The Long Red Line

pieterhpieterh wrote on 12 Dec 2014 11:04


We celebrate the close of 2014 with a 500-page executive summary of the CIA Torture Report. "This is democracy, promise!" says the state, as it casually tortures, for profit and amusement. Society is defined by how well, or badly, we treat our weakest members. I want to comment.. no, that's wrong. I want to find the people responsible, and I want to hurt them. Instead, I'm republishing a short story I wrote in 2008, about torture.

They come as they often do, early in the morning. This time, with dogs. They break the door, which shocks me awake. In no time they are in my room, lights in my face, shouting at me for papers. I reach for my wallet, they take it, pull out my identity card, someone shouts, "OK, we've got him", and I'm pushed out of bed onto the floor. I see boots, uniformed legs, then a blow to the head knocks me down, and out.

Impossible emotions. They wash through me, redefine me. Arrested, I am an innocent man, caught in a mistake. Panic, fear, submission. They have searched my apartment, my kitchen, office, found nothing except a typewriter. My typewriter. They show it to me, ask: you have a permit? I tell them, it was my father's, before the days we needed permits. They tell me I am an anarchist, a revolutionary, a criminal. I reply that I write stories, my job, how I live. They tell me my stories are subversive, sick things. They put a hood over my head, shackle my hands behind me, walk me to the cell, leave me. Innocence, shock, disbelief, dismay, cold fear. Shackled, in the dark, I can think of nothing except who will come to save me. But of course, my disappearance is undocumented, no phone calls, no notes. It will be days before someone realizes I am gone, and then how can they find me?

I was Samuel. I felt my bare feet on the hard red earth, as I ran fast down the hill, towards the river. My mind was still back in that place, where the priest told us to hide. All dead. I could still see the priest's face as he opened the door, and showed us like a prize to the men with pangas. His eyes wide, he shouted, you see, I told you, they're all here! The men pushed him aside, hauled us out of the room, there were screams and the blood of my sisters, my cousins, everywhere. A man's hand gripped my arm, so hard, but his grip was slippery and I twisted and kicked and suddenly I was free and running, down the long red road, down the hill to the river. Behind me, the screams continued, and I heard laughter. I needed to cross the river and run to my uncle's village to warn them. Then something hit me so hard, in the back, and I fell, my legs folding, my face greeting the red soil as I rolled over and over. I managed to look back, and a soldier had emerged from the bush, his gun pointed at me. His smile was stretched thin and vicious, and then he aimed and fired again, and my blood mixed with the red earth.

It's been more than two weeks, I think. They confuse my sense of time. The cell has no window, the light and meals follow no rhythm. Sometimes it is dark only for long enough to fall into sleep, sometimes I lie awake in darkness for endless hours. But when the screaming and shouting from other cells subsides, and the silence takes over, I can hear the tiny low roar of distant city traffic. Twice a day, morning and evening it rises, and twice a week it falls. I cling to this clock, this fragile connection to the real world, like a drowning man to a float. If the music or shouts are too loud for too long, my grip will fail and I will drown in the endless depths of my imprisonment.

What matters more to them, I wonder? My presence here, or my absence from out there. My disappearance, the terror, maybe even stories about what they are doing to me. That would explain the cameras. They rule by fear. It keeps the people locked in their own homes, silent, broken. My slow crucifixion echoes the larger fate of the nation as it is terrorised into passivity and looted of its humanity and identity and wealth.

I try to be angry, to find the hatred in me. But my mind is too confused, the shock is too strong, all I have are questions and confusion. In my cell, in the dark, I wait.

I was Ishmael. They picked me up on a country road near my home, walking the goats. My captors sold me to foreign soldiers. They took me to a prison, and tortured me. They used many techniques. They tried to make me confess I was a terrorist. I was very afraid. I tried to explain. I told them I was a goatherd. The beatings were violent, and I became very sick. My captors were ordinary but stupid men. They did not know much. They were angry when I died, but what else could I have done? They buried me in a white cotton sack, behind the prison walls. Rich red poppies grow there now.

Alone in my cell I lose all track of time. They play constant music, not pleasant but like the screams of the others, orchestrated and amplified. I cannot sleep, cannot hear the traffic. They have started asking me questions, long complex questions about my stories and my life. I try to explain that they are not profound, simple tales for simple people. They tell me I'm a liar, that I'm the organizer of a terrorist cell. They tell me to confess and name my accomplices. I shake my head, how can a man confess to crimes he did not commit? But in the end of course I confess, and I give them names, every name I can think of, anyone. As I give them my parents, my uncles, my brothers and sister, my friends, my old colleagues, my teachers from school, my publisher, the shame fills me and I want to die. But my confessions do not bring me peace. I am locked up again, and now I'm tortured by images of my beloved ones, trapped and hurt, because of my own weakness.

I was Simon. My cell was a small cage of metal bars, barely large enough to squat in. I could not stand, turn around, just breathe. They tortured me through the bars, using an electric cattle prod, and a hose pipe. We were somewhere in the factory, and I could hear the heavy machinery as my workers, now without their union leader, continued to produce cars for the wealthy. The men who shocked and stunned me with the high pressure hose sometimes spoke with a foreigner, a white man with a strong accent. He seemed to be in charge. They took me out of the cage, and I fell to the ground, unable to stand. They kicked me, and kept kicking me, in the head, the chest, the groin, the back, the face. I was swimming in a river of my own blood, and then my mind soared, and the anger and fear stopped. My eyes were filled with red, red blood, but I had dived under the waters and was gone.

Their faces haunt me. The guilt squeezes like hands around my throat. I bang my head against the wall until there is blood. Unknown faces too, yet familiar. Flashbacks. I am back in my office, typing. The letter begins, "Dear Sirs, I am writing to report an injustice." I try to recall the rest of the letter but my memory is beginning to fragment. I am confusing things, what they tell me, what I remember. Especially the long hours alone in the grey cell, they are intolerable. I start to welcome the footsteps in the hall, the keys in the lock, the arms pulling me out and down the corridor to the place where they interrogate me.

It becomes physical now, my mind offering them no more sport. Now they work my body, like curious explorers. The pain is unlike anything I ever imagined but it brings me a strange peace, wiping out all my thoughts and pushing me to another place. In that place I feel I can see countless others like me, in many times and places. Innocents, caught in the free market of violence. The pain is a long red river filled with bodies and broken lives.

I was Amanda. They shaved my lovely long hair and made me wear a blonde wig. I was held in a cellar with a dozen other women. Teachers, students, nurses like me seized from the hospital after they shot our patients. In the evenings they took us outside, made us strip, then sprayed us with a water hose. They threw us bundles of clothes and made us dress. All the time they were shouting at us, mocking us, commenting on our bodies. Then we were taken upstairs to the place where the soldiers drank and smoked, and we were passed around and used like dolls. Each day we wept, we ate, we waited, together, a sisterhood of suffering. One day I stole a long red scarf and strangled myself from the metal bunk bed. I welcomed the dying of the light, there was no rage, only shame and sorrow.

Today they have shackled my hands and hung me up from hooks in the ceiling. A large mirror on the wall shows a man, me, naked and bloody, deep bruises all over my/his body and head, arms and legs twisted into tormented shapes. My right arm feels broken, and I try to stand to ease the pain as it razes through me. But they beat my legs, knees, feet, thighs with metal bars until my bones shatter. I think they aim too high, and break my lower spine because the pain in my legs suddenly stops. Behind the mirror, I can see dark figures moving. As often, a man in the room is filming the scene. I finally find my anger and hot hatred fills me. I watch two policemen beating the reflected me, heavily, methodically. The cuffs bite into his wrists but the cuts don't bleed. I scream in anger.

I was Hua-Lin. They were stealing our land to build a hotel, so me and my brothers organized the villagers into a committee. We were meeting when police broke into the room and took us away. They shouted at us that we were pigs, dogs, and traitors. They shot my younger brother there, in front of the whole village. He bled but no-one stepped forward. Ten of us were pushed into a lorry, taken to the police station. I know the place because I was arrested a year before, for writing a letter to the regional administrator. We were isolated. They drowned me, and revived me, many times. It was a game for them, to see how far they could go. They did not interrogate me, there was nothing to ask, or tell. My death was a line drawn in blood: don't cross.

Now I am shivering madly with rage, and my sight is failing. The mirror is dancing, I cannot keep my head up, and I lose sight of the reflected me. I still hear screams but they come from the other me. I feel nothing for him. His pain, his life, these are no longer mine. The long red line is calling me, and I step towards it, abandoning the dangling me. My captors have stopped their violence, now someone in a white coat, a doctor, is inspecting the other me and opening his black bag. It is too late, laughably too late.

The other me is uncuffed and lying on the floor now, still screaming hatred at his captors. His anger is shocking, unexpected after all this time. Separated from the pain and the anger in that body, I start to understand, it starts finally to make sense. Truth walks into the room, kneels beside the dying me and soothes his forehead. Sshh, she says, it'll all be OK. You are not alone. It is not over. It is never over. He tries to answer but his voice and mouth have stopped working. He makes useless moaning noises. The doctor is still busy with needles.

I was Joseph. They took me one morning, and locked me in a cell. They said I was an anarchist, a terrorist, a danger to society. But I was just a writer of children's stories. They broke my mind first, then they broke my body. There was a crime but only at the end did I realize the victim was me, it always is. I betrayed everyone I knew and loved. Please forgive me, please forgive them, please forgive us all. We do not know what we do.

Truth silences me with a soft finger on my lips and carries me without effort to the bank of the river. She washes my face with hands cupped full of the deep cool water, then we walk slowly up the road, a gash of red earth in the greenness of the bush. The sun is setting, and I hear the sounds of insects in the brush. It is warm. Calm. Up the road, homecoming awaits.

They come as they often do, early in the morning. This time, with dogs.


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