Violence Rages on Well After the Conflict Is Over -- How War-Time Torture Can Turn into a Life of Domestic Violence
The following is an excerpt from Ann Jones' War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan Books, 2010):
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 2008, as BBC TV presenters wearing crisp red paper poppy boutonnieres interview the last survivors of the Great War in Flanders fields, I sit in a sleazy hotel room off Hamra Street in Beirut, going over my notes of the day's interviews with refugees from the war in Iraq. After weeks of talking to refugees in Amman and Damascus, I met today in Beirut for the first time an Iraqi who actually was liberated by the American invasion of his country. His name is Ahmad.
As a young man, Ahmad worked as a mechanic in Baghdad and somehow managed to avoid being conscripted to serve in Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. By 1986, when he was twenty- six, the war had turned in Iran's favor. The Ayatollah Khomeini threatened to depose Saddam Hussein, and Saddam in turn cracked down on suspected enemies at home. He arrested Ahmad's sister and her husband, who were associated with a dissident party, and he arrested Ahmad as well. Charged as enemies of Saddam Hussein, Ahmad's sister and her husband were hanged, and Ahmad was sentenced to sixty years in prison.
Interrogators tortured him every day for two years, trying to elicit a confession worthy of his sentence. He had nothing to confess. Interrogators pulled out his toenails, burned and cut the skin from his lower legs, inserted a hose in his anus and pumped him full of water, administered electric shocks to parts of his body he cannot name, and beat his head and body with wooden clubs and steel batons. At last he told them to write down what ever they liked and he would sign it. After that false confession, his captors abandoned the most brutal "enhanced interrogation" techniques; they had what they wanted. But they continued to beat him routinely, less viciously and less often, for sixteen years. In 2003, two days after the American invasion, Ahmad and his fellow prisoners realized that the guards had abandoned the prison. They broke down the doors and set themselves free. Ahmad returned to his parents' home and found work again as a mechanic. Two months after his escape, he winked at a woman working in a cosmetics shop across the road. She smiled and seven days later they married. Her name is Azhar. They moved into a house they bought together. Then in July 2005, as Iraq descended into chaos, Ahmad was kidnapped by men from the Mahdi Army who demanded $150,000 ransom. He says, "I had been so happy -- loving life, laughing, spending money -- they must have thought I was rich." The kidnappers also held two children, and when no ransom was paid, they cut their throats before Ahmad's eyes. Azhar borrowed $10,000 from her parents to arrange Ahmad's release after fifteen days in captivity. Soon Ahmad received a letter warning him to leave his house or be killed. He and his wife sold everything, repaid her parents, and fled to Syria where Azhar soon gave birth to a son. For a year they lived what Ahmad calls "a simple life." In 2007, running out of money, Ahmad went to Lebanon.
He had been told that he might find highly paid work in Beirut, but he didn't. Penniless and lonely, in November 2007 he sent for his wife and son. The family registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and asked to be resettled in another country. Referred to the United States, they were interviewed by U.S. embassy officials. They wait for a decision in a windowless one-room apartment that reminds Ahmad of prison. Fear of being detained and deported by the authorities keeps him confined to that room. He suffers depression, anxiety, flashbacks. And he beats his wife as he was beaten. He was tortured. He tortures her. ("Domestic violence" is the euphemism we use to name torture that takes place in the home, but a comparison of standard techniques -- from stripping and sleep deprivation to beating, burning, bondage, asphyxiation, and sexual assault -- shows that torture by another name is still torture.) Slowly, with the help of psychotherapists at Restart, a UNHCR-funded program for survivors of torture, Ahmad is learning to stop abusing Azhar. "She is my life," he says. "I would die without her." (She says, "I choose to share this life of misery with him.") He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and chronic back pain, the physical effects of his long imprisonment, and from the unrelenting depression of a man so poor he has only one set of clothes. The family of his youth is gone: three sisters in Sweden, one in Germany, one killed in the first American war, one executed, two brothers shot and killed during the second American war, one by an Iraqi militiaman in the street, the other by an American soldier in the living room. Ahmad fears for his child. Waiting for the American embassy to call, he says, "I need to know if my son has a future."
Today, in the bleak room he shares with Azhar and their young son in South Beirut, Ahmad removed his plastic shoes to show me his swollen feet, still purple and marked by sunken scars where toenails used to be. He says that when he has flashbacks he feels overcome by powerlessness and rage. What these feelings compel him to do threatens to destroy his life. He sometimes loses control and hits Azhar hard, and then he weeps and begs her pardon. His eyes seem to leak even as he says these things.
I am here to listen. I listen to what people like Ahmad and Azhar tell me about war and the violence that attends it because my own life -- the only life I can know firsthand, and even that imperfectly -- has been darkened by war. That war is now commemorated with paper poppies, the Great War, in which my father served with uncommon distinction and from which he returned a hero, irrevocably changed, subject to nightmares and sudden rages and drunken assaults upon innocent furniture and my mother and me, and tearful reconciliations we were not permitted to reject. I watch the BBC coverage of the distant ritual of Armistice Day and see many people, mostly women, advanced well beyond middle age, weeping with remembrance.
Their memories, I imagine, might be like mine: the memories of people who never participated in the war and yet have never escaped it. My father, at sixteen, enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force to take part in the war to end all wars. But that's not how it worked out. In some ways, as the BBC presenter says, the Great War laid the foundation for more wars to come, and certainly for wars at home, like the one my father waged for twenty years and more against my mother and me in a dark-green-shuttered house in a small town in Wisconsin. The war my father carried home in his khaki canvas bag from the trenches of Flanders to the valley of the Chippewa is the shadow in which I've lived my solitary life. It is surely the reason that now in my seventieth year I sit in this seedy room in a fading hotel long favored by journalists and stare at cigarette burns in the worn carpet, and see only the purple toes of Ahmad and the fading yellow bruises on the face of his wife.
My father used to say that wars were made by men who had never been to war, men who didn't know that once started it never ends. The Great War ended with the Armistice in 1918, but my father lived another sixty years; and during all that time the war never left his memory or his nightmares. Nor is it ever far from mine, because the violence my father brought home fell on me and shattered what ever small childish trust I may once have had in the simplicity of love. The violence of war does not end when peace is declared. Often it merely recedes from public to private life. I am here in Beirut talking about war, writing about war, because my father fought bravely in a brutal one. And that changed everything for him, and consequently for me.
For many years I studied violence in the family and wrote about it in several books. I was part of a widespread movement of women in the United States and elsewhere who worked hard to change attitudes and laws about violence against women, inside and outside the home, and to provide services for women and child survivors. It was the home that I wanted to make safe for women and children because the home was what I knew, in all its fearful rage and sorrow.
Many of us who did this work argued that the violence of private life is not private at all. So often it spills into the world at large. An abusive husband shoots his estranged wife in her workplace and kills some of her colleagues as well. Another appears for a child custody hearing and shoots his wife, her lawyer, the judge, and other bystanders. We see such stories often in the media. Accounts of these routine rampages invariably accept the shooter's anger at his estranged wife or girlfriend as sufficient explanation for mass homicide. But where does such rage come from?
I still believe that violence in the home imperils us all. Just as it spills into the streets, it schools the next generation in violence. But now I wonder if that is truly where violence starts, at home. When my father attacked my mother or me, he was often angry about something altogether different. He laid into us -- me especially -- because I was there. But the response? The techniques? Those were things he had learned in the army. In fact it must have been his success in learning to act so swiftly, so effectively, so violently that made him a hero and earned him the highest honors of three allied countries. His medals hung on the wall at home, under glass. Friends of our family often said to me: "You must be so proud of your father." I was. I admired him and loved him, even though I knew what his heroism cost us, and him, at home.
One stronghold of the battered women's movement -- in Mary land, if I remember rightly -- distributed T-shirts bearing the words WORLD PEACE BEGINS AT HOME. I believed it. Raise up children in peaceful homes free of violence, I thought, and they will make peace. But now, having spent the last many years in and around wars, I think the motto is painfully idealistic. The relationship it describes is reciprocal, but not fair. World peace may begin at home, but violence just as surely begins in war; and war does not end.
Ahmad's cry -- "I need to know if my son has a future" -- is echoed by all survivors of the violence of war. What will become of the children? During the war in Vietnam, the peace movement had a slogan: "War is not healthy for children and other living things." In the violence of war, children are orphaned, maimed, mutilated, sexually assaulted, kidnapped, forced to be soldiers or servants or sex slaves, tortured, and murdered. The children who survive the violence of war may be deeply wounded, robbed of childhood, and poised to enter adult life already crippled beyond repair. Even children who know war only at secondhand, the children of soldiers returning from far-off lands, may be bent. Any of these damaged children may inflict the harm done to them upon others, even when it breaks their hearts.
Think of wars of recent memory and those still going on in the world today. Think of Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Burma. Think of Darfur, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone. Think of Sri Lanka, Kashmir, East Timor, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Think of Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia, Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia. Think especially of the United States, which has been at war, overtly or covertly, some place (or many places) in the world almost continuously since 1941.
Today children and their mothers are among the first victims of such wars. Despite the conventions of modern warfare that forbid armies to target civilians, it is civilians who die in far greater numbers than do soldiers. The more high-tech the army, the more sophisticated its weaponry, the safer the soldiers; but that shield does not extend to citizens. In fact, in many conflicts today, ruthless leaders use an effective strategy to destroy the civil society and culture of the enemy: a deliberate but unacknowledged war against women.
Excerpted from WAR IS NOT OVER WHEN IT'S OVER: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War by Ann Jones, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ann Jones. All rights reserved.