So stupid. An instinctive act of dumb that led to one of the most shameful and powerless moments of my life.
There I was, passing a couple of bucks over the counter at a cinema in downtown Lima when a hand whipped out, grabbed the notes, and disappeared out into the street.
I gave chase.
It was 1987 and the Police were on strike. The army were filling in. I ran past a platoon of them, pursuing the petty criminal down a dark sidestreet. I stopped. It wasn't worth it. It was only a couple of bucks, and I was heading into dangerous unlit territory.
But behind me was the sound of a dozen or more soldiers' boots. For them the equation had been simple. A gringo, in hot pursuit of a street urchin. No doubt about who the guilty party was, and an opportunity to showcase law and order in a filthy, lawless and disorderly city.
They stopped beside me, shouldered their weapons, and started firing down the street over the head of my erstwhile pursuit, heedless of the safety of the curious onlookers peering over their balconies.
I shouted at them to stop, and tried to get them to abandon the chase, but some line had been crossed, and now I was committed. I had to accompany them to identify the offender.
At the end of the street the soldiers entered a still open commercial building, and searched floor by floor until a quivering teenager was plucked from a hiding place on the top floor. He was presented to me to identify, and being unfamiliar with the grave consequences of such moral choices, I chose the truth instead of the lie that would have spared him what followed.
He was thrown into the back of an armoured personnel carrier. I was ordered in after him with my companion. We had seats. He crouched on the floor where he was repeatedly struck with a chain, and had his head bashed against the thick steel interior plating.
At the army barracks some distance away (where the hell were we? we had no idea - we just knew that it was a long way from where we were supposed to be, that it was close to curfew, and that we were in the company of heavily armed, ill-disciplined sadistic soldiers) the "suspect" was subjected to a further interrogation, which meant the same questions delivered behind a screen from where we were, punctuated only by the sounds of rifle butts and fists on flesh, followed by cries of pain and denials, and accusations about lying gringos.
After a time, the young offender was bought out, paraded in front of us dressed only in his filthy Y-fronts, into which he had secreted the snatched bills. He was bruised and shaken and his face swollen, and tearstained. Anxious to get back across town before the breach of curfew would render us open to the same treatment, I gingerly accepted the crumpled notes from the proud soldier who had overseen their recovery. I mumbled "gracias". "De nada." he replied, "Es nuestro trabajo"; It's our job.
When you witness a breach of human rights you feel soiled, and powerless. You feel scared that if you speak up you could be for the same treatment. But if you do not you are diminished. And those that carry out such acts are emboldened.
We should condemn the actions of those that beat these men in Fiji, and should as individuals and as a nation demand that the Fiji Government investigate and hold the perpertrators to account. We should not look away.
John Edwards is a Wellington barrister; www.johnedwards.co.nz
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