From Argentina, Chile and Iran, They Lived to Tell and Teach
Three survivors of state torture – an Argentine architect and activist, a Chilean artist, and an Iranian journalist and author – tell their stories on campus this month. In an installation on display Oct. 25-27 in Broad Art Center, Victor Videla Godoy will recreate his prison cell, this time lined with his remarkable, rediscovered correspondence with his mother.
"When you've read my letters, please burn them," Victor Videla Godoy told his mother, Berta. A victim of torture and political persecution, the Chilean prisoner addressed about 100 letters to her from cell number 147 of Villa Devoto Prison in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the hellhole where he spent almost nine months in 1976 and passed his 29th birthday.
His jailers allowed him to see his mother, who traveled from Chile to Argentina, once for just 15 minutes. It was the last time they were ever to be together. She died in 1983.
Copies of those same letters, some of which Videla Godoy found 24 years later in a suitcase given to him by his sister, will be lining a re-creation of his prison cell in a powerful, grim art installation he assembled called “147 memoria.” It will be open to public viewing Monday, Oct. 25, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Design Media Arts Grad Gallery in the Broad Art Center.
Now an artist living in democratic Chile, Videla Godoy, who was imprisoned and tortured during the Pinochet dictatorship and later kidnapped by an Argentinean police force, will be giving a talk, in Spanish, at the exhibition opening on Monday.
He is one of three survivors of state torture and imprisonment who are telling their stories on campus this month. On Oct. 6, Argentine torture survivor and Truth Commission member Patricia Isasa gave a lecture sponsored by UCLA's International Human Rights Law Program and cosponsored by UCLA Center for Argentina, Chile and the Southern Cone (CACSC), which also sponsored Videla Godoy’s visit.
Then on Oct. 17–18, Houshang Asadi, an Iranian journalist, writer and translator now based in Paris, spoke to campus audiences in Persian and English about his ordeal at the hands of the revolution he'd once supported. His talk was part of an ongoing bilingual lecture series organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Isasa herself, through courageous and painstaking investigation after she was freed, began to build the legal case against some of the people who had tortured and raped her in prison, and eventually won the conviction of six "dirty war" perpetrators. She was a 16-year-old student union organizer when police kidnapped her and put her in a clandestine prison without charges for two and a half years.
Because of an impunity law that remained in force until 2005, the real criminals of the dictatorship years lived and worked in plain sight. One of Isasa's interrogators, Hermes Brusa, rose to become a federal judge. At her UCLA talk, Isasa recalled surreal Argentine newspaper articles about Brusa's sentencing of far lesser criminals than himself.
"It is disorder to live with or close to these kind of people in your own society," Isasa told the law school audience. She felt that a weight was lifted after the convictions of Brusa and five former policemen last year.
As the Truth Commission continues its work, Isasa said, Argentina will soon open the first trial to treat sexual violence as a crime against humanity. "This is very important," she said. "Some people think, 'You are in a concentration camp. It is so common to rape a woman.' But it is a crime, and it is a special crime. It is part of a plan, more or less to destroy you."
Houshang Asadi, author of the new book "Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution and Imprisonment in Iran," said that the horrific abuse he endured for more than two years beginning in 1983, when the Islamic government cracked down on all opposition parties, was carried out under a different system than the Shah-era legal framework that first landed him in Moshtarek prison as a young communist in the 1970s.
"After the revolution … we were not considered political criminals. We were corrupt. We had non-human, terrible characteristics," Asadi said. "There were no laws. It was arbitrary. A judge would decide your fate, and you could get a sentence of death for reading an article."
Having falsely confessed to spying for both Britain and Russia, Asadi received a sentence of death by hanging, but he was freed after six years and escaped to France in 2003. Now he co-edits the news website Rooz Online with his wife, Nooshabeh Amiri, also a prominent journalist. He told his story in Persian to about 100 people on Oct. 17 and again in English in Bunche Hall on Oct. 18, joined by the translator of the English edition, Nushin Arbabzadah, who is a visiting scholar with the UCLA Center for India and South Asia and the Center for the Study of Women.
"Please don't think that Iran is about torture," Asadi said, citing the ancient charter of Cyrus the Great and other cultural achievements. "Such practices are exercised without any qualm by a group that has imposed itself on Iran."
Although the circumstances were different in each case, all three of the campus visitors said that their survival under detention was far from certain. Of the 105 political prisoners jailed in his section of Villa Devoto, for example, Videla Godoy was one of only 12 who lived to tell what happened, he said.
Only after imprisonment could he speak truthfully. In his own letters from prison to his mother, Videla Godoy offered a pleasant fiction about his treatment under Argentina's dictatorship, which then was cooperating with the Pinochet regime and other governments in the persecution of leftists. Partly to evade censorship by the two governments, he spun fantasies that now remind him of Roberto Benigni's 1997 film "Life is Beautiful," in which an Italian Jew shields his son from the realities of a Nazi concentration camp.
"I never told my mother that I was hungry, that I was cold, that they hit us, or that they punished us, but just the opposite," said Videla Godoy. "Since the prison was called Villa Devoto – villa, town – I told her there was a big field full of things, with animals. I told her stories that weren't true."
He kept corresponding with his mother after he was expelled to Zurich, Switzerland, and until her death in 1983. But it was not until 2000 that Videla Godoy, by then an artist living once more in Chile, received from his sister a familiar blue suitcase in which their late father had once locked private papers. Inside, organized by date and country, was the preserved mother-and-son correspondence, including letters from her that he never received because they were returned to Berta Godoy.
"You have to keep fighting," Videla Godoy urged. "Everyone fights however they can. This art that I make is also an art of denunciation."