|Dr John Joyce examines manacle wounds on wrists of
Sri Lankan Tamils
One way or another I have been working on this Torture story since
that coup. I kept coming in contact with people who had been tortured.
I didn't seek them out but the vaguely bohemian world I inhabited in
Manhattan's East Village was a place of people in exile from the mainstream
of the U.S., a natural place to find people in exile from violent oppression
in their own countries. They came from Greece and Latin America, all
were university educated middle-class people. Many were my age, people
with whom I had much in common except this terrible experience. When
you meet people who have been tortured it leaves you frozen in a sea
of gelid empathy. You cannot take away that person's pain, you cannot
share it with them. About the only thing you can do is bear witness
and tell everyone you meet that in this place or that, this barbarity
is going on. AND SOMETHING MUST BE DONE ABOUT IT.
I became aware of the work of the Medical Foundation for the Care of
the Victims of Torture during the early 90's when survivors of the horrors
in Bosnia began to arrive in the British capital. The local press wrote
a number of features about the place. I decided I would do a story about
the place. That would be my way of bearing witness. It only took me
a decade to get around to doing it.
In a perfect world my documentary would have been just the interviews
with clients of the Medical Foundation edited into long monologues.
In fact, for some Foundation clients, turning their terrible experiences
into dramatic monologues is part of their treatment. Writing helps some
people get control of their terrible memories. The young Rwandan woman
whose testimony appears in the finished documentary is working on a
play about her experience. Sadly, the reality of radio intruded into
my grand plan to compel listeners to hear this testimony. All of the
clients at the Medical Foundation speak English with very heavy accents
and it would have been hard for the audience to stay with them. Then
there were the silences. You can't have too much silence on radio. But
in each interview there were long periods when my interviewee was lost
for words. Even Luis Munoz, the Foundation's first client, more than
a quarter of a century after his torture, lapsed into silence. In much
of our conversation Luis told his story with a touch of irony and no
sense of self-regard, even though his ability to endure the worst that
Pinochet's torturers could do made him a bit of a hero to his fellow
inmates. He has also had a very complicated love life, which he spoke
about with rueful humor. He's an extremely charming guy. But sometimes
all of that went away and he grew silent. What he was seeing in his
mind's eye at those moments I don't want to guess.
I sometimes wonder why the overthrow of the Allende government and
its replacement with the Pinochet terror never inspired people to action
in the way that Vietnam did. I've decided it has to do with the event's
timing. The coup took place on September 11, 1973. In those pre-CNN
days news could take a long time to filter out and about from some place
as far away as Chile. There wasn't enough time for the story to build
a head of steam because Chile was bounced from the news bulletins by
a bigger event: the Yom Kippur War, which began three weeks later on
October 1973 is for the post-World War II generation what August 1914
was for our grandparents. The Yom Kippur War triggered the Great Oil
Price rise. Prices leapt 400%. This was the beginning of the great inflation,
which effectively destroyed the bountiful economic world in which we
practiced our political idealism. The cost of living rose vertiginously
and the necessity of earning enough to keep pace with it made a lot
of political ideals expendable. As political engagement faded, Chile's
fate became unimportant. The moral censure that should have flowed from
the streets of the U.S. towards Augusto Pinochet and his torturers never
After reporting this story I think there may be one other reason why
so many people are silent about torture: its complex and shameful nature.
According to Helen Bamber, the extraordinary 76-year-old woman who set
up the Medical Foundation, "Torture is a dirty subject. It titillates."
For more than a decade after the Chilean coup Latin America became a
vast torture chamber, often with the connivance of U.S. governments.
From Argentina to El Salvador and Guatemala tens of thousands were tortured
and murdered. The nature of this brutalization as it was reported was
almost always sexual. Men were castrated and their genitals shoved down
their throats. Rape of course was endemic.
When Helen Bamber spoke of titillation I knew she was saying something
that most people would prefer to be left unsaid. Torture is arguably
the most immoral act committed by civilized people against their fellows
yet somehow it doesn't galvanize us to action. If you're looking for
an explanation of why, it could lie in how we respond to its sexually
I used to dream of being a filmmaker. One of the films I wanted to
make was about a torture session. It would have been a short film made
entirely from the point of view of the victim. It wouldn't have had
the Guignol quality of Laurence Olivier applying a drill to Dustin Hoffman's
teeth in Marathon Man. It would have been as close to reality as I could
make it. The torturers would have come in and out of frame. The camera
would have whipped from their faces to their hands attaching electrodes
to the body. The frame would have gone white as the victim's blood pressure
shot up when the electricity was applied and black when the victim fainted.
The soundtrack would have been as distorted as the sound inside your
head when this kind of violence is done to you. The viewer would be
made as disoriented as the victim. My hope was to make people scream
and force them to demand the end to torture.
I no longer dream of being a filmmaker. That career is for another
life. I'm content with being a radio journalist. But I'd like to tell
you what I was going to call that film: At Some Moment of Every Day,
Someone, Somewhere in the World.
It is worth remembering that as you've read this diary or were listening
to my documentary someone, somewhere in the world, was being tortured.