The concept of collective memory can be used to provide psychosocial support to victims of torture, as well as reminding society of past atrocities. Professor Carlos Beristain, who is a physician, specialist in health education and doctor in psychology, believes collective memory can help survivors make sense of the trauma they have experienced.
“The memory of what happened hurts, because it brings torture victims’ experience into the present day. Yet it also demands that the victim regain their dignity. The key is the psychosocial support. For victims of torture and other human rights violations, memory can help create a social framework for recognising their experiences, which they often have to keep inside or hide in silence. Memory also contributes to insuring the same trauma never happens again.”
This is how Professor Beristain explains the power of victims’ memory when it comes to healing. Having worked with victims since 1988, he has seen first-hand how collective memory can help torture victims understand their experiences better.
Beristain started out by focusing on the diagnosis of injuries caused by torture and the analysis of medical reports of cases in the Basque Country and in other countries. “In 1989 I went to El Salvador to train lawyers, doctors, psychologists and social workers on the documentation of cases, medical aspects of psychosocial care for victims and strengthening the community against the risk of arrest and torture, since this was a systematic practice during the war,” he explains.
He knows only too well the consequences of torture and how it can affect entire communities. “In 1990 I went to Guatemala for the first time because other human rights organisations were interested in my work, even though there were no survivors in Guatemala because few political prisoners survived. Providing support to the relatives of disappeared persons and those killed in the massacres were the most important issues at the time. In Guatemala we learned about other forms of torture, such as acts of torture against the general public during the massacres and survivors who witnessed these acts, as well as the enormous impact of terror on Mayan communities.”
These experiences have reinforced his believe in the importance of collective memory. “It can especially help in expressing their experiences in a positive sense. Because it is not only the pain and what happened that is important, it is also their resistance to it and their fighting spirit.
“Many victims see their experiences reflected in the more global work of collective memory, reaffirming themselves as a person and letting go of the negative image they have of themselves that creates a stigma where they or others feel they deserved to be tortured.”
Beristain was part of the Interdisciplinary Group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015 that investigated the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. A high profile case that attracted press attention from across the globe. He explains that, “Our work consisted of accompanying the victims, investigating the case and what happened the students, restoring a dialogue with the state and supporting them in analysing the reports and allegations about torture.”
Professor Beristain has been working with the relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico for several years. “Some of them have survived kidnapping, and all of them suffered from the impact of the torture of forced disappearances and the lack of a state response to these atrocities. During workshops we ran we made space to share, to cry and to try to understand what had happened, despite the pain of many participants,” he says.
“Through our work and support, many relatives have gone on to lead organisations, to have direct contact with the authorities, to review records or to take action, even in situations of repression or intimidation. The psychosocial support my colleagues and I have provided has played an important role in the development of these processes and organisations.”
Professor Beristain will speak about survivor participation in research and treatment planning at the upcoming IRCT International Scientific Symposium, which takes place in Mexico from 4 to 7 December. It is closely connected with collective memory and a topic that he feels strongly about. “Survivors should be involved from the start. Firstly, because torture victims are in a process of regaining the control of their lives on their own terms and their ability to make decisions and take an active role is fundamental. Secondly, because of their experiences. Although their memories might be fragmented or limited, they can provide the group with a more positive perspective and act as an example for others,” he says.
During a workshop with women survivors in Columbia, one of the survivors, who is also the leader of a women’s organisation, said, “It’s the first time in ten years that I stopped feeling guilty.” This was as a result of speaking with others in the group. We know that guilt can fill the space where the person tries to make sense of what happened and this guilt has a way of trying to take control of the situation, as well as having an enormous psychological impact on the person.”
While much progress is being made in the sector, Professor Beristain says more is needed to, “Help survivors face the consequences of their experiences, while reinforcing social ties and strengthening the social fabric of communities. In other words, it is not only a question of reducing suffering, but also contributing to the fight by tackling its causes. It is important to support victims and strengthen their psychological state and ability to integrate in society, as well as helping them to take their case to court and strengthen their ties with other victims so they can play an active role and not be the passive victim.”