The daughter remembers the shock of seeing her father after three months in a Sudanese prison.
“When he came home I could not recognise my Dad. His hair was so long, he had a big beard, and he was so thin,” she says, visibly emotional at the painful memories of her 6-year-old self. “I wondered why my Mum was crying, why my grandma was crying.”
As she ran her fingers over the raw scars on his shoulders and arms, the daughter asked her father why this had happened to him. “He just said, ‘Because there’s war.’”
Requesting anonymity, the daughter of a Sudanese torture survivor told her story at an IRCT event to mark 26 June.
That was the mid-1960s, the height of the First Sudanese Civil War between North and South. As a teacher and a Christian, her father was considered by leaders of the Muslim-majority North as a member of the elite, and by association as a supporter of Southern politicians pushing for independence. The daughter wanted her father’s story known, but asked to remain anonymous. She was one of five speakers at an IRCT event in Copenhagen yesterday to mark the upcoming 26 June UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
Years later, when she was in high school, after the family had left their home to settle in the North, her father explained more about where those scars had come from. “He told me some prisoners were hung upside down. Some had a sack tied to their head which was set on fire while the guards told them to confess. Some died of suffocation, some from the beatings. My father refused to be hung up. He fought the guards. That is probably why he survived.”
Crucial too was the support of family. “I remember my grandmother was losing her mind with worry. She stayed outside the prison gates for three months telling them, ‘If you’ve killed my son, I want to know and take his body home.’ Eventually they let her hear his voice, once.”
“I think family is the only light that a victim sees in that place. But not all of those who survive torture have a family to come back to. Imagine those wars in Iraq and Syria. Families are totally disintegrated. So you come out and there is no one to support you. You are alone and depressed. Survivors suffer more without family.”
Asked how all this affected her as a child, the daughter remembers the many conversations her father had with his parents and relatives. “It was not a confidential thing. I think my father was very aware of how bad this thing that had happened was, and so he tried to heal himself by talking about it with family. I think he did make a full recovery, but of course there was nothing like IRCT back then.”
The family’s strong Christian faith gave her father belief in the power of forgiveness, she says, and he had two very direct opportunities to put his convictions into practice. “A few years later, my father actually met the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, who apologised to him, and one of the prison guards who said he was forced to do those things. My Dad said he forgave them, that time would teach them their lessons. He never thought of vengeance.” He also did want us to hate the offenders or have vengeance with anyone in life. He said that if we learn to hate and have vengeance, we will also learn to become mean and commit crimes against other people. He said that forgiveness and justice is what is important
Tragically, the family was scarred a second time by torture, this time in 1990s, during the coup staged by the Islamic regime in Sudan and fueling the Second Sudanese Civil War. “A cousin who was high up in the military was imprisoned and tortured in the North for many years, and when he came out I remember him saying, ‘I don’t feel good. A lot of things happened to us in there. I don’t know if I will live.’” Two years later that cousin had died.
“I added his story to my father’s story,” says the daughter, “and I don’t want to hear about this any more ever again. In many countries torture has not stopped and is still being used as a tool of interrogation. We’ve seen what happened to prisoners in Guantanamo and its on-going in prisons all over the world. It has to be absolutely abolished. Governments should be held accountable for such inhuman acts.”
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Established at the behest of Denmark as an annual event to speak out against torture and support survivors throughout the world, 26 June marks the moment in 1987 when the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) came into effect. Today, the Convention has been ratified by 165 states.