June 26, 2014 The Darkest Aspects of Human Experience part two

I have been thinking a lot about torture lately, given the three murdered Israeli settlers and the most likely revenge killing of a Palestinian teen burned to death and then his American cousin beaten to a pulp by Israeli security and if you should come across the website of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, this is merely the tip of an enormous iceberg of human violence and suffering.

As I write this blog entry (belatedly), it is actually fitting that on June 26, a number of us were invited to a conference hosted by the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture in Ramallah, and we are sitting in a large auditorium at the Red Crescent Society in Al Bireh. A lovely Al Quds medical student is translating quietly as we lean towards her and some of the talks are thankfully in English. I will do the best I can here.

There are many professional looking types, men and women, and two rows of guys in army green and berets, apparently soldiers from the Palestinian Authority also have a lot to learn about torture (I.e., why they shouldn’t do it), prevention, and treatment.

On the stage, I recognize Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who founded the Palestinian Medical Relief Society and is a political leader (you might hear him on NPR for instance as an articulate voice of reason), Dr. Mahmoud Suheil, the psychiatrist who is the head of the center, and a man from the European Union who spoke at a Birzeit Heritage festival we attended a few days ago. We all stand for a bout of patriotic music, the cameras roll, and the conference officially begins.

Today is the annual UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The EU speaker talks about how torture is abhorrent, against moral and ethical values, “it destroys the victim and dehumanizes the torturer, and undermines the state that tolerates it.

Torture is also a crime under international human rights law and unlike many other human rights, there are no exceptions or no justifications to make the unacceptable, acceptable.” He notes that, “these are easy words, the real question is how to combat torture effectively.”

He suggests that torture has to be addressed at different levels that include legal regulations where torture is prohibited by law and mechanisms need to be in place to make sure this is applied. It is also critical to have transparency, bringing to light behaviors at police stations and other places of detention. He asserts that civil society has a role to play here; this work requires public awareness of what torture does to people; this is a constant task, human rights values need to be frequently stated and restated.

In 2013, President Abbas decreed a prohibition on torture and in April 2014 Palestine ratified the UN convention against torture.

(The US and Israel signed decades ago for what it is worth.) He notes these are important developments, but more needs to happen as Palestinian civil society has regularly reported the use of torture by its own security forces as well as by Israeli forces. He notes that the European Union has regularly criticized Israel regarding the conditions under which Palestinian prisoners are held and the use of administrative detention; he congratulates the treatment center and its partners that “deal on a daily basis with some of the darkest aspects of human experience.” I wonder where is the voice of the United States at an important conference like this?

The next series of speakers are talking in Arabic and their main points revolve around the destructive Israeli practices of child arrests, the killing of young children, and the rearresting of prisoners who were freed in previous deals. There is then a long presentation on Palestinian and international rules, laws, contracts, etc., the bad things that have happened, the need for respect for women’s rights, the illegal torture of Palestinians in Palestinian prisons and appalling Israeli policies and house demolitions.

This is all a bit overwhelming. I am looking through the conference literature and learn that the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center was founded in 1997 to defend human rights, to build a society free from torture through community awareness and education.

Their tasks focus on: violence against prisoners, the wounded, families of martyrs, victims of the Apartheid Wall, road blocks, settler attacks, etc. They also offer treatment and support to victims and their families and focus on therapy and rehabilitation, medical and psychological. I am puzzled as someone appears to be setting up an electric piano on the stage.

A woman talks of transitional justice, the need to create official strategies to identify torture, to fix societies that are suffering, and to compensate victims. For victims, the torturer needs to be punished and the victim compensated. She notes that with the ongoing history of torture, this will lead to a loss of trust between individuals and society. She acknowledges that the divisions between Fatah and Hamas have created many victims and many people have been hurt.

After apologies to all the people who were unable to get to the conference due to the heightened delays and blocks at checkpoints, it is apparently time for the entertainment. A singing group from An-Najah University in Nablus, two women in gorgeous embroidered Palestinian dresses and one man playing the thing that looked like an electric piano but clearly is something else, pour their hearts into the music, giving voice and feeling to a society filled with pain and joy. This is all pretty extraordinary.

The second part of the conference is focused on treatment for prisoners and their families, “who are not sick, but suffering.” They talk about men released from prison after over ten years who have never seen a smart phone, have had years of solitary confinement, physical, and psychological suffering, whose families were not allowed to visit. “But what about the feeling about the father, thinking about his kids, what has happened to them, what kind of treatment they can do to support them. They are suffering from beating, abused, not eating or inedible food. Some have abdominal pains due to bad food and no exercise and that makes it worse. The air is stagnant, six people in a room, health worsens.”

The Center is doing awareness campaigns about the torture prisoners are facing, they have branches in places like Nablus, Jenin, and Ramallah, they offer outreach, go to the homes of the prisoners and families, talk to them; many do not have money to go to the center. The staff also uses psychotherapy, I.e., cognitive behavioral therapy; the Center sends staff to Norway to practice and learn to do therapy. Their group includes a psychiatrist and psychologists; they discuss each case and plan treatment, possible medications, psychotherapy, etc. The main goal is to make the victim feel better so he/she can go back to a normal routine and return to society.

The speaker gives a poignant example: one person spent thirteen years in prison, his oldest child was five and now he is eighteen, “So he will not feel like the father, lost that feeling. The child is used to the absence of the father, he, [the father], is not used to being ignored and not asked and is shocked, so he feels like a piece of furniture. He is not asked to participate in family as they are used to being without him.”

When the psychiatrist determines that the released prisoner is ready, he or she is offered professional rehabilitation: the prisoners are paid a monthly income and offered courses to be able to work in their desired field, “so they will be productive in building a future, they want to become productive.” Specialists follow the prisoner and evaluate the results and adjust the treatment program.

The speaker is intelligent and articulate, the audience nods in agreement, and I have a sense that this is a group of sincere, decent professionals honestly working to better the lives of victims and their difficult society.

“The wife of the prisoner, she is the hero, but in the shadow. She is fighting alone to raise the kids, work, so the center is trying to offer the wife work options, I.e., sewing in a salon, which is in her home, so her kids are close, she can care for the kids and have an income while the husband is in prison.”

There are more presentations about the legalities and international laws and the groups that monitor conditions. There are human rights committees that write reports in cooperation with organizations like Physicians for Human Rights Israel, “track all the kinds of violations and torture, in order to find the truth, and follow those reports to see more details, in front of government to take action. The torturer should know that he is going to be punished and is not protected.”

Another speaker notes that in the news recently, “there is an increase of family fights that result in killing, so violence has increased in Palestine, girls are being raped. So the laws must be followed, the killer needs to be punished, otherwise the family takes justice in their own hands and this is dangerous.” There is more discussion about the deaths of Palestinians in Israeli prisons due to inappropriate medical care, the lack of punishment or accountability, the current prisoner hunger strike, the fact that Israeli violations are allowed because they are in power, the possible forced feeding legislation. “It is the worst occupation in history. It is not impossible emotionally to hope for Palestinian society without torture.”

“Even any kind of reporting to Israeli institutions leads to nowhere. So it is time to do it ourselves by legal means.” Another speaker clearly is more agitated. He talks about the continued cases of torture by Palestinians in Palestinian jails. Of the havoc in Israeli jails and the need to use international committees and the media. “If the torturer is not punished, the Palestinian can track them down using international organizations and other countries and laws. Using the law we can find those murdered in Israeli prisons, those who abuse prisoners, and try to stop this. During interrogation they torture them until they die.” He describes “Israel [as] a country of killing, torture, destruction, but we are strong and it is our turn to act, to make the laws and the policy.” I can sense his outrage, voice rising in anger and frustration. He ends with the three kidnapped Israeli settlers and the difference in the international response when Palestinians are the victims. “When Israeli kills our children or rearrests prisoners, this is war, it is our right to ask for help through media as well.”

The last speaker (before more singing) is a freed prisoner. I brace myself for some horrific litany of pain and suffering, the conference has already felt quite overwhelming and my professional boundaries are fraying. The young man begins by reading from the Quran; he explains, “One can face many difficulties, but if there is a huge trauma those who are patient, Allah promises them with heaven.” He talks about the years when water was his only mirror, his speech is urgent and passionate, and soon I realize that it is all poetry and metaphor, filled with feeling and woundedness, the child inside longing for freedom and land, a symphony of words, all beauty and inspiration. A true survivor.