The torture never ends
Thousands of survivors of torture live in Ireland. We talk to three of them, from Uganda, Zimbabwe and Northern Ireland
Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Tortured memories: Paddy Joe McClean. Photograph: Trevor McBride
Tortured memories: Franky Nyakture with his wife, Larysa, and their daughter, Melysa. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, a torturer proposes that there are two classes of people, the “torturable” and the “untorturable”, with the latter made safe by nationality, wealth and skin colour. Those who work with torture victims know that it’s not so simple; that the lines between those classes frequently get blurred.
A substantial number of people living on this island have been tortured. Many of them can’t believe it’s happened to them. Rory Halpin, the rehabilitation coordinator at Spirasi, the Spiritan Asylum Service Initiative, says about 30 per cent of asylum seekers have experienced torture and the organisation holds hundreds of files that document horrendous acts of cruelty.
Next Wednesday is UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Worldwide, torture is endemic. Anne Fitzgerald, the director of research and crisis response at Amnesty International, has been to refugee camps in which “every woman had been raped” and countries where “torture is rife”.
The problem in recent years, she says, is that torture is tolerated again in the developed world. “There was a public attitude 12 years ago that it was like slavery; unacceptable at any place or time,” she says. “Since the ‘war on terror’, practices that constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or out-and-out torture are seen to be acceptable again.”
This is problematic. Ian Cobain, the author of Cruel Britannia, A Secret History of Torture, says he knows “British diplomats who, when they brought up human-rights issues, have had extraordinary rendition thrown straight back in their face”.
In his book, he outlines Britain’s history of torture from the second World War to colonial Kenya, Northern Ireland in the 1970s and the war on terror. I ask him about the use of Shannon Airport for extraordinary rendition. “If you allow them to fuel and take off you may not be wielding bloody pliers . . . but you are involved,” he says.
Spirasi provides a safe space for victims of torture. Every day Halpin deals with ordinary men and women who have experienced horrible things: “beating, kicking, electrocution, submersion, water-boarding, being put in confined spaces, rape . . . stones being tied to people’s genitals . . . Anything awful you can think of has been done.”
PADDY JOE McCLEAN
Tortured by the British security forces in Northern Ireland
“For 40 years I’ve been doing my best to put it out of my head. If I talk about it there’s a reoccurrence of it and the wife complains about me kicking her in my sleep.” Paddy Joe McClean laughs. He’s 80 years old and we’re sitting in his kitchen in Beragh, Co Tyrone. He laughs a lot, but what he’s talking about isn’t funny.
In 1971, McClean was interned without trial and, along with 13 others, he was selected for a system of interrogation known as the Five Techniques.
McClean, who was then 38, was a remedial teacher and a civil-rights campaigner. Apparently, he was chosen because the interrogators needed a geographical spread of internees and couldn’t find an IRA man from the Omagh area. “The best they would say was, ‘You’re the chairman of the civil-rights association, people trust you, therefore you’ve been talking to IRA men.’ As if anyone had come up to me and said, ‘Sure I’m an IRA man.’ That doesn’t happen in life.‘”
McClean was examined by a doctor, dressed in an ill-fitting boiler suit, hooded and tortured. “They’d make you stand on your tippy toes with legs apart and hands against the wall and if you looked like falling you got kicked and were put back up again.” “Kicked” understates it. He shows me the back of his leg where he needed to get skin grafts because of the damage. The torturers were inventive. “Sometimes they would pick you up and run your spine up and down over the edge of a table.”