Hernán Reyes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Negotiating Prisoners' Rights: Conversation with Hernan Reyes, Medical Coordinator for Detention-Related Activities, International Committee of the Red Cross; 12/2/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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In the Field

Are there any particular stories that you would like to tell us that capture the essence of why you do what you do, a particular prisoner who affected you in some important way, a particular condition that you rectified, or so on?

There are so many stories to tell. One which I often remember is a case which I can talk about it, it's a situation which we no longer work in now, it's in Uruguay. One of the leaders of the Tupamaro movement, the political movement in Uruguay, had been in prison for a very long time, and he was severely ill. He had a rare form of cancer of the liver, and he was actually dying. On one visit I was told before I went to see him, "You know this fellow, he's on a hunger strike," said the director. And the director said, "But you know it's a phony hunger strike because you know as well as I do that he has cancer, he can't eat anyway, so what he's doing is completely fake and his hunger strike is worthless." I took that at face value, I went to see the prisoner and the prisoner was extremely angry precisely for that reason. He said, "Look, you've probably been told my hunger strike is fake," and I said yes indeed, that's exactly what the director just told me, and he says, "I'm very angry at this because I'm on a hunger strike because I want to protest against something, and it's wrong that my hunger strike is fake. They're telling everybody, they're telling the people outside, they're telling my family that my hunger strike is phony, and so I want you, you're the only person here who visits me, I want you to do something for me." I said well, what is that? "Today I'm going to eat--" he hadn't eaten for three weeks. "They're going to give me my meal like they do every day. I'm going to eat it in front of you, all of it, just to show you that I will end my hunger strike that way, but I want you to be able to say to my family and to my friends outside that indeed it was a real hunger strike, it's not because I can't eat, it's because I choose not to eat." And I said my goodness, this fellow is first of all severely ill, he's been on a hunger strike for three weeks, he shouldn't be eating a whole big meal, but who am I to put him off it? I'm just here today to visit him, what should I do?

So finally thinking it over I said "Well, let's do it. For him it's more important at his stage of life to be able to do this," and I did it. I sat next to him and I watched him eat his meal, I said "I hope nothing untoward is going to happen now." It didn't actually, he managed to swallow his whole meal. I went to the director and I told him, "You know, you were wrong, it was a real hunger strike, I saw him eat." And he said, "Really, he ate his meal?" I was able to talk to his family. The fellow died a month later, not from his meal, he died from his cancer, but for him this was very important, and he used me in a way, but I was perfectly willing to do it, and this was more important than actually making an objective medical assessment. I should have told him no, you shouldn't eat this meal, please keep me out of it, medically it is not very wise to do it. I felt I had to do it for him, and this is one of the many, many situations you come across when you visit prisoners.

How do you overcome the frustrations, the often horrible conditions that you must be a witness too, and sometimes you can't do anything about?

That's a question that comes up often, mainly with our younger delegates, who for example have been working six months in a context, in a country where the Red Cross had been working ten years already, and they say "Well, nothing happens. We're visiting these people, they're being tortured, we write a report, the government does nothing with the report." Some of them feel frustrated because they can't cry out to the outside what's going on. You have to explain again that's it's senseless to have yet another public report which will just block our efforts, whereas somebody else is writing about it. And I try to explain to them "Yes, but you're visiting them, is the visit useful to them or not? Ask them, ask the prisoners whether you should be coming back or not, whether it's useful to continue knowing that perhaps indeed nothing is happening." And very often when I've done this, in most cases I would say, the prisoner said, "No, no, please do come back. We know nothing's happening. We know these authorities better than you do. We know that it may not work, but we need to have this contact with you. You are the only people we can see in some cases, and you can go see our family, you can tell them we are coping as best we can, so please do not suspend the visits, even if globally you don't stop the torture, at least it's useful for us."

What skills or traits do you and your teams have that you think are absolutely essential for doing this work?

Listening, first of all. You have to listen, and some people immediately want to write down and document and forget to listen to what the person has to say. I always say put down your pencil, listen first to what the person is saying and then and only then take notes. You must take notes, but you don't necessarily have to take them and forget whom you are talking to. And also arrange your work so you listen as much to the person you see at 6:00pm as to the prisoner you saw at 8:00am in the morning. Because also our people often have a tendency to try to work very, very long hours, because there are so many people to see, and of course at the end of a day when you've seen thirty people, you can't listen in the same way. And I say that's not fair. This fellow number thirty here, he's been waiting all day to tell his story, and yes, it sounds very much like the story told to you already by the last fifteen, and so you may shrug, yes, okay, I know that already, is there anything else? Don't do that; this person wants to talk to you about his story. It's not fair to do that. It would be much better to come back the next day and see him first and listen, because these people, the only thing that you can give them is your listening time and some empathy in some cases. You may not be able to change anything regarding torture, you may not be able to change the food, you will certainly not get them out of prison, the least you can do is listen to them in the same way as when you're fresh and have an early start in the morning.

How do you show that you are listening to the prisoners in addition to empathy? Does it affect the follow-up questions that you ask? Is that the way you keep the momentum of that process going?

First of all it depends if you're using an interpreter or not. I have seen so many people who don't know how to work with an interpreter. I have seen so many people who say to the interpreter, "Okay ask him about such and such a thing," and since they don't understand what's going on, they take notes while the interpreter is talking to the prisoner, and that's disastrous. I've seen that in some cases, and of course the prisoner shuts up completely, because he says, "This fellow's not interested in me, he's just asking questions." So it's yes, no, monosyllables, and so never, never do that, and of course I always say even if you don't understand the question, first of all ask the question to the prisoner, not to the interpreter, second of all while the interpreter is asking the question you look at the prisoner, even if you don't understand, watch body language, show him you have interest in the person, and be part of the discussion. The worst thing you could do is ask him the usual questions and then you just turn around and take notes on something else. I've seen that done so many times and it's something we come back to all the time, so show the person that you're interested in the person. Also take his hand, as a doctor it's very easy you take the pulse while you're talking to someone, you show interest in the person.

So the interview process is absolutely essential to what you do?

It should be, yes, absolutely.

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