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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Advice for Students

How would you tell students to prepare to do the kind of work you do? If they listen to you and they say hey that's great, I really want to do that kind of human rights work?

In my case it would be people who do the medical aspect of the work.

I would say the first thing to do is know something -- more than just something -- about the country you're visiting. Know something about the culture, know a few words in the language, show that you're not just this white doctor coming in from Europe, parachuting into a country he doesn't even know. I saw one doctor who was in the Republic of Georgia and he didn't even know the name of the country in Georgian. I asked him what Sakartvelo meant; he had no idea. I said, "You're in Sakartvelo, that's the Georgian name for the Republic of Georgia"; he didn't know.

In another case, actually I was caught on one of my first missions in Uruguay, where one of the political prisoners wanted to prove to me that we were, precisely, white doctors coming in from Europe and we didn't know much about Uruguay. And I was a bit vexed, because I did know something about Uruguay. He says, "Well, I bet you don't even know why I'm wearing this t-shirt." He had a t-shirt which was striped yellow, black, yellow, black, yellow ... He said, "Let me prove to you that you don't know anything about Uruguay: Why am I wearing this t-shirt?" I said "Okay, you've got me there. I have no idea why you are wearing that t-shirt." I must confess I don't know much about football, and this was a t-shirt of a football club. But that was not the point. The point was that this was the year of the referendum in Uruguay and the t-shirt was as we said, black, which is negro, and gold, which is oro. So you had black, gold, black, gold; being negro, oro, negro, oro, N-O, N-O, N-O, N-O, no, no, no, no! It was their way of protesting, of saying, we say no to this referendum orchestrated by the military, and of course being a football t-shirt they were allowed to wear it. So this was an internal code they had; of course I didn't know that. But to show you -- they expected us to know, "If you are coming all the way from Europe to visit us, you should at least know something about what's going on here, about our culture and about our fight against this military government." So that is the extreme example, but I say at least know something about the people that you are visiting.

You are in essence not just recognizing their humanity in your work, but also in the personal interaction, as this example just shows.

Oh, yes, absolutely. I've had prisoners who were very aggressive saying, "Your visits are totally useless, nothing has happened since the last time," and some of them really give us a hard time. And one of them once said to me, at the end he said, "Well, don't take it personally. We always try to provoke a bit just to see what the color of the blood is, we have to scratch a little to find out what the color of the blood is inside." It was a test to us to see how we would take it, and how we would react, and it was their way of getting out some of the tensions inside the prison. That's part of the game, that's fine, I accept that.

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