Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Remembering Torture Victims

Mustapha unconsciously taps his foot while listening to the Koranic verses sung out from a tabletop radio. Layla slowly and painfully stands up to get a glass of water from the sink. The nurse, Rabia, ushers Aziz in to Dr. Benhoussa’s office, and Najleh calls for the next victim to step up to her massage table. There is a new face in the waiting room today, staring curiously as if he recognizes me.

The Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of
Torture Victims (or AMRVT, its acronym in French) is busy this Wednesday morning, but practically silent, save for the suras sung in reverence to Allah the most gracious and compassionate. The patients calmly wait their turn. “I don’t mind waiting to be seen” Mustapha tells me. “If there is one lesson I learned in prison, it is this: patience."

Rabiaa works in the AMRVT's miniscule office.

As an American researcher looking into Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission, I deal daily with the matter of human rights and the abuse thereof. King Hassan II’s rule from 1961 to 1999 was characterized by the repression of human rights, including tactics such as arbitrary detention in secret prisons, forced disappearances, torture, and inhumane treatment against those who dared to oppose the regime. Consequently, many Moroccans lost faith in or grew to fear their own government, leading to a serious decline in civic involvement, and more recently, a shift towards religious fundamentalism as a form of popular participation.

After Hassan’s death in 1999, his son and successor, the current King Mohammed VI, mandated an Equity and Reconciliation Commission (popularly known as the IER) to investigate and make recommendations concerning the gross human rights violations that occurred in the previous four decades. In total, the Commission determined reparations for over 16,000 individual cases. Perhaps the most ambitious reparations program is the medical rehabilitation plan for former political prisoners and victims of torture, which provides care for over 12,000 individuals.

Though relatively un-publicized outside of Morocco, the IER is unbelievably important because it is the first and only truth and reconciliation commission ever established in a Muslim or Arab nation. It is the first commission ever established in a monarchy, and ever established without a regime change. Morocco’s commission is a model that could be exportable to other Arabo-Muslim nations in their own periods of transitional justice because it demonstrates that a country need not “democratize” in a Western sense, or even necessarily break from an established regime in order to improve human rights. Some form of healing and reconciliation is possible, even if regimes shy away from trials, as the current Moroccan regime chose to do. And, most relevant to the American experience, commissions such as the IER can be instruments in the “soft war” against terrorism, to reconnect state with society, and to bring about democratic reforms.

Why should Americans care about the AMRVT, a tiny rehab center in a land far away?
We have plenty of our own victims who need care.


Mustapha comes to the center once a week to receive physical therapy for the rheumatism that he contracted while sitting in a humid prison cell for six years. Today, Aziz gets a prescription for glasses. He suffers from vision problems which begun after having been sequestered in a dark cell and blindfolded for fiv
e years. But the glasses are only symbolic; Aziz is now almost blind.

I am especially glad to see Layla at the clinic. A slight woman with beautiful grey-streaked hair, Layla carries herself with a grace of a survivor, mixed with an air of Parisian chic. She spent twenty years in political exile in France, only to return to Morocco to find t
hat life had completely transformed without her. “Between conservative Moroccan society, and my stolen life in France, I will always live in the margin.” She tells me quietly that she comes to the Association for counseling.

Me and the lovely ladies of the AMRVT. They make the healing happen.

The AMRVT works with former torture vi
ctims to give medical and psychological care and social assistance. Extraordinary work is accomplished, with few resources and little outside support. Everything is free for the patients, paid for by grants from various donors including the European Union, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Medecins du Monde, and from Morocco’s Advisory Council for Human Rights (CCDH), which is in charge of overseeing the IER's reparations programs. However, the budget is always tight. As of last December, the staff has not been paid as they wait on a grant from the EU, their biggest supporter.

Christina plays her flute for the June 26th Celebration, surrounded by images of the dissapeared.

Dr. Abdelkarim Manouzi, director of the Association, explains to me that these medical services are available to any Moroccan who suffered torture for political reasons. Why should I care? Because a few of the patients at AMRVT were tortured under American policy at Guantanamo Bay. Meet Ahmed, the new face in the waiting room today.

Me and Dr. Manouzi, one of my heros.

I like to think of myself as an upstanding American citizen, far removed from my government’s negative policies, proud of its accomplishments. But because I love America, I must inherit the bad with the good. Perhaps it is my American Pragmatism which tells me that, in some small way, I could be part of a solution.

In Morocco and elsewhere, it is often small, personalized organizations, such as the AMRVT, which do the most effective work for victims of human rights abuse, as well as in curbing radicalism. Through social reinsertion programs, former detainees are given second chances at jobs and education, no matter their history. This (quite desperately) begs the question: How can we Americans be part of the healing process?

Artist Ayoub Arafa poses with one of his paintings. As the son of a torture victim, he uses his talents to help other victims with alternative methods of healing. He contributed by holding an art workshop for patients and their children. See, everyone can be part of the healing process.

Even if we are distanced from political problems, we can facilitate real, pragmatic solutions by supporting organizations abroad like the AMRVT, or local programs like The Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma or The Marjorie Kovler Center for Victims of Torture at Heartland Alliance. We need to emphasize to our leaders how important it is to be involved with international initiatives that strive toward healing survivors of human rights abuse, such as the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. Internationally, over 100 different rehab programs for torture victims depend on grants from this fund, including the AMRVT.

Healthy societies can combat systemic problems including collective mistrust of authority and radicalism. Healing may eventually lead to increased civic participation, and in effect, democratization. But it all begins with healing individuals. And this begins by paying our respects on June 26.

June 26 is the annual UN International Day for the Commemoration of Victims of Torture. I was oblivious to this day until I spoke with victims who told me they look forward to it every year. Even with their modest budget, the AMRVT managed to put on a special celebration this year, including speeches from human rights activists, a slideshow of the history of human rights in Morocco, art workshops for the children of victims, and musical performances. Most touching were the speeches from some of the patients, many of whom expressed their gratitude at having a second chance to live without fear.

“This should not just be a day of commemoration” AMRVT’s Social Worker Rabiaa El-Bouih explained. “This should be a day to celebrate the life that remains, to honor victims, and to bring some joy.”

Speeches at the celebration called on Morocco to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, and to support the opening of a Cultral Center of Healing for Victims of the Years of Lead.

When asked if we commemorate this day in America as well, I mumbled some abashed reply, “Well, maybe some Americans do…” As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared on the first commemoration day, "This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable." And as lessons like the Holocaust have taught us, memory is essential for healing and non-repetition.

The big day concluded with a Gnaoua performance! As if I hadn't had enough in Essaouira...

So what can you do? You can remember Mustapha and Aziz and Layla, waiting their turn to be seen at the AMRVT. Remember Ahmed, sitting quietly in the corner, staring as if he recognizes my American face. Think of the places where you can get involved, because almost every major city in America (and around the world) has a center for refugees or torture victims, and they are always looking for volunteer translators, medical staff, and administrative support. (Check out for more information.)

Most of all, please do not forget our roles as healers.

Where are they? Torture is a global issue, not so far away from our own backyards. ..especially for me here in Morocco...

1 comment:

alisgray said...

Hello, I'm volunteering for the Center for Victims of Torture ( and I'm assisting the assembling of a list of similar organizations around the world. Yours is the only photo I can find for AMRVT's logo. Thanks for documenting it and for writing such a great blog!