Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Torturers I Have Met

A few years ago I was splitting a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch with one of the most senior drug control police officers in the Afghan government, (drinking is an activity more common than you would think in that Islamic nation) when the conversation turned to torture.

There had just been a sensational case involving the return of a Kabuli from many months in Guantanamo Bay. He had been hauled off the streets of Kabul, tortured by Americans at their Bagram airbase Bagram Guard Towernorth of the city, flown to Cuba, subjected to who knows what abuse, and then returned with no charges having been laid, and no apologies. This happened before we learned the true horrors of torture inflicted by U-S Government policy and before the reek of its contamination forever rotted American prestige.

Still, the Americans weren’t alone. You couldn’t be in Afghanistan more than a day before you learned that torture is built into the very fabric of the culture.isaf-logo

On the very first day I was in the country I met a linguist working for the NATO military command, ISAF. He offered to give me a Dari phrasebook, Dari being an offshoot of Persian or Farsi and the language of the new Afghan government.

We went to get it at his office in a crumbling ruin of a three storey building in the middle of the NATO base downtown. The building had to have dated from the earliest part of the 20th century. It had never seen a second coat of paint.

When we walked into the main room I saw long streaks of dark that had dripped or run down the walls from just above head height. There were also misshapen blobs of darkness on the stone floor.

He saw me looking. “This used to be an interrogation centre during the Soviet occupation.”

“You mean, that’s blood?”

He nodded.

This wasn’t my first sight of a torture chamber. On my second trip to Albania, during the Kosovo War, I’d met with a senior security official of the Albanian secret police. The meeting was held in an unheated, unpainted, and foul smelling room in the downtown Tirana secret police headquarters. Apart from the filthy stench of the room it was a typical Albanian government office. There was the padded chair for the official, two hard backed chairs for myself and my interpreter, a computer that was only one step above a lump of rock, a phone that didn’t connect to anything, and two large ringbolts on each end of the desk. On the floor, just where I had my feet, two more ringbolts.

This explained why I hadn’t had a lot of help from my translator during the interview. He knew exactly where he was.

“Mr Rick. That bad place. Very bad things happen there.”

No kidding. The whole building’s floor was a connected series of torture chambers, which also explained the smell.

I told that story to my Afghan police friend over the scotch. He grunted knowingly, “Same thing here. Anybody arrested by the police will get knocked around. Even I do it. But the secret police, they are the real monsters.”

That’s when I learned about the made in hell pact between some seriously sick American security people and the Afghan secret police.

If the holding cells at Bagram airbase were too full of suspected terrorists, or the waiting time for a torture chamber was too long, the Americans would hand over whomever they wanted questioned to the Afghan Security people who were conveniently located in a four storey white building just across the street from the American Embassy.

Now the curious thing about these Afghan torturers, and I met one a couple of years later when I was with the UN, was that they were not very good at their job. Oh sure, they could rip out fingernails, clamp electrical cords to testicles, and do awful things with body orifices, but they had a terrible record of actually learning anything from their victims. My drunken drug trafficker hunter put it this way.

“They like what they do too much.”

And sadists, as we know well from the endless and ongoing research into the lack of effectiveness of torture make really crummy information gatherers. The professionals working for the U-S government and others are not any better at getting information but the work benefits are pretty good.

As a job, torturing is about as good as being a tenured professor or carpet bagging politician, in other words it is a job for life. And it is pretty well paid, especially if you are adept at scooping up some personal assets when you knock on some poor bastards door at three in the morning.

The black leather coated pain merchants in the Kabul white building working with the Americans were the same people who had worked for the Taliban. They had also worked for their predecessors the Soviets and probably all the way back to when the British Army ruled the place.

In Albania torturers had survived a certifiably insane dictator, the fall of communism, the bankruptcy of Albania when it got caught in a Make-Money-Now internet scam, and a succession of not very able governments.

So called advanced nations won’t have anything to do officially with torture. The United States government twists syntax, logic, decency, and common sense into uncommon and rather startling sexual positions in order to deny what goes on.

Canada and the United Kingdom face political scandals over whether their troops have willingly handed over prisoners to the Afghan government knowing that they would be tortured. The government denials are no less farcical than the American denials.

The really odd thing about the torture culture as I saw it in Afghanistan, Albania/Kosovo, and to a lesser degree in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kenya, is that every professional intelligence officer will tell you that torture does not work, results in absolutely crap information, and weakens the justice of your cause.

But politicians really like it a lot.