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Doug Johnson, executive director, Center for Victims of Torture

, Star Tribune

Rosenblum: A champion of hope for torture victims is moving on after 23 years

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • January 18, 2012 - 11:11 PM

Doug Johnson had been running the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) for five years when a close friend finally dropped by to visit.

"I'm so ashamed that I took so long," the friend told Johnson after strolling around the soothing grounds, "but I kept thinking this was the torture center. Now I know this is the healing center."

Johnson, who steps down this month after leading the globally revered CVT for 23 years, couldn't have survived so long had that not been true. "This is fundamentally," he said, "a place of hope."

Since Johnson became executive director in 1988, CVT (www.cvt.org) has given hope to more than 23,000 survivors of government-sponsored torture. He has opened offices in Washington, D.C., and healing centers in Africa and the Middle East.

He pioneered the New Tactics in Human Rights project, bringing humanitarians together to share successful strategies, and played a crucial role in the passing of the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998, working with Sens. David Durenberger, Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams.

"How do I put it?" said Richard Oketch, a CVT client-turned-board member. "Douglas is a man who believes in the alleviation of human suffering. His work brings that to light."

Johnson, 62, is ready now for others to shed light on the horrors of torture. "There are 24 reasons why I'm moving on," he said. Mostly, the timing is right.

"CVT is in good shape, with an incredibly gifted staff and board," Johnson said. "If there ever was a time for the board to make a transition in the best possible way, it's now."

Johnson's human rights awakening began as a boy growing up in Kansas City. His mother, a homemaker, and his father, a fiberglass manager, told him about the Holocaust and introduced him to the writings of Elie Wiesel. His fourth-grade teacher, a civil rights sympathizer, also had "a big impact on shaping me."

He was equally shaped by Vietnam, a war that he opposed as a conscientious objector. In 1967, he enrolled at Macalester College with a growing interest in nonviolent practices. The contention by radical groups like the Weathermen that only violence gets people's attention, "seemed flawed and counterproductive."

After his sophomore year, Johnson moved to India to study the teachings of Gandhi, living in an ashram for two months. He returned to Macalester, earned a degree in philosophy and delved deeper into social justice work.

After accepting the CVT position, he had nightmares every night. "The mental health staff took me by the hand and taught me how to deal with this," he said. "I had to learn quickly what the organization needed from me." They needed him to create a safe place for others, which he did.

Every year, about 250 survivors and 750 family members, most from Africa, are guided back to physical and mental health by social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and massage therapists. An interpreter is always available.

Some were forced amputees. Many were rape victims or parents forced to watch their children be raped. Some were victims of mock executions. Johnson remembers one woman who was tortured by two methods, then asked to choose her preference.

Most arrive, he said, "filled with fear and paranoia about human relationships" and are reluctant to open up.

"Most cultures have the idea that, if you don't think about it, it will get better. Of course, that doesn't happen. To come here is to recognize 'that I haven't gotten better.'"

And, then, they do. Oketch, of New Brighton, witnessed the death of an uncle and the disappearance of several siblings in his native Uganda. He was jailed and forced to throw the bodies of people "killed right next to you into the trash."

He didn't think those images would follow him. But when he came to the United States, he'd run in his sleep, crashing into doors, waking up swollen and bruised. He was about to lose his job -- and his mind.

He spent three years at CVT's St. Paul Healing Center, on medication and receiving regular psychotherapy. He still comes back to sit for an hour here or there in what he calls "the safe house." Retired as a special education teacher, he is a healed man.

"You free yourself from what is inside. Douglas made us believe in that."

Johnson, the father of two young-adult sons, needed to believe in that. "By giving people hope," he said, "we get policymakers to think in new ways."

On Feb. 3, he and wife, Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of international relations at the University of Minnesota, head to Uruguay for four months, where he will teach human rights. And then?

"I hope people will come forward and ask me to do the next thing."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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