I read an article recently that I cannot forget. It is the true story of a man named Armando Valladares who was sent to prison under Castor’s reign in Cuba. He was arrested in 1960 at the age of 23, and given a thirty year sentence. He was offered “political rehabilitation” during his prison term, but he refused, which led to torture and abuse by prison guards.
Here’s what he wrote later of his imprisonment:
“For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.” (source: Wikipedia)
How did he survive? His faith. Here’s what he says:
“In the beginning, I embraced God perhaps for fear of losing my life, since I was in danger of being executed,” he told the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983.
But hearing those men proclaim their love for Christ just prior to their executions moved him in ways he could not have imagined:
“I realized then that Christ could be of help. Not merely by saving my life, but also giving my life, and my death if that was the case, an ethical sense that would dignify them. I believe that it was at that particular moment, and not before, when Christianity, besides being a religious faith, became a way of life that in my own circumstances resulted in resistance — resisting torture, resisting confinement, resisting hunger, and even resisting the constant temptation to join the political rehabilitation and indoctrination programs that would end my predicament.”
(Excerpted from a wonderful article about his story here: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/442515/fidel-castros-brutal-dictatorship-armando-valladeres-cuban-dissidents-tortured)
“To be Christian under those circumstances meant that I could not hate my tormentors; it meant to maintain the belief the suffering was meaningful because if man gives up his moral and religious values, or if he allows himself to be carried by a desire to hate or for revenge, his existence loses all meaning,” he explained.
“I saw dozens of Christians suffering and dying — committed, like myself, to maintaining their dignity and their richness of spirit beyond misery and pain. I remember with emotion Gerardo Gonzalez, a Protestant preacher, who knew by heart whole Biblical passages and who would copy them by hand to share with his brothers in belief. I cannot forget this man whom all of us called “Brother in Faith.” He interposed himself before a burst of machine-gun fire to save other prisoners who were beaten in what is known now as the Massacre of Boniato Prison. Gerardo repeated, before dying, the words said by Christ on the cross: “Forgive them, Father for they know not what they do.” And all of us, when the blood had dried, struggled with our consciences to attain something so difficult yet so beautiful: the ability to forgive our enemies.
While in prison, Valladares began to write poetry. But he had no paper, and no ink. How did he do this?
He used scraps of cigarette papers and onion skins for paper… and his own blood for ink.
Can you imagine that? That just blows me away. He had to injure himself to get the “ink” to put words on “paper”. I wonder, if someone has already been so demoralized, treated inhumanely, tortured, weak, sick, and already beaten and bruised, what is the matter of a simple cut to one’s own skin, for the purpose of shedding blood for writing words so the outside world can read? Consider how painstaking the process of writing this way would be on scraps of cigarette paper and thin wisps of onion skin, and when more ink is needed… can you fathom that existence? Yet, someone did such a thing, lived such a life.
It is amazing to me what some humans can endure.
How easy it would have been for Valladares to simply give up and give in. But in addition to giving in to death was the battle of not giving in to hating those who mistreated him and become like them. To live with that hatred and bitterness surely would make his prison sentence even more unbearable.
This story really gets me; I haven’t been able to forget it. Perhaps one reason is because I feel as if I must write nearly every day; it’s almost as essential as breathing-I can’t quite explain it-which is one reason I can’t seem to forget this story. Not being able to write sounds hard enough, but then it’s not even close to the torture he endured. I’m sure the last thing on my mind would be to write in those circumstances; I’m sure I’d be wondering if each day would be my last. I don’t know how long I could survive those difficult circumstances, and for sure it would be easier to give in to “political rehabilitation” (essentially agreeing to the communist beliefs), and escape that kind of torture. Is someone’s witness worse one way or the other? If it meant the difference between living or dying? I don’t know. Would I be willing to do what he did so I could write? I simply cannot imagine or answer what I would do. Valladares survived the physical and emotional torture, but he also survived the inner battles of demoralization, forgiveness, and hatred, and was able to go beyond that and write poetry. I find it astounding, and he found it possible through relying on the power of God.
I am sure he can never, ever forget what happened to him, but he can forgive. I do believe there are some things that cannot, and should not, be forgotten. There are occasions when we need safety zones, or boundaries, around ourselves to protect ourselves from harmful, unsafe, and toxic people. It’s hard to forget-and in some instances, for our safety and well-being, we cannot forget, and must establish boundaries to protect ourselves. Valladares could not escape the horrific prison environment he was in, but those of us in other circumstances can make those choices in our own lives when it becomes necessary to do so. This is a crucial lesson I’ve had to learn (and am still learning), and that is another reason why this story does not leave me… because not establishing healthy boundaries can contribute to locking ourselves into a sort of “prison”.
Some years ago I wrote a poem and called it “Inkblood and Letters.” Here is someone who literally used “inkblood” to write letters, or poems, to the world. It is another reason why this story resonated with me.
Oswald Chambers, in the devotion book My Utmost for His Highest, writes that a crisis will reveal to us what we are already made of. The time of preparation comes beforehand. (I can’t seem to find the page for that particular quote, as I’ve underlined scores of things in that book, but it’s in there.) Is this true for Valladares? Did he have the necessary grit already in his life? Since he found God while there, didn’t God gave him what he needed to survive during those years of crisis and hardship?
Chambers says, “We must get sick unto death of ourselves, until there is no longer any surprise at anything God can tell us about ourselves. We cannot touch the depths of meanness in ourselves.” How about those words, in light of facing such aggressors in prison? Surely, those prison guards were meaner, uglier? Puts it in perspective, doesn’t it? Yes, those prison guards were ugly… but so is my own heart.
He also says, “Surrender is not the surrender of the external life, but of the will; when that is done, all is done.”
I used to go through this book on a regular basis, but it’s been a few years now. Years ago, I wrote one of Chambers’ quotes on an index card and taped it to the inside cover of the book: “My goal is God Himself, not joy, nor peace, nor even blessing, but Himself, my God.”
Wow. I was struck by those words years ago when I read them in that book, and I am still, which is why I taped them to the back of the book. I realize now it sums up Chambers pretty well. I think for Chambers it was true, and for Valladares it is true. (Can I say the same for myself? Yes and no? Sometimes? Maybe at times in the past, but what about now? Is it a conditional agreement? Or is there always something I’m holding onto? Am I any better than they?)
This story was published in National Review in November 2016, after Fidel Castro passed away, which is how I came across it. The author ends the article by saying this story helps us understand more about Castro’s reign than reading the many biographies that could be written.
I’d also add, it helps us understand ourselves better, and God better, too. I find this story personally very challenging, on multiple levels.