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Uruguay: an ex-detainee talks about his time in prison and the visits by the Red Cross

03-12-2009 Interview

Uruguayan poet and playwright Mauricio Rosencof was imprisoned from 1973 to 1985 for his activism in the National Liberation Movement – the Tupamaros. Rosencof talks of his 13 years of isolation and what the Red Cross visits meant to him.

  Prison Memoirs    
    Prison Memoirs, translation of an extract from "Memorias del Calabozo", by Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro  
(PDF file/18 kb) Help 

©ICRC/D. Baumann 
Mauricio Rosencof. 

©ICRC/D. Baumann 
Mauricio Rosencof at the entrance of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Musuem in Geneva. 

Mauricio Rosencof is reunited with his daughter following his release. 

  Read also the interview of an ICRC delegate who visited Mauricio Rosencof when he was detained in Uruguay.   

 You once said that physical torture is nothing compared with prolonged solitary confinement…  

They are two completely different things. What they did to me during interrogations – electric shocks, “submarine” immersions, beatings – would have to stop at some point, because my body couldn't take any more. Solitary confinement is torture on a whole different level. They separated us, the Tupamaro leaders, and scattered us across the country. The general that ran this isolation operation publicly said: “As we couldn't kill them when we captured them, we're going to drive them crazy. " Of the nine of us, one died in prison and two went mad.

I was captured along with José Mujica ( " Pepe " ) and Fernández Huidobro ( " Ñato " ), and they moved us between cells across the whole of Uruguay. We were underground for a long time, in places where we had cells that, at best, measured two metres by one. They often didn't give us water, so we learnt to drink our own urine. They often didn't give us food, so we ate insects… They only let us go to the toilet once a day. It was torture, because if you went in your cell, you were punished. So your organs end up switching places – your bladder becomes your brain, because you can't think of anything else. We never saw another human face, not even each other's, and we never saw the sun.

All this created a very tense atmosphere, driving us to create new ways of communicating. The cells were completely bare: you just had to sit on the floor, with your arms behind your back. So we reinvented the Morse code. It was one Christmas Day when we fi rst made contact with each other. All of a sudden, I heard Ñato scratching on the wall between us, and I realized he was trying to communicate with me. I sat down next to the wall and scratched back a reply. He then began to knock rhythmically. He sent me a phrase that he thought was fitting for Christmas Day. If I managed to decipher the first letter, I would be able to crack the whole code. The phrase he sent me was: " In life, happiness " .

From then on, we were in touch with each other. It was a huge breath of fresh air. We spent the following years telling each other about our childhoods, our girlfriends, revolution plans – everything. I told him poems and stories that I had written in my head.


 Where did you find the strength to carry on under such conditions, and for so long?  

I believe that when in unthinkable situations, all humans cling to life like ivy to a wall. Anyone in that kind of situation could have survived, knowing they had a father or a child, or because they wanted to live to see the next day.

My seven-year-old daughter, Alejandra, used to come and visit me. She was in therapy, and one of the things that she would say to her therapist was, " Daddy has no hands " , because they used to handcuff me under the table and she couldn't see my hands. I couldn't give her any drawings or little gifts I'd made – I couldn't give her anything. But in the cell, the wall was crumbling slightly, and I came across a tiny little white pebble. I kept it in my hand as I was being handcuffed, and when I arrived at the visiting room, I showed the pebble to the official and asked if he could give it to my daughter. He looked at it with disgust, took it and handed it to her.

I said to Alejandra, “Do you remember the story of Tom Thumb? The first time he went into the woods, he left a trail of breadcrumbs behind him so that he could find his way home. But the birds came and ate them and he was lost. The second time he went, he was more careful, this time leaving a trail of little pebbles. And so he was able to get all the way back home, to a warm kitchen full of freshly-baked bread. Almost all of those little pebbles have now disappeared, and only three remain: two are in Perrault's fairytale castle, and the other is right there in your hands. I can't tell you how I got it, but now it's yours. " From that point on, my daughter slept with the little pebble under her pillow, and she would tell people, " It's so that my daddy can find his way home. "

 What was your experience of the Red Cross visits?  

As “hostages” of the military dictatorship, we were not allowed visits from the Red Cross. We knew that they had gone to the prisons of Libertad and Punta de Rieles, where the women were being held, and we were sure that they had played an important role there. When our prison conditions started getting harsher, we realized that someone must have expressed concern about us. For example, we would be made to stand up all night so that the Red Cross would learn, through our families, that if they demanded better conditions for us, we would be treated even worse.

On one occasion, the Red Cross came to the barracks of army unit Caballería 8, in Melo, because we had fallen very ill. That day, we noticed something really strange: the guards took us out of our cells, opened the windows to let the sunlight in, and brought in a table and a chair. I shifted from side to side in the chair – it had been ten years since I'd sat on one.

They showered us and gave us a shave, then took us to a place we had never been before – their offices. When we got the door, they removed our handcuffs and hoods, and the military leader said: " The Red Cross is in there. You're not allowed to get within 20 metres of them and you can't say a single word – because if you do, you know what will happen. " We went in and came face-to-face with people from the Red Cross, who were surrounded by the highest officers of the unit. The unit commander asked me my name, and I told him. Then he asked me if I was well, and I said yes, and I was led back to my cell. The Red Cross left; my table and chair were taken away, and life continued as before.

The second visit was in Libertad Prison in 1984. That's when I met Hernán Reyes. I told him what I'm telling you now, without being over-dramatic, but with a touch of humour. Humour is a fantastic tool for survival and for life in general.

 What would you say to the delegates now visiting prisoners in 80 different countries?  

There's a certain prisoner psychology, a torturer's psychology – a jail psychology. What the delegates do is so valuable, but it's also vitally important to try and understand how other people's minds work, in order to know how best to intervene.

When they speak with the prisoners, delegates should bear in mind that there could be microphones in the room. They should be very careful, because once the Red Cross leaves, the torturers, the ones really running the prison, will make the prisoners pay for what they said. Instead, delegates should take the prisoners out into the yard and speak to them there. They shouldn't talk to the prisoner selected by the prison authorities, but rather choose prisoners to interview themselves. They should also speak to the prisoner's family. The most important thing is to protect the prisoners and ensure the statements they make remain anonymous.

 In your view, what was the most positive outcome of the Red Cross visits?  

What a Red Cross visit means to a prisoner cannot be expressed in words – it brings hope and always achieves something. Although the visits in our case didn't lead to better conditions, they did give us a sense of protection, simply because the Red Cross had seen us and had proof that we were alive. I'd say that this was the most important outcome.