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September 24, 2009

Breaking the Silence: Torture Survivors Speak Out


This week, international human rights attorney
Terry Coonan is in Burlington for a FREE screening of his documentary film, Breaking the Silence: Torture Survivors Speak Out

Why is Breaking the Silence such a powerful piece of filmmaking? It’s never easy broaching the subject of torture, and harder still is getting people who’ve survived it themselves to talk about their personal experiences. This film, which is being shown Thursday night, September 24, at 7:30 p.m. at the Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington, includes interviews with scores of torture survivors from around the world. The screening and discussion with the filmmaker is part of a three-day training seminar currently underway for Vermont social-service providers, called  “Building NESTT: Working with Survivors of Torture.” It's a brand-new effort to coordinate social services for Vermonters who have survived torture, rape, genocide and other atrocities in war-torn nations.

Coonan, who now works as the executive director of Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, has an understanding of the subject that goes well beyond the academic. In 1987, while working as a Catholic seminarian in Pinochet’s Chile, he was arrested by the secret police and tortured and interrogated for three days. 

Years later, Coonan approached the group Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) to see what, if anything, he could do to help the group. At the time, he was told there were " three or four" survivors willing to tell their stories. But when he showed up with a crew of FSU film students, Coonan was astounded to discover 40 to 50 survivors eager to have their stories heard. He and the FSU film crews did interviews for 12 to 14 hours a day for two weeks in order to make the film.

Seven Days caught up with Coonan by phone just as he was leaving a meeting at the Rwandan embassy in Washington, D.C.

SEVEN DAYS: So, why exactly are you coming to Vermont?
TERRY COONAN: I was invited. A number of the folks from the Gulf Coast Torture Treatment Center in Clearwater, Fla., who I’ve worked with quite a bit with our human rights center, are among the presenters [at the training seminar]. I’ve worked with them on a number of occasions at trainings at torture treatment centers to show this film and the stories of a number of survivors of torture, not just things that happened to them but actually things that helped them heal, things that have helped them become political advocates even after they’ve undergone that experience.
SD: What’s the importance for torture survivors to be able to speak about their traumas? How does it help the healing process?
TC: Here’s the interesting thing we found: Almost every single one of them related to us ...  that almost universally, one of the first things that was said to them, whether they were in Latin America or Africa or Asia was, “Scream as loud as you want. No one will ever hear you.” Or, they were literally muted, blindfolded or mouths covered, literally their voices taken away. So, this was like they were getting their voices back. And they wanted to be able to talk about it. They’re also at the point where accountability for torture is extremely important to them. They’re deeply involved -- and deeply opposed to -- policies of the Bush White House that had lent [legitimacy] to torture, whether at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. And becoming political actors turned out to be a real part of their healing. It was really striking. During the act of torture, you’re an object, you’re depersonalized as things are done to you. So it became very important to them to become actors, and be subjects again.
SD: To have power?
TC: Yes, to have power. It struck us that every single one of them found power through political advocacy, through TASSC [and] the White House protests that they do every year on the UN day for torture survivors.
SD: I was surprised that, in the film, I didn’t notice a sense of vengeance from them so much as a desire to get their stories heard.

TC: That’s a major transition for a lot of them. They all spoke about the anger, but a lot of them, like Sister Diana [Ortiz, the founder of TASSC], have no idea who their torturers were, years and even decades later. But they have, in some pretty amazing ways, transformed what I see as righteous anger and channeled that to become advocates for their children and the young people of the world, to make sure that what happened to them would never happen again.

SD: Vermont is just now gearing up to provide social services for torture survivors. Are other states further along than we are, or are social services for torture survivors still pretty patchy around the country?

TC: I don’t know that we’re further along. I think it suddenly dawned on Floridians ... that there were so many of them who were torture survivors ... Because Tampa and Clearwater was a huge area for refugee resettlement, a great many of the people were survivors and hadn’t actually been identified as such when they were brought in as refugees or asylum seekers. And what was needed was to create support services. And they have found thousands of survivors within the Tampa and Clearwater area alone. The need is tremendous.
SD: Are you comfortable speaking about your own personal experiences with torture?
TC: I am. I was a survivor. I actually had worked as a Catholic seminarian in Pinochet’s Chile and had been detained and had been tortured pretty badly as a result of that ... It was late in the regime, 1987. I was studying to be a Catholic priest through the University of Notre Dame and, by the time I got to Chile, I thought I’d just be teaching. But by that time, the human rights situation was very critical. It had gone from a country where Pinochet was disappearing people to, really, a place where it was just a massive torture regime. A second truth commission later identified over 200 torture centers, institutionalized torture. Because I was working with survivors of torture, this is what placed me more at risk than I realized at the time.
SD: How did your abduction come about?
TC: There had been an assassination attempt against Pinochet a couple of days before I got there ...  in September 1986. What I didn’t know, and what nobody knew at the time, was that there was an ambush attempt against Pinochet as he was returning through the Andes from a summer home ...  This communist rebel group posed as Catholic seminarians at a summer retreat house in this small town to case out his motorcade route. So the secret police, in investigating that, immediately assumed there was some Catholic Church connection. So there was a real wave of repression. I was unaware of it until I was detained in February, about four months later. I spent about three and a half days strapped down to a metal bed frame, stripped down and blindfolded and hooked up to electric wires. It was pretty brutal.
SD: How’d you get involved with TASSC?
TC: I got hooked up with them when I realized there were other survivors right here in the United States. . . I became a member of their group and that’s been just a remarkable experience for me personally.
SD: Here in Vermont, many survivors are still so hush-hush, and many times haven’t even told their own family members.
TC: That’s so often the situation. The torture treatment movement here in the United States has really made some remarkable strides in the last 15 years. I was amazed, just as you were, at how many survivors there are here in the United States, and that typically it’s in an area where there’s a torture treatment center or a refugee-resettlement program, New England being one of those prime areas now. Also with the focus internationally on torture in recent years, that’s brought the topic to the forefront the way it needed to. Though it’s sad that it took an Abu Ghraib or a Guantanamo to do that.
SD: What’s it like for you, a torture survivor, to actually see it coming from your own government?
TC: That is the most disheartening thing in the world. I remember thinking back at the time in 1987 when I was being tortured, that I was an American and something better was possible, and this was such an aberration that this could happen to anyone. And then to realize years later that, no, we were on the other end of that. A lot of people have pointed out that the United States has long been complicit in torture. A lot of the technology that we saw in Abu Ghraib came out of Vietnam. We have the School of the Americas that for years has trained torturers in a Latin American context. What’s extremely disheartening, as recently as last month, is to hear [former Vice President] Dick Cheney defending torture. Even Pinochet never publicly defended torture! It still seems so unreal. There’s something in the human condition we have to root out, even the inclination for torture. But quite a few of us are very intent that we root this out, that this has no part of what we stand for as Americans. TASSC has also become really strong on accountability for torture as well. That has become a new rallying cry for survivors.
SD: How do you feel about President Obama’s position on investigating the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?
TC: Although many supporters probably supported Obama, there’s been great disappointment in some of the recent signals he’s sent that he’s perhaps not that intent on investigating or prosecuting. I think he’d really like the issue to go away.

Why is it so much harder to comment on a Ken Picard story than it is to comment on a Lauren Ober story?

For me it's because stories like this one are so much harder to read, so much harder to process and so much harder to come to grips with emotionally. But they are also so much more important.

The use of torture is in direct opposition to human civilization. Not everyone has the conscious to believe that or to care to think about it, but I believe enough do to make shining a light of public awareness on torture the best weapon against it.

It's difficult to think about because it's so damn ugly and scary, but turning a blind eye to it is exactly what allows it to exist. I've always admired Amnestry International for the purity and rightousness of their mission. I'm glad Florida State University has a human rights center and I wonder if we have any sort of counterpart to that at UVM. We should.

Human rights are the foundation of all other rights and laws and every civilized society. Even perhaps the foundation of language itself, since language as a constuct cannot exist without sets of shared premises, and the premises of all intellectual constructs beyond pure instinctual reflex are shaken without some assumption of physical safety that allows us to set aside fear long enough to think about something else.

I'm sure there are many torture victims who live among us here in Burlington. In fact, I can think of a few off the top of my head that I know of personally. Maybe the best thing we can do for them is to open our eyes a little wider to what's really going on in the world. Maybe move a little of our attention from less conseqential to more consequential things.

It's harder but it's better.

Thanks, Haik. Actually, UVM and Burlington now have a program like this. It's called NESTT — New England Survivors of Torture and Trauma. It's a concerted effort to coordinate social services — counseling, medical care, employment and legal services, etc. — for torture and trauma survivors in Vermont. FYI, I have a piece in this week's 7D about a conference held last week on this very subject. Tough stuff to take, but as Patrick Giantonio, director of Vt Immigration and Asylum Advocates, put it, we are unwittingly welcoming into our community some of the strongest souls on the planet. Their stories are brutal, but their courage and resiliency are amazing. And, they put our own petty problems into their proper perspective.

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