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Reflections of a Torture Survivor

From El Salvador to Abu Ghraib

by Dr. JUAN ROMAGOZA

As a survivor of torture in El Salvador, I find news about the mistreatment of prisoners by U. S. soldiers heartbreaking.

On December 12, 1980, I was picked up by Salvadoran National Guardsmen after they opened fire on a crowd where my group of health workers was setting up a makeshift clinic.

For 24 days I was subjected to physical, psychological and emotional torture designed to force me to admit participation in a guerrilla group. But I had nothing to admit. Still, I was beaten, subjected to electrical shocks and had the tendons in my hands destroyed, among other horrors.

When I was released, I weighed 70 pounds and had infected wounds on my body. Now, more than 20 years later, I am still working to heal the psychological wounds.

The traumas of war in Central America have also exacted a painful toll on other immigrants here in the United States. Gangs, violence, alcoholism, family breakdown and persistent fear and suspicion keep many locked in a space in which they perpetually relive the war, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The health clinic where I work in Washington, D.C., routinely treats patients who bear the scars of torture and the emotional wounds of trauma.

Some of the most profoundly affected victims of war are those who were responsible for enforcing it. Many former Salvadoran military soldiers are now sleeping on sidewalks in a drunken stupor, alcohol being the only way they can appease the demons of their past.

Torture has many effects — not just on those who are tortured.

In July 2002, I participated in a civil lawsuit against two former generals from El Salvador. In the late 1970s and 1980s, they were responsible for overseeing the military’s brutal repression of revolutionary groups that were challenging the status quo of poverty for most of the population. As this was still in the thick of the Cold War, U.S. military aid training flowed generously to the military in El Salvador to support whatever means were necessary to put down these groups and their supporters.

The Torture Victims Protection Act, signed into law by the first President Bush, was enacted to hold people such as these generals accountable for crimes committed under their watch. Under the principle of command responsibility, if these generals effectively exercised military command over troops who were committing torture, they should have known it was happening and they should have stopped it. They were ultimately responsible for the actions of their troops.

Sadly, the current situation in Iraq sounds familiar to my experiences in El Salvador: a military rounds up large groups of suspicious people in order to quell insurgent activities. Confessions are sought form detainees with no regard for due process. Those in charge of the military claim that they did not know, that they did not yet read the investigative report that the influence of other groups led a few soldiers astray.

Although President Bush and other high Washington officials have expressed revulsion and disgust at the actions of some troops, from my perspective as a survivor, the abuse confirms what many of us wanted to believe was not true.

I held no illusions about the U.S. military’s innocence at places like the School of the Americas in Georgia, where U.S. instructors trained international troops to torture and terrorize their own citizens. But I clung to the hope that our military would model the humane processes this country claims to embrace. I also hoped that our leaders would realize they cannot combat terrorism while losing sight of the basic principles of civilization.

Viewing the images of detainees being tortured and mistreated in Iraq, I also feel the heavy weight of compassion and pity for the victims. I remember that the torturers themselves are among that group. I imagine their terror, panic and confusion, and I worry for their long process of recovery.

The loss of humanity that enabled these soldiers to treat fellow human beings as animals has a deep, hard and cold effect on the survivors who have experienced this.

The road is long and difficult, and I hope that they have the strength to come back from such a dark place.

Dr. JUAN ROMAGOZA is executive director of La Clínica del Pueblo (www.lcdp.org), a health clinic in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

This essay originally appeared in Tidings, Southern California’s Catholic Weekly.