Hopi Foundation Gives Anti-Torture Award

Cynthia M. Callahan
By Constance DeVereaux
October 18, 2013

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. — On the Hopi lands in Northern Arizona, an international group of health care workers gathered recently to honor the latest recipient of the Barbara Chester Award, given by the Hopi Foundation to those who work with torture victims.

It is named after psychologist Barbara Chester, who developed the first treatment program in the United States for victims of torture and later worked as the director of the Hopi Center for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.

A Hopi blessing opens the ceremony. It is a brilliant October day. Under a blue Hopi sky, the San Francisco Peaks sparkle frostily to the southwest. Honoring torture aid workers has deep significance for the Hopi, whose traditional creed embodies a commitment to peace, healing, and treating others with respect.

Recognizing the same dedication in Chester led the Hopi Foundation to establish an award in her honor.

Eyes squinting against the sun, Dr. Juan Almendares recounts a conversation with one of his torturers.

"'You know we are going to kill you. We are going to take your skin. We are going to cut you in pieces. We are going to maybe use electricity, whatever.' I say to him, 'There is a difference between you and myself. You want to kill me I want you to be alive,'" Almendares said.

Almendares was the 2001 recipient of the Barbara Chester Award. He treats victims of torture in his native Honduras and now serves on the selection committee for future award recipients. He has traveled to Hopi to take part in recognition of Dr. Nassoon Munyandamutsa of Rwanda, the 2013 honoree.

Munyandamutsa is a psychiatrist by training. He smiles wide, showing his teeth, when he speaks. His eyes betray the pain of his past. In Switzerland at the time of the Rwandan genocide, he returned to his village just days before it was destroyed, his family and neighbors massacred. The last time he saw his mother alive she gave him this advice: Go and never come back.

Yet he did go back, after the genocide, offering a process of healing to victims. He provides a safe place making it possible for them, "To talk, to think, to feel, to share. And then to see if it’s possible to overcome from a crazy situation," he said.

"He’s done amazing work. I think it was a unanimous choice. He’s worked in a country with a very difficult history and seems to have made a very big difference," said Eppel, of Zimbabwe, who was the award's first recipient in 2000.

In the dangerous world of torture victim aid, she sees the award as a safety charm.

"There’s always a protective element in being an award winner. It raises your profile in a protective way," Eppel said. "So, that maybe the government thinks twice before coming after you because they know that, you’ve got, you know, people around the world who know about you."

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 100 nations in the world actively engage in torture. The Barbara Chester Award embodies the Hopi principles of Sumi’nangwa “helping others in times of need,” Hita’nangwa, “taking initiative,” and Kyptski, “respect for life.” The very foundation of human rights, yet values increasingly forgotten in today’s world, even nearly 30 years after the passage of the UN Convention Against Torture.

"Once and for all the United Nations identified at the international level 'here’s how we define torture, here’s what governments must do to stop torture' and governments around the world signed on to that," said Michael O’Reilly, Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.

"So here we are 30 years later and we’re starting to see disturbing trends. Over the past decade there has been a rollback on those gains that were made," O'Reilly said.

Despite the challenges, Munyandamutsa finds hope and friendship in Hopi culture that will continue to inspire his work.

"How they love their culture. How they love people. How they are open to people coming from far," Munyandamutsa said.