42 Days

By Darian Leader

Forced detentions, with no legal justification or framework, take place today in several Western countries that pride themselves on their liberal values and recognition of human rights. Documented generally by independent charities and rarely in the media, these quiet abductions form a dark mirror to the headline-grabbing abductions and kidnappings that tarnish the image of those apparently lawless and dangerous societies that lie outside the Western ambit.

It might seem futile to even try to describe the horror of such incarceration, yet oral and written testimonies are crucial to allow a symbolisation, however rudimentary, of what has happened, and, through the dissemination of such testimony, to undo the dehumanisation of its victims. But how can such a traumatic abyss ever become 'what has happened'? How can it become part of a narrative or take on meaning in any ready sense of the word? A detention can remove a human being not simply from their family, their community and their loved ones, but from meaning, history and narrative itself. When we listen to such testimonies decades after the events, we can sometimes see how they have been situated in a chronology, but at the same time they retain a dimension outside meaning and history.

A young man described to me his incarceration during a visit to his family in Turkey. Snatched brutally from their home, he was kept blindfolded for almost a week and tortured, before, on his release, being told that if he spoke of his abduction his family would pay the price. During that time, certain phrases and expressions of his captors became magnified for him, echoing years later in his mind - "like glass", he said, "going into me". Deprived of vision, his world suddenly became acoustic, and he observed that the pain of the physical tortures he was subjected to was strangely more bearable than the sense of being suspended to the whim of his captors, never knowing when they were going to return to him, never knowing when their voices were to approach him.

Alone in that terrible limbo, he felt no more than an object for a capricious and sadistic Other, never knowing what he was for them, never able to calculate a position for himself, and deprived of the very possibility of responding to them: he knew nothing, in fact, of the outlawed group he was presumed to belong to.

The savage removal of the coordinates of his existence had another unpredictable effect, which we hear about also in other testimonies. In the periods between the visits of his captors, he was tormented by things heard in his childhood, as if a filter were selecting the words and phrases of every previous traumatic episode in his past. Later, these traces would combine with those of his captors to produce terrifying acoustic nightmares. The detention opened the door to these memories, intensifying and purifying them, as if the sudden emergence of the experience of not knowing what he was for the Other brought all those previous experiences back from amnesia.

Detention is never simply the insertion of a person into a cell. It is both the extraction from their identity and history and their insertion into all the nightmares of their past, and we should not forget this.