Beyond survivors: A psychologist’s story


Brazilian psychologist and human rights activist Vera Vital Brasil knows from experience what she is talking about when she tells about her years of work with torture victims. Joining with other survivors of torture, Vera was among the founders of the anti-torture organisation Grupo Torturo Nunca Mais that, beginning in 1991, provided medical and psychological treatment for victims of torture.

As a student of the Faculty of Pharmacy, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in the late ’60s, Vera participated actively in the university student movement, a major focus of resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). Because of her activism, in December 1969, she was arrested and tortured on the premises of the notorious DOI-CODI, the Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna (in English: Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations) in Rio de Janeiro, which was the Brazilian intelligence and repression agency during the military government. After three months in prison, Vera left Rio and went into exile in Chile. Her exile lasted six years and upon her return to Brazil, in 1976, she was determined to change the course of her career to try to turn the wrongs that others done to her into something good.

“What do we do with what others have done to us? Internalize this tormenting experience or fight to stop this happening again? I chose the latter,” she says to explain her choice for psychology and clinical work and her involvement with victims of torture.

While working as a chemistry teacher and studying Psychology, Vera participated in volunteer programmes aimed at securing human rights and health care to residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums. Years later, again as a volunteer, she worked to support people infected with HIV.

Volunteer work

This was only the beginning of a long story of work for the protection of human rights. In 1982, Vera joined other former political prisoners living in Rio de Janeiro in their reaction against the appointment to public office of people responsible for torture during the dictatorship. This initiative eventually led a group of former political prisoners, torture survivors and relatives of dead and missing people to found the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM/RJ, which in English stands for Never More Torture Group) in 1985. The group is a non-governmental organisation that was born with a mission to fight for human rights, including the clarification of the deaths and disappearances of political activists and remembrance of past abuses, and struggle against impunity, for justice and for the denunciation of torture and all forms of violence.

The GTNM/RJ was founded at a time when the memory of the deaths, disappearances and torture that occurred during the military dictatorship in Brazil was in danger of being forgotten: silence reigned. “Deeply painful experiences were being put in ‘the trunk of forgetfulness’ and the State had a policy of silence about these events,” says Vera Brasil. The fact that survivors of torture did not talk about their experiences due to feeling unsafe also contributed to the fact that many crimes were falling into oblivion. “Some patients blame themselves for what had happened to them. They thought, for example, that they had not been agile enough to escape the repression and attributed to their own mistakes the error of being arrested. But it was the State that had committed the crimes by killing, torturing, ‘disappearing’ the bodies of opponents and decimating the forces of opposition to the regime.”

In 1991, with funding from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the GTNM/RJ formed a clinical team to provide medical and psychological treatment and physical rehabilitation to victims of torture. Vera was part of the team from its creation up until this year.

Justice and redress

Throughout these years, her personal experience and dedication to other victims have convinced her that the trauma caused by torture can never be completely overcome but must be addressed through clinical treatment and proper redress.

“The damage caused by torture is accentuated if it is ignored, if there is no justice, or no redress. The fact that the state, which should guarantee and protect human life, is the agent of violence has a devastating effect on people’s psychological well-being. Our clinical practice is insufficient to cure this damage. But we can try to get people who have gone through this harrowing experience to feel better and give another meaning to this suffering, shifting it from a personal and private level to the collective and historical level, “she says.

In July 1993, when street children and teenagers were murdered by police in Rio de Janeiro, in what became known as the Massacre of Candelaria, the GTNM/RJ team members realized that their area of work should be expanded. “We were taking care of those affected by the state violence that occurred during the dictatorship and realized that another segment of society was being affected by state violence during the transition to democracy” says Vera.

The poor: today’s victims

Vera says that there has been a change in the main target of state violence. “In Brazil, there is no longer political persecution as there was during the military regime. Today the poor are the biggest victims of state violence and, unfortunately, torture and mistreatment are both serious and widespread throughout the country.”

“Every day we witness examples of grotesque brutality, execution, torture, violence and abuse in Brazil. Often the police enter the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro shooting indiscriminately, supposedly in pursuit of drug traffickers. In a prison in the state of Espirito Santo, dozens of inmates were crammed into shipping containers where the temperature reached 50 degrees centigrade. In São Paulo, a young motorcycle courier was recently tortured to death by police and who then threw his body into a city street”, she adds.

“Historically, the violence committed by the state, including torture, does not receive media attention, unlike cases of family violence or violence committed by criminals, which always gains prime time coverage on television news,” she says. “The reason is that the main victims of state violence are poor. And the poor in Brazil are invisible. It is as if there was an attempt by political and economic elites of erasing the violence that occur in this sector of the society “, she says

Despite this situation, Vera highlights the efforts of some sectors of the government and thinks that Brazilian society has gradually advanced in protecting human rights. “But it’s amazing to note the discrepancy between sincere concern for human rights from certain parts of the state and disregard from other state actors.,” she says.

Bringing crimes to justice

For her, the best example of progress in this area is the Third National Program for Human Rights, which resulted from the mobilization of civil society and was launched in December last year by President Lula da Silva. According to Vera, despite controversial changes recently made to the program, it still represents a breakthrough in efforts to protect human rights in the country.

Vera is no longer working at GTNM/RJ, but her activism against state violence continues. She participates in a group of therapists who are working on the creation of a national public policy for the care of those affected by state violence, and also in the activities of an organization that works to record and bring to justice crimes committed by the state.

Her current militancy reflects her concerns that reparation to victims of torture and other forms of state violence that should be comprehensive and not limited to financial compensation. “We need to expand our collective knowledge about what happened, send those responsible to trial and create memory of what happened,” she urges.

In recent years, thousands of people who were persecuted by the military regime have received economic compensation from the Brazilian state. Vera fears that the economic compensation ends up having a perverse effect. “The economic compensation can make people shut up and silence their cry for justice.” The 64-year-old Vera wants to continue working to prevent such silencing occurs.


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