Where is The World?

by Janice Kennedy, The Ottawa Citizen

Twenty-five years after he landed in a Colombian torture ‘chamber,’ Hector Aristizabal has devoted his life to ending torture

On a bare stage, armed with a few small props, Hector Aristizabal lures people into the darkest horror of his life.

His one-man show is called Nightwind, a true story of imprisonment and torture, and he tours it around the world wherever people are engaged in discussions of the brutality human beings inflict on one another.

A Colombian now living in California, Mr. Aristizabal, 47, was in Ottawa last weekend to perform Nightwind at the Quaker Initiative to End Torture conference.

“We go to bed at night knowing that, in our name and with our money, people are being tortured.” With the burden of his own experience, he says, that is an unbearable thought.

He speaks of the hundreds of people held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

“And I know exactly what they’re feeling.”

It is not difficult for Mr. Aristizabal to climb inside the battered heads and bodies of the prisoners held by the United States on suspicion of terrorist involvement — or the detainees turned over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan prison officials.

Twenty-five years ago, when he was a university student in Medellin — a young man who studied psychology, helped out at a psychiatric hospital, loved the arts, lived with his family, had plans and a future — Mr. Aristizabal was tortured.

But unlike most survivors, he has not repressed the painful memories. A theatre professional as well as a psychotherapist, he engages audiences with powerful directness in his story and in the medium that has come to be known as Theatre of the Oppressed.

Mr. Aristizabal is passionate about getting his message out. It is crucial, he suggests, in a post-9/11 world where civilized discussions question the existence of torture — when they are not debating its degrees of usefulness in service of a good cause.

“I want to show people what torture is,” he says, “since there are so many doubts.”

Mr. Aristizabal’s own immersion into its brutal intricacies occurred during the rule of Julio Cesar Turbay in 1982, when students, like teachers and labour leaders, were deemed a danger to Turbay’s vision of Colombian democracy.

Mr. Aristizabal was 22, his brother 17, when the two of them ended up together in what he still calls the torture “chamber.” His brother had gone camping with friends and, soaked in an unexpected rainstorm, had sought shelter at the house of a village priest. During the night, says Mr. Aristizabal, the priest overheard his young guests talking politics and called the authorities. Soldiers came and arrested them, and, not long afterward, other soldiers went to his family home. After ransacking the place, they arrested Mr. Aristizabal, too. Although neither was politically active, the brothers were accused of being leftists, guerrilla sympathizers. He was accused of being a guerrilla commandant.

For three days and three nights, he was kept blindfolded and standing in solitary confinement.

The “interrogation” techniques were designed not to leave marks. In a method called “the submarine,” heads were submerged in buckets of water until just before the drowning point. Powerful jolts of electricity were applied to the testicles. The hitting was open-handed. In a technique called “El Potro” (the rack), bodies were suspended by their bound hands until the circulation ceased to flow.

Once he and some of the others were lined up against a wall as soldiers, calling them “comunistas” and “hijos de putas” (sons of whores), aimed their rifles and pretended to shoot them.

After 10 days, unable to prove anything — and with a general election on — they let him go. His brother and his friends were kept another two months before an amnesty released them.

All had been victims, says Mr. Aristizabal, of graduates of the School of the Americas, the notorious U.S. army training facility for U.S.-supported countries in Latin America. Situated at Fort Benning in Georgia, the Spanish-language school (which, in 2000, changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation) has been linked to Latin American death squads and torture, especially after disclosures eight years ago about its torture training manuals.

On the SOA’s celebrity graduate list are such names as those of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Argentinian dictator Leopoldo Galtieri and numerous high-ranking officers in Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Two of those involved with the 1980 assassination in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscar Romero were SOA graduates.

While some other Latin American countries have stopped sending their people to train at the SOA, Mr. Aristizabal’s country, which is still heavily supported by the U.S., has not.

“Colombia still sends soldiers,” he says. “It has always been the biggest user of the School of the Americas, and the biggest abuser of human rights in South America.”

Mr. Aristizabal calls the SOA “the oldest terrorist training camp in the world,” not a farfetched description given the definition of terrorism as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” Every year, he joins thousands of other American citizens at Fort Benning to call for the SOA’s closure. Organized by an activist monitoring group called School of the Americas Watch, a vigil is also held to honour the thousands killed over the years by graduates of the facility.

In 1989, Mr. Aristizabal moved to California for the safety and the opportunity, even though — as he thought — he hated everything about the country and its people. It didn’t take long for him to understand his mistake.

“Most people in the United States have no idea what American foreign policy is all about.”

His work aims to address that gap. Besides being involved in his politically-charged theatre work, he works with victims of torture, is a member of the Colombia Peace Project and is involved in a Los Angeles art therapy initiative. He is also a busy father of two, a 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, though he and the children’s mother divorced three years ago.

But the old wounds, his and his native country’s, are never far from his thoughts.

Colombia today, he says, is far from healed. “It is still the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. There are three million internally displaced people, the second-largest population in the world. And an average of 20 people every day are killed for political reasons. But we’re not even in the news.”

And the brutality continues, even if it leaves fewer survivors these days.

The ironic thing about torture, Mr. Aristizabal suggests, is that it actually accomplishes nothing. After his release, his brother did, in fact, join the rebel guerrillas, more determined than ever to fight the regime that had brutalized him and his family.

In 1999, his brother was “disappeared,” his body found shortly after that in a roadside ditch. Mr. Aristizabal, who had flown to Colombia for the family crisis, insisted on an autopsy and — although he can’t remember how he was able to get through the horror of it — took pictures of everything that had been done to his brother before his murder.

“He was horribly tortured.” Empty intestines suggested that he had been deprived of food and water. There were wounds in his eyes and burn marks all over his body. There were lacerations and broken ribs.

“I thought, ‘This cannot be in vain.'” The pictures he took appear with Mr. Aristizabal himself in the 2003 film, Hidden in Plain Sight. The documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, examines the School of the Americas and U.S. policy in Latin America.

“My work is my way to remember my brother and to honour him.”

It’s been 25 years now since Mr. Aristizabal was taken from his home and terrorized, 25 years since he was beaten, his head held under water, his testicles jolted with an electric charge like a million whips.

But he remembers it all in excruciating detail, and it comes back with a wallop from time to time. When he sees images of torture in the news — when, for example, the pictures of American soldiers and Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison were everywhere — he “goes PTSS,” as he puts it, feeling again some of the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome. That, he says, is the lot of every torture survivor.

He also recalls with disturbing clarity one of the recurring questions that kept bouncing around relentlessly inside his head while he was being tortured. Its memory, a bleak memory of isolation, is what drives him.

“One of the things you think when you are in the chamber of tortures is, ‘Where’s my family, my friends? Where is the constitution? Where are my human rights?’

“You think, ‘Where’s everybody? Where is the world?'”

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007