Trekking through more than a foot of snow, dozens of University of Minnesota students and members of the human rights community gathered together on Monday night for a showing of Beneath the Blindfold: Four Survivors, One Truth. A panel discussion featuring filmmaker Ines Sommer, Center for Victims of Torture director Curt Goering, Advocates for Human Rights director Robin Phillips, Human Rights Center co-director Kristi Rudelius-Palmer, and survivor Blama Massaquoi followed the screening. The panelists lauded the efforts of organizations such as the Center for Victims of Torture and the Kovler Center and urged audience members to take action, by simply starting conversations about the use of torture or by calling legislators to ask them to stand up against torture or by volunteering in any way possible.
This profoundly humbling film follows four heart-wrenching stories of surviving, not thriving, surviving; of making it through one more day, always one more day; of living through the worst and continuing to care, to work, to heal, to fight for the world that could be, the world that should be--one free of torture. Hector Aristizábal, a therapist, actor, and activist, was tortured by the Colombian military in the 1980s. He continues to act, often leading therapy sessions that draw heavily on acting, and he also campaigns against the School of the Americas and the use of torture in general. Donald Vance, a Navy veteran from Chicago, worked as a security contractor in Iraq. After informing the FBI that he had witnessed an illegal arms transfer by United States personnel, Vance was detained and tortured. He is currently suing the United States government and Donald Rumsfeld for, among other things, authorizing the use of torture. Matilde de la Sierra currently lives in the Chicago area and spends much of her time protesting United States military involvement in the Middle East. de la Sierra formerly worked as a physician in rural Guatemala before being abducted and tortured by a militia. Blama Massaquoi, who was born in Liberia are forced to fight as a child soldier at 15 years old. After being captured by a rebel military group, he was made to drink a substance, likely lye, that destroyed his esophagus. Massaquoi is currently living in Minnesota and is attending college.
The post-film discussion emphasized the importance of bringing the voices of victims and survivors into the conversation about torture. Sommer noted that one of the reasons she and co-director Kathy Berger began to create Beneath the Blindfold was their reaction to the fact that analyses of the Abu Ghraib photos tended to refer only to the perpetrators and whether they were bad apples or products of the system. While perpetrator-focused questions are important, when the conversation lacks reference to the victims, half of the story is missing. Goering reminded the audience that we often get lost in statistics, but each number indicates one person, one human life torn apart by torture.
The panelists also brought up the importance of educating the public, especially young people. In light of media representations of torture, such as those in 24 and those thought to be part of the soon-to-be-released Zero Dark Thirty, critical observation becomes more important than ever. Sommer and Berger have developed a 53-minute version of the film specifically for use in high schools. Both the Human Rights Center and the Advocates for Human Rights have created human rights education programs targeted at students.
Rudelius-Palmer noted that torture, inhuman, and degrading treatment has become routine procedure in the United States prison system as well. In particular, an unknown number of individuals are held in solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has said violates international law.
Later this week, the Senate Select Committee Report on Intelligence will be brought before the full Senate for review. This report considers CIA detention and interrogation practices. While full release of the report to the public is highly unlikely, the report might be release in part in the future.
In the words of survivor Donald Vance, "I really don't care what country you're from, I don't care what color your skin is, I don't care who you pray to. This shouldn't happen to anyone. Period." It is estimated that between 120 and 150 countries practice torture, including the United States.
Visit http://www.beneaththeblindfold.org/ for more information about the film, and visit the websites of the Center for Victims of Torture, the Advocates for Human Rights, and the Human Rights Center to learn how these organizations are working to end the use of torture at home and abroad.
Written by Whitney Taylor.