THE DIRTY WAR part 4: The Torture of Dr Norberto Liwsky (file No. 7397) [Warning: This material is graphic and highly disturbing in nature.]
The Dirty War (or Guerra Sucia) was a period of state-sponsored violence in Argentina from 1976 until 1983. Among the thousands of victims were left-wing activists, students, journalists, doctors, artists, guerillas and those thought to be guerillas. The numbers of those killed or kidnapped in “forced disappearances” (los desaparecidos) range from 9,000 to 30,000. The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONDEP) estimates the disappearance of around 13,000 individuals.
State terrorism was carried out primarily by Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship, which dubbed itself the “National Reorganization Process.” Speaking in support of the dictatorship-supported death squads that carried out these acts, Videla said: “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.” However most of the victims who were kidnapped and tortured were uninvolved in any guerilla activities.
NUNCA MAS: NEVER AGAIN (CONADEP Report, 1984)
The Torture of Dr Norberto Liwsky (file No. 7397)
Warning: This material is graphic and highly disturbing in nature.
The full text of the Nunca Mas report can be found here:
On 5 April 1978, at approximately 10 p.m., Dr Liwsky arrived at his flat in Flores, in Buenos Aires city:
As I was inserting the key in the lock I realized what was happening, because the door was pulled inwards violently and I stumbled forward.
I jumped back, trying to escape. Two shots (one in each leg) stopped me. However, I still put up a struggle, and for several minutes resisted, being handcuffed and hooded, as best I could. At the same time, I was shouting at the top of my lungs that I was being kidnapped, begging my neighbours to tell my family, and to try to stop them taking me away.
Finally, exhausted and blindfolded, I was told by the person who apparently was in command that my wife and two daughters had already been captured and ’disappeared’.
They had to drag me out, since I couldn’t walk because of the wounds in my legs. As we were leaving the building, I saw a car with a flashing red light in the street. By the sound of the voices and commands, and the slamming of car doors, interspersed with shouts from my neighbours, i presumed that this was a police car.
After several minutes of heated argument, the police car left. The others then took me out of the building and threw me on to the floor of a car, possibly a Ford Falcon, and set off.
They hauled me out of the car in the same way, carrying me between four of them. We crossed four or five metres of what by the sound of it was a gravelled yard, then they threw me on to a table. They tied me by my hands and feet to its four corners.
The first voice I heard after being tied up was of someone who said he was a doctor. He told me the wounds on my legs were bleeding badly, so I should not try to resist in any way.
Then I heard another voice. This one said he was the ’Colonel’. He told me they knew I was not involved with terrorism or the guerrillas, but that they were going to torture me because I opposed the regime, because: ’I hadn’t understood that in Argentina there was no room for any opposition to the Process of National Reorganization.’ He then added: ’You’re going to pay dearly for it … the poor won’t have any goody-goodies to look after them any morel’
Everything happened very quickly. From the moment they took me out of the car to the beginning of the first electric shock session took less time than I am taking to tell it. For days they applied electric shocks to my gums, nipples, genitals, abdomen and ears. Unintentionally, I managed to annoy them, because, I don’t know why, although the shocks made me scream, jerk and shudder, they could not make me pass out.
They then began to beat me systematically and rhythmically with wooden sticks on my back, the backs of my thighs, my calves and the soles of my feet. At first the pain was dreadful. Then it became unbearable. Eventually I lost all feeling in the part of my body being beaten. The agonizing pain returned a short while after they finished hitting me. It was made still worse when they tore off my shirt, which had stuck to the wounds, in order to take me off for a fresh electric shock session. This continued for several days, alternating the two tortures. Sometimes they did both at the same time.
Such a combination of tortures can be fatal because, whereas electric shock produces muscular contractions, beating causes the muscle to relax (as a form of protection). Sometimes this can bring on heart failure.
In between torture sessions they left me hanging by my arms from hooks fixed in the wall of the cell where they had thrown me.
Sometimes they put me on to the torture table and stretched me out, tying my hands and feet to a machine which I can’t describe since I never saw it, but which gave me the feeling that they were going to tear part of my body off.
At one point when I was face-down on the torture table, they lifted my head then removed my blindfold to show me a bloodstained rag. They asked me if I recognized it and, without waiting for a reply – impossible anyway because it was unrecognizable, and my eyesight was very badly affected – they told me it was a pair of my wife’s knickers. No other explanation was given, so that I would suffer all the more … then they blindfolded me again and carried on with their beating.
Ten days after I entered this ’pit’, they brought my wife, Hilda Nora Ereñu, to my cell. I could scarcely see her, but she seemed in a pitiful state. They only left us together for two or three minutes, with one of the torturers present. When they took her away again, I thought (I later learned that both of us had thought the same) that this would be the last time we saw each other. That it was the end for both of us. Despite the fact that I was told she had been set free with some other people, the next news I had of her was after I had been put into official custody at the Gregario de Laferrre police station, and she came at the first visiting time with my daughters.
On two or three occasions they also burnt me with a metal instrument. I didn’t see this either, but I had the impression that they were pressing something hard into me. Not like a cigarette, which gets squashed, but something more like a red-hot nail.
One day they put me face-down on the torture table, tied me up (as always), and calmly began to strip the skin from the soles of my feet. I imagine, though I didn’t see it because I was blindfolded, that they were doing it with a razor blade or a scalpel. I could feel them pulling as if they were trying to separate the skin at the edge of the wound with a pair of pincers. I passed out. From then on, strangely enough, I was able to faint very easily. As for example on the occasion when, showing me more bloodstained rags, they said these were my daughters’ knickers, and asked me whether I wanted them to be tortured with me or separately.
I began to feel that I was living alongside death. When I wasn’t being tortured I had hallucinations about death – sometimes when I was awake, at other times while sleeping.
When they came to fetch me for a torture session, they would kick the door open and shout at me, flailing out at everything in their way. That is how I knew what was going to happen even before they reached me. I lived in a state of suspense waiting for the moment when they would come to fetch me.
The most vivid and terrifying memory I have of all that time was of always living with death. I felt it was impossible to think, I desperately tried to summon up a thought in order to convince myself I wasn’t dead. That I wasn’t mad. At the same time, I wished with all my heart that they would kill me as soon as possible.
There was a constant struggle in my mind. On the one hand: ’I must remain lucid and get my ideas straight again’; on the other: ’Let them finish me off once and for all’. I had the sensation of sliding towards nothingness down a huge slippery tube where I could get no grip. I felt that just one clear thought would be something solid for me to hold on to and prevent my fall into the void. My memory of that time is at once so concrete and so personal and private that the image I have of it is of an intestine existing both inside and outside my own body.
In the midst of all this terror, I’m not sure when, they took me off to the ’operating theatre’. There they tied me up and began to torture my testicles. I don’t know if they did this by hand or with a machine. I’d never experienced such pain. It was as though they were pulling out all my insides from my throat and brain downwards. As though my throat, brain, stomach and testicles were linked by a nylon thread which they were pulling on, while at the same time crushing everything. My only wish was for them to succeed in pulling all my insides out so that I would be completely empty. Then I passed out.
Without knowing how or when, I regained consciousness and they were tugging at me again. I fainted a second time.
At that moment, fifteen or eighteen days after my abduction, I began to have kidney problems, difficulties with passing water. Three-and-a-half months later, when I was a prisoner in Villa Devoto prison, the doctors from the International Red Cross diagnosed acute renal failure of a traumatic origin, which could be traced to the beatings I had undergone.
After being held for twenty-five days in complete isolation, I was thrown into a cell with another person. This was a friend of mine, a colleague from the dispensary, Dr Francisco Garcia Ferndndez.
I was in very bad shape. It was Ferndndez who gave me the first minimal medical attention, because in all that time I had been unable to think of cleaning or looking after myself.
It was only several days later that, by moving the blindfold slightly, I could see all they had done to me. Before that it,had been impossible, not because I didn’t try to remove the blindfold, but because my eyesight had been so poor. It was then for the first time that I saw the state of my testicles … I remembered that as a medical student I saw, in the famous Houssay textbook, a photograph of a man who, because of the enormous size of his testicles, wheeled them along in a wheelbarrow! Mine were of similar dimensions, and were coloured a deep black and blue.
Another day they took me out of my cell and, despite my swollen testicles, placed me face-down again. They tied me up and raped me slowly and deliberately by introducing a metal object into my anus. They then passed an electric current through the object. I cannot describe how everything inside me felt as though it were on fire.
After that, the torture eased. They only gave me beatings two or three times a week. Now they used their hands and feet rather than metal or wooden instruments.
Thanks to this new, relatively mild policy, I began to recover’ physically. I had lost more than 25 kilos and was suffering from the kidney complaint I’ve already mentioned.
Two months prior to my abduction, in February 1978, I had suffered a recurrence of typhoid fever. Somewhere between 20 and 25 May, in other words forty-five or fifty days after my capture, I fell ill again with typhoid owing to my physical exhaustion.
In addition to the physical torture employed from the very beginning, torture of a psychological nature (already mentioned to some extent) was used throughout the period of imprisonment, even after the interrogations and physical torture had ceased. There were also countless attempts to humiliate and degrade the prisoner.
The normal attitude of the torturers and guards towards us was to consider us less than slaves. We were objects. And useless, troublesome objects at that. They would say: ’You’re dirt.’ ’Since we ”disappeared” you, you’re nothing. Anyway, nobody remembers you.’ ’You don’t exist.’ ’If anyone were looking for you (which they aren’t), do you imagine they’d look for you here?’ ’We are everything for you.’ ’We are justice.’ ’We are God.’
Phrases like these, repeated endlessly. By all of them. All the time, and often accompanied by a slap, trip, punch or kick. Or they would drench our cell, mattress and clothes at two in the morning, in winter. As the weeks went by, I began to identify voices and names among them: Tiburón (Shark), Víbora (Snake), Rubio (Blondie), Panza (Potbelly), Tete (Dummy). Also the sound of movements (together with my previous idea about the route I was sure we had taken) gradually led me to believe that the detention centre must be police premises. Piecing together the clues (there was also a police station close by, and a school – I heard girls singing – and a church, from the sound of the bells) it appeared that the place was the detective squad headquarters in San Justo.
Among those kept prisoner with me, whom I could identify because I heard their voices and they told me their names, despite being in separate cells, were: Aureliano Araujo, Olga Araujo, Abel de León, Amalia Marrone, Atilio Barberan, Jorge Heuman, Raúl Petruch and Norma Ereñú.
On 1 June, the day the World Cup football began, I was blindfolded and taken with six more of the detained-disappeared prisoners in a van (piled like sacks one on top of the other) to a place which turned out to be the Gregorio de Laferrère police station.
One of the most enthusiastic torturers took part in our transfer. I am also certain that he was the person who shot me when I was kidnapped. The route and time taken confirmed my hypothesis as to the location of the detention centre.
A fact which became extremely important later on, was my professional participation from 1971 in a Model School for the Social Integration of Handicapped Children, set up in 1963. The school was in Hurlingham, part of Morón, Buenos Aires province.
On 18 August, after spending two months in a police cell (one night they made me sign a piece of paper – with my eyes blindfolded – which was later used as my initial statement to the Regular Court Martial 1/1), they took me to the regimental headquarters at Palermo, Buenos Aires. There the magistrate informed me of the charges against me. Among them was the fact that I had worked at the Model School in Hurlingham.
At my trial I denounced all the violations of my rights, including torture, the looting of my home, and having been forced to sign a statement without being able to read it.
Dr Norberto Liwsky was brought before a military court: the Military Tribunal. This court declared itself incompetent to judge the case as it had no charges to bring. He was then handed over to the civilian courts, who immediately dismissed the case. All the injustices related here were suffered by someone against whom no charges were ever brought.
See the other segments of this special report:
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