked in her cell and was starved, beaten, burned, sexually molested, and also had electric shock administered to her body and genitals. After being moved to a second prison, she was repeatedly interrogated by Caballero, and there she was treated to some of the techniques he had learned in Texas. She was forced to stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate. Her interrogators threw freezing water on her naked body every half hour for extended periods, and gave her raw dead birds and rats for dinner.

The physical and psychological techniques administered by torturers often merge. Prisoners may be given a set of specific rules and regulations that govern even the most insignificant details. (An Argentinean survivor recalled rules about smiling and about how to wear one's shoes.) Violation of the rules results in physical torture, and the rules may change by the day. The prisoners, exposed to all manner of humiliations, lose their dignity and their self-respect. In other cases, the torture becomes seemingly meaningless--it continues whether the prisoner cooperates or not. The victim learns to be completely helpless.

South African Antony van Zyl, for example, a 19-year-old free-lance photographer, was tortured in 1985 after he was caught taking photographs in an off-limits black township. He was stripped, shocked, and physically abused by security police for ten days. In an interview with a Baltimore Sun reporter last year, van Zyl, who now lives in Minnesota, told of being "released" five times during that period; each time he was allowed to travel a bit further before he was rearrested and brought back for more. On his fifth release, he almost reached his house. The sixth time he was told he was free, he cowered in his cell, refusing to leave. He had been rendered not only helpless, but hopeless as well.

Carlos Garcia, a Chilean, was forced to listen to the torture of his wife and new baby for ten days. The baby, who had been burned, emerged so traumatized that she did not recognize her mother for three months after the police had returned mother and child to their home. The torture was used not only to break Garcia, but also to terrorize his entire community by providing a public example of the consequences of opposing the government. According to Michele Ritterman, the psychologist who chronicled Garcia's story in the January 1987 edition of the magazine Networker, torture is most effective "when it turns family and community against the survivor instead of against his torturers. It is not uncommon for the spouses of tortured activists to say, 'Why have you brought this on yourself? On us? If you loved me you would put me before politics.' The parents of torture survivors have been known to collude with the state by rejecting their own children and breaking up their families: 'If you stay here, they'll come after us.'" Other families in the community often fear association with a survivor and his or her family; the community turns against the victim, not against the torturer. The victim, in turn, feels guilty for bringing misery on his family or for giving away the names of friends while being tortured.

Jean Amery, the Austrian philosopher who was tortured by the Gestapo and who later survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen once observed that "anyone who has been tortured remains tortured. . . . Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world. . . . Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again." Amery committed suicide ten years ago.

For a study of the aftereffects of torture, Danish physicians Finn Somnier and Inge Kemp Genefke examined 24 male victims from Latin America. In reporting the results of their work in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 1986, the two physicians noted that their subjects showed no shortage of symptoms, though ten years had passed since the torture had occurred.

"During interviews examiners can sense the victim's inward-turning aggression," the two Danes wrote. "To the observer it is clear that these victims are living on an unconscious alert, as if the previous danger was still present. This panic reaction can be evoked by such things as an automobile door slamming, the sound of a siren, or the sight of a soldier or policeman in uniform. Evoking experiences may be such things as a visit to a small room or [elevator] (the cell is recalled), admittance to hospital and confrontation with equipment or investigations resembling the torture situation's (blood samples, ECG, X-ray, etc.), or taking an examination (the interrogation center is recalled). The same may happen when a therapist, social worker, employer, or any authority addresses the victim in a somewhat unfriendly manner (the person is identified with the torturer).

"Sleep disturbances are frequent. One of the main reasons is a repetitive reliving of the same torture experiences during nightmares in which the subject is trying to escape but is helpless, without means of protecting himself and also without counter-aggression. . . . Many victims allege impaired memory and difficulty in concentration. . . . In spite of the victim's 'poor' memory, the experiences of torture are remembered to the smallest detail.

"Depression is another common feature. Some victims are less anxious when more depressed and vice versa. Loss of self-esteem and a feeling of guilt are often linked, and during the in-depth interviews these complaints can be traced back to certain experiences during torture. Fatigue, emotional instability, and social withdrawal may be considered as consequences of the other symptoms . . .

"Psychosomatic complaints are frequent. Chronic diffuse headache, muscular tensions, fear of having heart disease, and dyspeptic symptoms are daily experiences for most victims."

Somnier and Genefke concluded that spontaneous recovery--recovery arising naturally without external help--was unlikely.

Other researchers have found torture victims given to sudden bursts of violent anger for no apparent reason and beset with the fear that their torturers are still pursuing them. Women who have been sexually abused in torture (including the mutilation of genitalia) often suffer later from venereal disease, infertility, miscarriage, and unwanted pregnancy. Men who have been tortured with sexual abuse can suffer from impotence, a low sex drive, or an emaciation or withering of the testicles.

Families of victims often suffer secondary effects and may need as much help as the victims themselves. Some people adapt to the experience of being tortured by disassociating--psychologically withdrawing from reality in what might be compared to a trance: the victim hears and sees what is going on, but does not respond accordingly. Some victims cannot abandon that coping mechanism after their release because their memories are too painful. They have little interest in their children or spouse. Having been identified as a subversive, the victim may be unable to find work, so the family may be much poorer than it was before the parent was tortured. If the family has emigrated, particularly to the United States, the tortured parent's fears and emotional instability may be reinforced by the uncertainty of being an illegal alien; he or she is likely to be afraid that the family will be deported, and, once deported, tortured again.

Children of desaparecidos and torture victims can suffer from intense fear themselves, often stimulated by sirens, uniformed people, or the sound of car engines at night. Many have trouble sleeping, lose weight, or regress in behavior and in school performance. Some become very aggressive, suffer unexplainable aches and pains, or become extremely dependent upon their parents.

The scientific literature on torture victims offers some hope for recovery. Somnier and Genefke wrote of remarkable progress with 30 victims who were enrolled in a program of physical rehabilitation and psychotherapy; after 10 to 52 visits, further treatment seemed unnecessary, and they found only a few relapses during follow-up periods of 6 to 36 months. What will happen in the longer term, however, is not clear. Oft cited is the case of Primo Levi, the Italian chemist and internationally acclaimed writer who survived Auschwitz. Levi committed suicide 16 months ago, more than 40 years after his ordeal.

The small staff of the Kovler Center is aided by volunteers, 15 of whom are psychotherapists. Tom Dixon coordinates job assignments and also makes the initial assessment of every client who comes through the door. "Some of the people who come to us . . . need immediate medical attention. They may need clothing, food, a place to stay, a job, those kinds of things. We help them with that. The theory is that when a person comes to us, he or she has often had two traumatic experiences--torture and migration--and the whole idea behind torture is to completely break someone's personality, make them completely unable to trust humanity, to trust anybody. We try to develop trust right away, not necessarily based on therapy, but based on giving them some help, letting them know that there are people who can be trusted."

Dixon's initial interview with a client might begin with questions as basic as "Do you know where you are?" and "Do you know what city you are in?" The client's physical needs are attended to first, and it may be months before he or she is referred to a therapist. Dixon says the evaluation is aimed at determining what type of therapy would work best for the client. "Have they been in therapy before? What were the good and bad things about that? Do they have preferences for a therapist? Someone from Chile, for example, may not want a therapist from Argentina, given the historical difficulties between those two countries."

Southeast Asians present different problems. Many are unfamiliar with psychotherapy and unaccustomed to having intimate conversations with strangers. In some Southeast Asian languages, there are no words for anxiety, depression, or stress, and Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Laotians may view their torture not as a consequence of a political system gone amok, but as their karma, their destiny, the result of their behavior in a previous life. They may see a recurring headache as a purely physical complaint with no link to any of their previous experiences.

Dr. Martinez admits that he finds it much easier to treat someone from Latin America than someone from Southeast Asia. "I haven't dealt with the issue of karma before," he says. "And when you deal with someone from Southeast Asia, you have to ask, 'Are we sharing the same categories?' What does 'being helpful,' 'being supportive' mean to them?

"We know some Vietnamese women who have escaped on a boat with 200 to 300 other people, maybe with 10 to 15 family members, and from that group maybe two or three survive. We have people who have seen their children die in their hands without being able to do anything about it. Then you have the situation of the Thai pirates raping the women and killing the men. We hear about 40, 50 men raping one woman, or two or three women. Then the survivors go through a lengthy process of refugee status, waiting five, six, seven years to come to the United States. So you have people who are very traumatized.

"A lot of these women have psychosomatic complaints. They would never tell you, 'I was raped by 40 or 50 men, I was left there to die.' They will tell you, 'I have this stomachache,' That is something very typical of a lot of victims of torture. They have been so victimized that they feel there is something wrong with themselves, that they cannot be like any other human anymore. They feel that they did something wrong."

Martinez and Dixon say that Cambodians here may be even more traumatized than the Vietnamese. "If we wanted to, in a month's time we could have 200 clients," Dixon says. "All we'd have to do would be to go to the Cambodian community. There is not a Cambodian here who hasn't gone through incredible experiences of torture and posttraumatic stress." Dixon says the center has not tried to reach Cambodians because it hasn't had the resources to handle the massive caseload such an effort would produce. Initial efforts to reach that community are planned for late summer.

Working in this setting is not for the weak of heart. Martinez, who has 15 years of experience as a therapist, admits that after working with one woman from Guatemala, he had trouble sleeping. "I felt very close to this person, seeing her crying so much and suffering so much eight years after leaving her country. It made me feel very vulnerable. It made me feel that it could happen to me also, that I am not as secure as I think I am. That is the disturbing side of the work--to know that we are so fragile, and that human beings under extreme conditions can do such extreme things and have absolute destructive power over another person. We are very aware that some of us will have difficulty dealing with some of these issues, and we have a case management group, where we can talk about it so we can get support from colleagues.

"But while it is very difficult to have these cases, at the same time it is very easy. When you are dealing with people who have been so victimized, who have so many needs, and whose needs are so evident, it is very difficult not to be dedicated. It is very difficult not to feel that you have to do as much as you can to help them reconstruct their world, to help them understand that there is a place for them in humanity. A basic part of the therapy is joining with the person, saying, 'I am here with you, sharing your pain, and we can walk side by side and take you through all these dark moments, but you have to do it, we have to work today.' And that is very easy to do with a victim of torture because you really develop a lot of sympathy.

"And it certainly makes me and the staff here a little wiser. When you see all this suffering, you tend to put in context your own problems. My neuroses are just that--neuroses. I should be able to handle them with all of my opportunities."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

Add a comment