Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The case against torture: A personal account

June is Torture awareness month. I find it ironic that June was chosen as the month. June holds a very special and yet painful part of my life that I will never forget. For it was on June 4th 1990 that my life took a radical change.

June 4th, 1990 was the day that I was “Detained” by the Security Police in South Africa for violating a curfew. I remember a Caspir (riot vehicle) rambling by me down a dusty road. It was the first time I had seen such a machine. It was huge standing nearly 20 feet high and composed of solid bulletproof metals. As I watched this object of law-and order courtesy of the apartheid state ramble on, I wondered what sort of destruction this machine wrecked upon the children who first fought against it on June 16th 1976.

Suddenly, the Caspir turned around and headed back down the road towards me. I walked on thinking that they wouldn’t bother me.

I was wrong.

The Caspir came to a screeching halt in front of me. Several policemen appeared from the rear of the vehicle and one of them, an Afrikaans speaking man approached me. In Afrikaans, he asked me where I was going. Because I can speak Afrikaans fluently (in addition to four other South African languages) and with a strong South African accent, he assumed that I was a local. After a bit of questioning, he told me to get into the back of the Caspir. When I inquired why, he spoke to me sharply:

“Don’t get cheeky Kaiffer (the equivalent of Nigger) get in the back!”

That day was the last day I would see natural Sunlight for the next 550 days.

I wasn’t under arrest during my period of incarceration. I wish that they had arrested me. At least then I would have had rights. The right to see a lawyer; the right to let my family and friends know where I was and how I was doing, basically the chance for due process.

But there were two problems with this scenario. The first was that I was not under arrest, I was being detained; this meant that I had no access to a lawyer; no chance to contact anyone about my whereabouts, the detention could go indefinitely (Terrorism Act of 1967), and the most chilling part of it all was that this was the scenario where many in South African jails were tortured and died: "Deaths in Detention" they called it.

I had the misfortune or joy, depending on your view of me, of being put through “Sleep Deprivation” torture. Many in this day and age would regard this as “torture light.” Some might even say that this form of “interrogation” is useful in the War on Terrorism. Let me be blunt, there is nothing “light” about torture.

Sleep deprivation can and will play havoc on you over time. Imagine being questioned for 15 hours straight and then after this time has concluded, being allowed to go to bed. Now keep in mind, no one puts a hand on you during the “questioning”. No one is yelling at you or being abusive in a way we would think one could be.

Now let’s say you are headed back to your cell to get some sleep. You deserve it, heck you’ve been chatting for the last 15 hours, and you’ve got it coming. Right?

But there is a slight problem when you get to your room. For one, the lights are kept on while you’re trying to get sleep. To make matters worse, the light that is still is coming from a bright fluorescent tube that is suspended over your bed. Add to this, music blaring from down the hall of your cell. Good times.

Well, no sooner than you lay your head on your flea infested pillow, then someone comes, opens up the cell doors and says:

“Come on get up, you can’t sleep forever we want to talk to you!”

You wake up confused, disoriented. You look about asking yourself; “Didn’t I just get back from “talking” not more than 20 minutes ago?” But regardless of what time you got back, you have to go again. Besides, all they want to do is talk to you. Nothing more. Right?

But the fact of the matter is that there is so much more. Over time, one begins to get delirious. You begin to imagine things constantly; you talk to yourself, argue with yourself, asking yourself: “Is this real, am I really here?”

In some cases you begin to lose control of bodily functions. And all the while you lose track of time and space. A day seems like a week. A week seems like a month, and so on.

Oh don’t be too concerned; you’re not always being “talked to” for 15 hours straight. Some times it’s only for 4 hours on and one hour off. Maybe they want to have a late night bull session with you from 3 am to 9 am, then let you go back and rest while AC/DC wails in the background and jailers laugh and roar with their drunken buddies.

Not bad you say?

Well, imagine that this sort of treatment is kept up for over a period of time like a year and a half. Imagine that every once in awhile, they tell you that you’re going to be released the next day, and they tell you to gather your things. You’re going home! Never mind that you haven’t given them any useful information that’s not important. What is important is that you’re outta there!

Then imagine, that you have what little they’ve allowed you to have in your cell (Usually a Bible), and your walking down a corridor. You stop at a desk and they have papers for you to sign to be released. It’s legal. They have your name on the papers and everything. You read through them making sure it looks okay and you sign. You’re about to leave this God forsaken place when suddenly a man walks up to you and says:

“Are you Khaya Chris Brown?”

You nod in agreement.

“You’re being detained for 90 days under the Terrorism Act.”

And off you go for another round of conversation with your jailers. Not knowing when this “light” form of torture is going to end.

This is what happened to me over the course of my 550-day incarceration. You might say I was one of the lucky ones I didn’t end up dead.

And if you thought about it this way and have never experienced torture yourself, I suppose you’d be right.

But explain to me how lucky I was when after three months, I had been “questioned” so many times by the Security Police, and become so disoriented, that I began to believe that there was another man who was being tortured in a cell right next too me.

I was sure there was, because he and I had many conversations about our situation. In fact, during my darkest hours he would tell me to be strong and not give in. Now imagine that no one had been anywhere near my cell who was also incarcerated at the same time as myself. I had dreamed up my imaginary friend out of necessity for what little sanity I had left.

Maybe I was lucky when after six months had passed, someone was kind enough to tell me happy birthday. The funny thing was, he told me three months after my birthday had passed. I had lost complete track of time. At this point I had been in detention for more than a year.

Those who would proclaim that there are times when torture is necessary never seem to be the folks that have gone through any form of torture. Whether it is “hard torture” or “torture light.”

I’ve been in a number of support groups with other survivors of torture and we all arrived at the same thing. None of us, no matter how bad we went through it; no matter if we received water-boarding, electric shocks on our genitals, cigarette burns on our breasts and scrotum, or good old sleep deprivation; none of us would wish torture on even our worst enemy.

So, maybe I am lucky. Maybe I should be grateful that I didn’t die at the hands of my jailers like so many before me or since. But, I’ll tell you now, no matter what anyone says; a part of me died on June 4th, 1990 and I wish I could get it back.


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moi said...

That was a heart wrenching post, Chris. I can imagine that it takes a lot of courage just to even speak about such an experience, but I am sure that such personal accounts of this type of state sanctioned terrorism will allow people to realize what torture really is. It's not just a word that we throw around, but a dispicable act that destroys the lives of many innocent people. Thank you again for sharing, and remember, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

Anonymous said...

A very tragic story.Those who have served in the military or have been subject to this would agree on the harshness of torture.
But WHAT were you doing in south africa?

elendil said...

This is an important post. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I have linked to it from the central Bloggers Against Torture blog.

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BTW #2: love the post and will be linking to you on make some noise! (



الفلسطينية said...

i am so sorry you had to go thru that. I admire you for your courage.

Anonymous said...

i just read your post and wept -- again, today -- for the cruelty inflicted on you and so many others in this world, at this time...and I weep for the courage amassed in those most affected, who work hard to live through it all.

Anonymous said...

i just read your post and wept -- again, today -- for the cruelty inflicted on you and so many others in this world, at this time...and I weep for the courage amassed in those most affected, who work hard to live through it all.

Anonymous said...

Oh Chris, It must be so hard to talk about such an experience but what a valuable story to share! Keep telling it! Our comfortable ears need to hear what happened to you b/c there is someone else there right now! It sounds like your mind has found a way to stay strong despite such a struggle. Thank god.