“Torture videos are playing over and over in my head”

Ahlam Chemlali travels the world documenting torture for the organisation DIGNITY. The instability and corruption that creates torture can be beaten with the right investment, she argues. But this work has been jeopardised by government cuts to the foreign aid budget

‘The Rapist from Brega’ and ‘The Butcher from Misrata’ aren’t characters from a sordid horror story – they’re reality stars in Libya whose acts of torture and sexual violence are watched on computers and phones across the country.

“Torture is systematically filmed and shared and while it is entertainment for some, it is mainly a way of spreading fear – the videos are modern war trophies.”

Uncovering the extent to which torture is practiced around the world is part of Ahlam Chemlali’s job at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture. In Libya she found that social media and technology have allowed torture to invade the everyday lives of millions of people.

“These videos blur the lines between reality and conflict, but everyone in them is real. The intersection of torture, porn, and extreme sexual violence is a huge problem. Libya is a small country and just by knowing someone’s surname you know which tribe they belong to. So everyone quickly knows who the victors and victims are.”

Torture is nothing new in Libya and its former dictator Muammar Gaddafi deployed it mercilessly against his people to maintain hold over the country. Chemlali visited Libya soon after Gaddafi was deposed in 2011 and remembers smoking a water pipe while gazing over the Mediterranean. But the calm was short-lived. Instead of transitioning to a democracy, the power vacuum was filled with competing militias who also employ torture to maintain their grip on power.

“Libya is suffering under chaos and total anarchy, with around 40 percent of the population dependent on humanitarian assistance. Up to a million people are stuck in Libya waiting to go to Europe, the borders to Egypt and Tunisia are closed so the only direction they can travel is north. That’s why the EU’s policy of turn around migrant boats won’t solve anything.

“We need to treat the root causes; an unstable Libya that we helped created through the Nato bombing of infrastructure. We did not stick around to rebuild the institutions. We have a responsibility for Libya’s deterioration, and a responsibility for the migrants in the country.”

Everyday torture
Chemlali wants us to see torture as a phenomenon that can arise in any country under the right circumstances. It’s an important indicator for how well a country is doing, and it says a lot about the state of its judicial system and the level of poverty and corruption.

“We normally associate torture with dungeons and underground chambers. But it’s rarely like that,” she says, explaining that what she most often comes across is ‘everyday torture’. One example is police that are placed under pressure by their superiors to meet unrealistic crime detection rates. The police then use violence to extract confessions.

“This is a huge problem and it takes place all over the world, from the Philippines to Kenya and South Africa. Torture becomes a norm and a culture that then filters down through society. It becomes normal to beat your wife and children and this fosters a cycle of violence.”

Victims of torture tend to be poor, as they lack the resources to defend themselves. But anyone is at risk of torture and persecution, though religious and ethnic minorities are particularly at risk.

“The goal is to dehumanise the other and make the other an enemy. We see it a lot in conflict areas, for example the American forces tortured prisoners in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib. The goal was to portray the people as subhuman and not worth grieving for.”

DIGNITY has a broad mandate, which includes preventing torture, rehabilitating victims, as well as carrying out research and anti-torture advocacy. At the top level they lobby governments to sign and ratify anti-torture conventions. On the ground they collaborate with local organisations that help them to carry out research and raise awareness of torture.

They also work together with police, who are often the main perpetrators of violence and torture, to train them in better practices and interrogation skills and techniques.

“There is often a lot of violence in prisons, but by employing just a few techniques they can become conflict free, which is in everyone’s best interests. We worked in one prison in Liberia, where we introduced anger management and play therapy that involved allowing prisoners to go out and play soccer. Before, the guards and prisoners would fight almost everyday, but as soon as they were playing football against each other this changed. So the solutions can often seem basic to some extent, but it’s simply about behaviour change. Signing a convention doesn’t make a change, you have to change people.”

Ahlam Chemlali. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Ahlam Chemlali. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

In some countries, such as Libya, the risk level is too high to do more than document and report on torture. They hand out questionnaires and carry out interviews in the general population to discover their exposure to torture and the impact it has had on their lives.

Torture victims often suffer from trauma, whose symptoms include depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The effects are also felt on friends and families of victims – so-called secondary trauma.

Chemlali noticed something uncanny when conducting research in Libya. Individuals who had never been subjected to torture themselves, nor had anyone close to them, were reporting similar trauma symptoms as torture victims.

“A lot of the people I interviewed in Libya showed similar symptoms and reactions – somatic pain, lack of sleep – without being exposed to torture. What we found is that just watching videos of torture and looking at pictures was as traumatising as witnessing it first hand. Even though there’s a barrier, it still creates trauma. This is important because it brings torture to a new level – everyone can be exposed.”

Personal impact
Chemlali has met hundreds of torture victims. She has heard their stories and seen their scars. She has even had to watch videos, where grinning and laughing men perform horrific sexual crimes. She knows that she is equally at risk of be traumatised, and in the beginning she wasn’t sure how she would react.

“The first few missions were a test: would I return crazy and take it out on my family and friends, or could I decouple myself? Thankfully I could, I found ways of coping. But of course my work still affects me, I’m human after all. I have torture videos playing over and over in my head, and stories I’ve heard that I will never forget.”

The need to be in the field and experience the reality of torture drives her to keep an emotional distance, she explains. She worries that by remaining at her desk, reading stories and calculating figures, the issues could become abstract.

“I need to see these people and the pictures in order to be able to talk about what’s really going on, so I manage to keep a distance. My work can help bring about justice and give a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. I’m the child of immigrants from Morocco, and I’ve always been taught to be aware of how lucky we are to live in this stable part of the world. With privilege comes responsibility – this has guided me through my studies and work.”

Ahlam Chemlali on a field mission in Uganda.

Ahlam Chemlali on a field mission in Uganda.

DIGNITY’s ambition to build a conflict free world is now being undermined, however. The government’s cuts to foreign aid has forced DIGNITY to close down projects.

Chemlali sees the cuts as fundamentally counter-productive, particularly in light of the government’s stated aim of focussing spending in areas close to conflict zones, rather than on aid for refugees in Denmark.

“The government is showing an enormous lack of leadership and international solidarity and responsibility. Torture arises because of poor institutional practices, but the cuts make it really hard for us and other NGOs to make change and prevent countries from becoming failed states,” she says.

Chemlali points out that the government still finds money to continue its history of joining US military interventions in the Middle East. Danish airstrikes both contributed to the fall of Gaddafi and more recently have been aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“What we spend on aid doesn’t even come close to military spending. But it takes decades to rebuild infrastructure and institutions after military interventions. The cuts are completely counterproductive.”

Big picture
The refugee crisis, the conflict in Syria, and Libya’s status as a failed state are normally spoken about as though they were separate and distinct issues. But Chemlali claims they are a part of a bigger picture that connects Western military interventions with a lack of investment for democratic movements and human rights.

“If we want to reduce the migration pressure on Europe, then we are doing the opposite of what we should be doing,” says Chemlali, referring to foreign aid cuts. “Politicians are so detached from reality they don’t even know what’s happening on the ground. We live in a country where we have an abundance of resources and stability – we can’t just block ourselves off.”

Refugees who do arrive in Denmark are often traumatised, says Chemlali, who estimates that 40 percent of Syrian refugees are victims of torture. While Denmark took in over 20,000 refugees last year, the government’s focus has been on reducing the number by eroding living conditions, reducing benefits, and making it more difficult to be granted family reunification.

But Chemlali says the worst part of the reaction is the language used by politicians in the ruling bloc to justify closing the borders.

“These people are fleeing torture and have already been dehumanised once. But now – simply in the way that we talk about the refugee crisis – it is happening again. People have talked about an ‘invasion’, a ‘flood’, or a ‘tsunami’, making it sound like a natural disaster rather than just people. We frame them like they are sub-human. Politicians suggest the men are traitors who should have stayed behind to fight for their country. It’s absurd and lacks any historical perspective. We forget the refugee crisis we went through in Europe. The solidarity has vanished and instead we are building walls and fences. It’s sad to see the richest continent in the world close in on itself when it should be accepting responsibility.” M


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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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