Facing a history of torture

Brita Sydhoff, IRCT Secretary-General, receives the Emilio Mignone Prize, a human rights award, on behalf of the 140 member network of rehabilitation centres around the world. Sydhoff (second from left) stands with (from left to right) Isabel Mignone, Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs Héctor Timerman, and Mignone colleague, human rights activist and writer Horacio Verbitsky. Photo by Josefina Nacif Casado

Looking at the massive memorial Parque de la Memoria – Monumento a las Víctimas del Terrorismo de Estado, I noticed a familiar name etched in the dark grey stone. It was the name of a young man from Sweden– my home country – the son of a vicar my father knew who was in Argentina during the junta period and was also among the ‘disappeared’. I remembered the horrific disappearance from the Swedish newspapers at the time.

The memorial stands starkly in a park, facing the waters of Río de la Plata, where many of the victims of the regime are believed to have been killed. Estimates range from 12,000 to 30,000 disappeared – the victims who were taken by military police and never seen or heard from again.  The memorial holds the names of 8,000 men, women, and children with space for up to 30,000 names in total upon the certification of further deaths.

I was in Argentina for about a week to receive the Emilio Mignone Human Rights Award on behalf of the IRCT and the 150 centres that comprise our membership and provide rehabilitation and support for victims of torture worldwide. Bestowed by the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, part of the prize is to visit with government, civil society, and human rights organisations  in Argentina in the week leading up to the award ceremony.

The Parque de la Memoria was among numerous visits to places of memory that filled me with both solemnity and humbleness. The torture and disappearances that took place during the military regime had left deep scars in Argentina and the people here; but places like the Parque and the living museum at the Naval Engineering College– more commonly known as the torture centre at ESMA – were testament to a country facing its past.

My first stop was to our member centre, the vastly impressive EATIP (in English, the Argentine Team of Psychosocial Work and Research). The group of psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, among others – an entirely volunteer group – provides much-needed work in documentation of torture, support to victims and witnesses during trials, and, most significantly, their specialisation in psycho-social rehabilitation and support for survivors of torture and the families of victims. They have just finished a book, the most recent of several they have published, which will be translated into English as part of the IRCT project to collaborate and share knowledge across regions.

At their offices, I was introduced to a survivor of torture. Now an active member of an organisation documenting torture, he had spent two and a half horrendous years in the torture centre ESMA.

He was among only 400 estimated survivors of ESMA, the former naval engineering school where 5,000 people were tortured during the junta. I visited there during this week as it has now become a place of memory of its past horrors.

I was taken to Building 23, where many of the officials at ESMA lived. In the basement was a torture apparatus and centre; in the attic were so-called ‘dog houses’, 1 meter by 1 meter boxes where victims were hooded and detained. Many victims were sedated at ESMA only to be flown over the river and pushed out of airplanes. The complex also had a maternity ward, where pregnant detained women gave birth before they were killed. Many of these stolen babies were given to military families, raised without knowledge of their origins, and only now a few are being reunited with their aging grandparents.

It’s undoubtedly a shocking place. But now has become a place of education, part of a memorial to the victims of torture, disappearance, secret detention, and murder. Nothing, of course, can ease the pain and suffering of these crimes, but it seems that Argentina, through living museums like ESMA and places of memory has begun to address its past.

This was never more keenly felt than at the awards ceremony and my time spent with the family of Emilio Mignone. As I learned during my time there, Mignone was a fearless and unceasing advocate of human rights. Together with Horacio Verbitsky, the famous writer and activist, they founded the impressive organisation CELS (in Spanish, Centro de Estudios Legales Y Sociales). I was privileged to meet with the Mignone family, and Isabel Mignone was present at the award ceremony, in addition to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Héctor Timerman, and Mr. Verbitsky. Emilio Mignone’s legacy is so much alive through the work that continues at CELS and the award that bears his name.

However, as I write this, torture continues in Argentina. Many of the organisations and government officials I met with during my week stay discussed the ongoing cases that continue to be filed. While there have been many good intentions – for example, the country has taken seriously the dissemination of reparations to survivors and victims’ families – many have failed to adequately address conditions of detention, reform of the police or continued impunity. One organisation summed it up as, “The slow implementation of good intentions” to tackle continuing torture in Argentina. And sadly, “torture still goes on,” another told me.

Thankfully, organisations like IRCT member EATIP are still there to care for the survivors and to push forward the movement against torture.

 By Brita, IRCT’s Secretary-General

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