Deja vu all over again

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 12:00am

One night, when I was 12, a man sat me on his knee and described how he had been tortured by the British army. My younger sister, two brothers and I were all hiding in a boarded-up bedroom during a bomb scare, the village beyond our garden filled with British soldiers. My parents feared that the soldiers would raid the house and find the unwilling victim of their hospitality.

That was in Northern Ireland, in 1971, shortly after internment had been introduced on August 9. The man described how he had been chained and hooded by the soldiers; how he had been kept spreadeagled for hours; how he had been fed bread and water and subjected to loud noise. He was, like my parents, a Catholic school-teacher. Another friend of my parents, also a Catholic school-teacher, was placed, hooded, in a helicopter and told that he was about to be thrown out.

Those men, like many others interned that week, were never charged with any crime. The British army, as it turned out, had acted on inaccurate information. Detainees were released - and so, too, were the dogs of war. British soldiers, initially perceived as protectors by the Catholic community, became the hated enemy. Northern Ireland, which had been sputtering along in civil disturbance mode, flamed into a fully fledged conflict.

The funny thing is that you would think, reading the outraged reaction from the British and American governments in the past few weeks, that prison torture, catch-all sweeps of individuals based on dodgy information and the annihilation of goodwill in a supposedly liberated community, had never before been enacted by either of those great nations. People seriously debate the 'rotten apple' issue as though army recruiting officers were morally upright farmers who had somehow been fooled, despite their best sorting endeavours, by circumstances beyond their control.

If my 12-year-old self could, 33 years later, hear the news about Abu Ghraib prison with a pained sense of recognition, why are so many officials reacting with apparent astonishment? That is the truly astonishing thing. Disbelief and perplexed outrage, we are told, are stalking the corridors of Washington and London, which is odd because on the streets of Iraq - and, you may be sure, Northern Ireland - nobody sees this as a sensational, unforeseen news story.

Of course, the man who described his torture all those years ago did so in the age before digital cameras. But the photographing of prisoner abuse has happened in another theatre of war. If you visit, as I did recently, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, you will see what was happening in Vietnam more than 30 years ago, at about the same time Northern Ireland was being compared to that burgeoning military disaster.

In a room labelled 'Vestiges of War Crimes', there are photos of a man being pushed out of an airborne US army helicopter. There is a photo of a couple of men, tied to a US army tank, being dragged to their deaths. And there is even a photo of an American soldier leading a stripped Vietnamese prisoner around on a dog leash.

Fionnuala McHugh is a Hong Kong-based journalist