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Hector Aristizabal Headshot

Only Darkness: A Torture Survivor Dreams of Dick Cheney

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Dear Mr. Cheney:

I had a dream last night, but there was no Tuscan villa, no newspaper, no coffee. Only darkness. And you.

If this sounds like a nightmare, it wasn't. Not really. I have had my share of nightmares -- terror dreams that are hard to distinguish from what really happened to me, in that cell, all those years ago.

No, this was different. I didn't wake up covered in sweat, wondering if the sounds in my head -- the sounds of muffled cries, of grown men whimpering like children -- would ever stop.

In this dream, we sat together, though I'm not sure where. I could not see you, but I could hear your voice. You were asking me questions. There was no malice in your tone, no aggression. No emotion whatsoever.

You asked if it was true, what I wrote in my book about the night they took me away. Yes, I answered. You were silent for a moment, then you said, "Tell me what it was like."

So I told you.

"I was 22, not that much older than your oldest grandchild. The government was waging war on what it considered to be subversive elements -- all those who opposed their totalitarian rule. I was considered a threat to national security, because I believed in freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of association. In the parlance of today, I was not a high-value target, but that didn't matter. The repression was indiscriminate, lacking the precision-guided 21st century intelligence that, we are assured, prevents bad things from happening to innocent people. The military came to my house and took me away. I was held for three days and three nights without food or water, deprived of sleep and subjected to what some of your friends like to call "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- electricity, waterboarding-- that would leave no marks. Of course I got off easy compared to many torture victims who endure weeks or months of more extreme persecution. In the end I was among the lucky ones. I was released and, after the murder of more friends than I can count, I left and came to this country."

When I stopped talking, we sat in silence for a few moments. Then you asked, "Why did they let you go?"

I paused, then said, "A delegation of human rights observers, some from the U.S., saved my life."

Several minutes passed. I waited for you to break the silence. Finally I said, "What would you have done if you were my interrogator? Would you have tortured me?"

Just then a faint light illuminated your face for a few seconds. I looked straight into your eyes, searching for a trace of compassion, of self-doubt, of humility. But all I saw was an old man staring right through me, as if I wasn't there. Then the light receded and we fell back into darkness.

Hector Aristizabal, a torture survivor from Colombia, is a psychotherapist and theater artist based in Los Angeles. He serves on the board of the Program for Torture Victims.