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This Is What It Was Like to Be Tortured at Campo de Mayo

08/30/2015 09:19 EDT | Updated 08/30/2016 05:59 EDT
laurenbergstrom via Getty Images
A young woman moving out of darkness into light.

At the age of 19, I was taken and secretly imprisoned. In September of 1976, at a time when the Argentinean dictatorship's Dirty War against its own citizens was ramping up, I was kidnapped and taken to an army black site called Campo de Mayo, where I was tortured and held for four weeks. Thanks to the courageous efforts of my family and many people I will never know, I was released. I have since dedicated my life's work and my voice to the thousands who never reappeared and I have pledged to continue their efforts to build a better world.

On this day, the International Day of the Disappeared, I want to share my story. Every day people around the world are being secretly detained, sometimes tortured. Their families are left desperate for information never knowing if they are safe or even if they are still alive. I will start by telling you something of my childhood and youth, this is important because mine is similar to the story of many political activists around the world who speak truth to power or work for justice only to be silenced by enforced disappearance.

My parents had migrated to Argentina when they were a young couple. I was born in the United States but grew up in Argentina. Occasionally we would visit our American relatives. On one such trip when I was 14, I was old enough to recognize the social and economic difference between my two worlds. I saw the opulence of the society of my birth.

On the return trip, we stopped in Bolivia. There I was confronted for the first time with extreme poverty in a small community near Santa Cruz. During the week we were there, three children died of measles. How was that possible? I had loved getting measles when I was seven: I stayed home from school and I was cared for like a princess. I suddenly realized that measles could cause death for children who lacked good nutrition, clean water and access to health care. We stayed only a few days but the experience left me changed, I returned to Argentina with a deep conviction to fight against poverty and injustice. I started doing volunteer work at a daycare, in a tenement. Eventually, my experiences led me to work with a grassroots political organization in a poor community in Flores.

It is at this point my memory becomes a whirl, as years of moments flash like a movie in fast forward. I remember marches; I remember the sad and worried look on my dad's face; I remember demonstrations after the coup in Chile and my participation as a student activist in high school, and later in university; I remember organizing others... feeling that in the effort to build a better society I was also building an extended family; I remember the time when talking and organizing became dangerous; I remember my mother's anguish as she realized the danger I was in. People had been disappearing sporadically for years but many more started to disappear in 1976.

We come to a jarring halt the night of September 13. The night that some 10 men armed with submachine guns and dressed in civilian clothes broke into our home in Buenos Aires. They blindfolded me and forced me into an unmarked van.

I was taken to the infamous Campo de Mayo. I knew then this meant torture and death. Compared to some, my time at Campo de Mayo was relatively short, four weeks -- that felt like four centuries. The next day the torture began and with it the test of my resilience. Again, memories are a maelstrom of images, sounds and smells: interrogation sessions, my head submerged in water or sewage, rats running amongst exhausted and tortured bodies, injections of "truth" serum, nights of rape. The worst was the grill. Prisoners were strapped to a metal frame and "the picana" -- an electric prong -- was applied to the most sensitive parts of the body. At times my heart would fibrillate and stop as I entered into the bliss of unconsciousness. A doctor revived me so that I could to be questioned or tortured again.

I learned that human beings are often endowed with great resilience, that our humanity is not crushed easily even in the worst conditions.

During my disappearance my brave family had raised the alarm. They had gone to the media, reached out to church related contacts in the U.S. and Canada and were leading a campaign to release me. My family's connections to North America saved me. There is no question that, but for my U.S. passport and the efforts made by my family to raise public pressure I would never have been reappeared.

I had survived but once I was released there were new tests of strength and resilience. My young body recovered, on the outside it healed, bruises banished. At a slower pace, the inner body healed too. A doctor told me I would not be able to have children but my body would not let the dictators and torturers win and at age 26 I gave birth to my son Marco and 10 years later came my daughter Luana.

The mental wounds were greater and have taken longer to heal. In the beginning a huge guilt grew in me. I was disappeared by the regime because of my commitment to justice and equality and here I was free due to the accident of birth, and not because I was more or less involved in the struggle than those who died. But I came to realize that my guilt was only useful to the culprits. It kept me falsely ashamed and silent. My challenge was to talk, to share my story and the story of those silenced by the regime.

Over the last 40 years, I have recounted my story many times. Before my release I memorized as many names of other Campo de Mayo prisoners as possible so that they I could make them known and remembered. After my release, along with others, I successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to withhold military aid to Argentina. Once the dictatorship ended in Argentina and I was able to return, I testified on behalf of my fellow disappeared at Truth and Reconciliation hearings and in court.

The International Day of the Disappeared is a time for us to reflect on those who were taken, their lives often cut short in the most brutal ways. With that reflection we must also demand change. We must call on all governments to adhere to human rights laws and conventions, to ensure due process and that those who are imprisoned are seen and known. Only when there is this kind of transparency can atrocities be avoided and we can put an end to unjust and brutal imprisonment.

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