How an Aid Worker Gained the Respect of Torturers
“I could see Marcella, still blindfolded, handcuffed, standing against a wall. She looked like a still photograph – objectified, dehumanized. It was then I knew I couldn’t leave her. Not a big courageous decision; (it was) just the right thing to do.”
With quiet intensity, 28 year-old Winnipegger Karen Ridd recently mesmerized audiences across southern Ontario, recounting her experiences in El Salvador. A clown-worker with autistic children, Ridd now belongs to Quaker-oriented Peace Brigades International which keeps spaces open in Central America for organizations committed to peaceful change. In November, with Colombian co-worker Marcella Diaz, she was assigned to a church sanctuary for refugees fleeing bombers over the inner city where they lived.
Suddenly, soldiers arrived. Church workers were seized, removed and not seen again for six weeks: Karen and Marcella, blindfolded and shackled, were hustled to the death squad torture centre. Separated, they were beaten, threatened, and interrogated for seven hours. The blindfold, Karen says, performs three functions: “You can’t see your interrogator; you don’t know where anything is coming from; you become faceless, and the unspeakable can be done.”
After intervention from Ottawa, orders came for Ridd’s release. Unexpectedly glimpsing Marcella, she refused to leave without her. “You wouldn’t abandon your campagnero,” she told her astonished captors.
Amazingly, behind the uniforms and rituals of terror they understood. Off came the wrist-locks and blindfolds. “They put me with Marcella; we could reach out and grab hands. For the next two hours, men came and stared; not in mockery, but with respect, and even a little bit of awe.
“I know those men were torturers,” says Ridd. “But there in the heart of darkness, a spark of human caring bound us all.” The experience confirmed her faith in “the god-presence in everyone”. Also her confidence in non-violence “as a way of overturning the rules, breaking open a violent dynamic and changing it to something else.”
Karen’s Winnipeg family was never wealthy. Growing up she realized, however, that “as white North American, middle class, educated, I will always have access to power that most of the world’s people do not…”
In El Salvador, “it’s not communism versus democracy; it’s a struggle of abject poverty versus opulence.” The struggle has lasted centuries; 14 families still control the wealth. “When you talk to people living in cardboard houses, they don’t spout Marxist theory. They talk of not having food for their children, fear that someone will bang on the door at midnight and take one of them away.”
How do people go on in the face of that? A Salvadoran friend tells Ridd, “Despair is a first-world luxury. Those living in the issues of life and death don’t indulge themselves by giving up.”
Jubilant Eastern Europeans and Nelson Mandela, free at last in South Africa, are witness to that. Canadian support for people struggling for freedom, says Karen Ridd, means that “when they finally celebrate, we can be present with them, while they are dancing in the street.”
By: Bruce McLeod, former Moderator of the United Church, written while Minister at Toronto’s Bellefair United Church. Toronto Star, 1989
(Karen Ridd, winner of a Governor-General’s Gold Medal, has since attained an M.A. in Peace and Justice, practiced as a mediator, facilitator, teacher and public speaker around the world, as well as teaching in the Conflict Resolution Studies programme at Menno Simons College.)