Posts Tagged torture victims
“When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.”
In her post on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, youth psychologist Gabriela Monroy offers readers a glimpse into one of the projects currently being implemented under the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program. Coalition members Covenant House International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) are working together to develop a comprehensive set of materials on issues related to trauma informed care. These materials will be used for training and as reference for healthcare workers and specialists to better understand the effects of trauma and how to approach traumatised youth.
(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Gabriela Monroy)
I am a psychologist at La Alianza, Covenant House International’s (CHI) safe house for trafficked and sexually exploited girls in Guatemala. I am also the CHI regional coordinator in Latin America for the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program on trauma-informed care, which is being carried out by the IRCT and CHI. I was invited to attend the 10th International Scientific Symposium organised by the IRCT in December 2016 in Mexico City. When I received the invitation, I very much looked forward to the opportunity to learn from survivors of torture and those who work to support them. I knew I had much to learn and much to share. After three days of listening to the presentations and experiences from different countries, I began to realise that in many countries across the globe like mine, “normal” is similar to a war zone where death, torture, rape, abuse and abandonment of children is the norm and life is a continuum of traumatic events. The exception is a moment of human and humane interaction– which is what we strive to accomplish at La Alianza.
At La Alianza, young girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation find an environment that offers them the opportunity to finally be treated as human beings, in a dignified, respectful and non-violent way. For some of them, the violence in their lives has been so overwhelming that it can feel traumatic to be treated in such a humane fashion. Using a trauma informed care lens in my day-to-day work as a youth psychologist, I see, after some time of working with them, that the impact on their lives is visible. Society seems so surprised at the transformation that care, affection, and dignified treatment can produce. It is ironic because acting in a humane way should be the most common thing we do as humans, yet it still surprises us even more than the violence itself.
Every single presentation at the Symposium presented the testimonies and experiences of survivors on this continuum of violence and torture as examples of integrity and dignity. This simple reflection on my experience of this symposium hopefully will be a recognition and a homage to their courage and an expression of my respect for each one’s journey and all they have gone through.
When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.
Also, we need to realise that best practices for dealing with survivors of torture and violence need to be based in respect for their day-to-day experience and respect for the ways they have survived, and if we can recognise this then we may be able to transform the norm that violence has become into the exception. This is my hope. I am grateful to the Hilton Prize Coalition for giving me the opportunity to be a witness to such courage.
About the Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.
For more information please visit their website.
Across the globe there are many human rights defenders and organisations whose work has made an enormous difference to the fight against torture – yet we know very little about them and what they do. One such group is the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which consists of 35 of the world’s most eminent experts in the documentation and investigation of torture. Coming from 18 different countries, these experts have varied backgrounds ranging from forensic pathologists to clinical psychologists.
The objective of the IFEG is to use its members’ expertise as doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists to document and investigate torture and to secure justice for victims. As part of their work they go on documentation missions around the world, conducting physical and psychological evaluations of alleged torture victims. They also train health and legal professionals in how to document torture and help raise awareness among the public.
Dastan Salehi from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) recently spent a week with IFEG members Dr Maximo Alberto Duque Piedrahita and Dr Ana Deutsch on a mission in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. We asked Dastan to document the mission and as his pictures show, the work of the IFEG can take many different forms.
Dr Duque (left) and Dr Deutsch (right) spent one week in La Paz, Bolivia on a documentation mission, conducting physical and psychological evaluation on three people who allege they were subjected to torture in Bolivia.
Documentation missions are the bread and butter of the IFEG’s work. In a nutshell, they feature two IFEG experts (one medical doctor and one psychologist or psychiatrist) who travel to a particular country to conduct examinations on people who allege they have been tortured. This examination results in what is known as a ‘medico-legal report’, which seeks to medically and psychologically assess the correlation of the physical and psychological scars with the allegations of torture.
While in La Paz, the two experts delivered a workshop on the Istanbul Protocol, the key international instrument on the investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The workshop, which was hosted by local rehabilitation centre Instituto de Terapia y Investigacion (ITEI), looked at ways to improve effective documentation of torture and the obligations of health professionals to document and report cases of torture independently.
During the mission, the IFEG experts spent time with ITEI to share experiences and best practices and to discuss how they can best work together in the future to document torture.
The IFEG’s visit caught the attention of several local media outlets, which were all keen to interview them. In this one, Dr Duque appears alongside Andres Gautier, Lead Psychologist at ITEI, on the television programme Claroscuro con Angel Careaga to discuss the situation of torture in Bolivia and Latin America.
Dr Duque also met with journalists from Agencia de Noticias Fides Bolivia and was interviewed on Radio PanAmericana Bolivia to share his views on the situation in Bolivia, as well as to discuss the importance of the Istanbul Protocol.
Going on mission with the IFEG experts, Dastan Salehi quickly realised just how important their work is to the anti-torture movement and torture victims around the world.
“It was really inspiring to see Ana and Maximo at work. The way they spoke to and interacted with the victims and their families was just phenomenal. They didn’t treat them as just a case. They built rapport, shared and collaborated with them as people, and that was quite special.”
Each IFEG mission leaves behind a legacy of learning and inspiration, despite the difficult nature of the expert’s work; this was no different in La Paz.
A big thank you to Dastan for sharing his pictures with us. To find out more about the work of the IFEG click here.
With its remote location – far away from war and conflict – New Zealand is rarely mentioned in discussions about refugee quotas and resettlement. But each year a small number of refugees arrive in the country, where they are welcomed by local rehabilitation centre Refugees as Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ) at the National Refugee Resettlement centre in Auckland.
We recently spoke with RASNZ CEO Ann Hood about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in New Zealand, many of whom have fled torture and ill treatment, and how RASNZ is helping them overcome their trauma and settle in a new country.
As the CEO of RASNZ, Ann oversees 45 staff and 60 volunteers, providing newly arrived refugees with psychosocial and mental health assessments, brief therapeutic interventions and orientation to life in New Zealand.
RASNZ’s job is to ensure that refugees receive the psychological support they need to adapt to a new country and get the best start for themselves and their families. Something that is vital for those who have experienced torture and other forms of trauma. In addition, RASNZ also supports former refugees who continue to struggle with their traumatic past, despite the passing of many years.
WWT: The National Refugee Centre provides a wide array of health services to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of your clients. How do these services help vulnerable people to settle in a new country?
AH: We firmly believe that if the aim is for people to participate in society they need to be mentally and physically well. Otherwise, they aren’t able to learn the language, cope with a job or simply manage everyday life. The health aspect has to be addressed in order for people to live productive lives.
WWT: How does this work in practice?
AH: We have two clinical teams. One team is based at the Resettlement Centre, providing assessment and brief therapy. The other is based in the community in Auckland, covering the whole city, and is able to treat people over a longer period of time. For many traumatised refugees it is often down the track that they need support and treatment. Some don’t need our services for 10 years because they need to meet their basic needs first.
There is also a non-clinical community team mainly made up of former refugees. This team provides services within the community such as psycho education, introductory health programmes, support with education and employment and lots of engagement in activities. For young people we have the youth team with sports and mentoring programmes. For adults we run support groups, such as sewing groups for women and training in road codes and computer use.
WWT: We tend to often talk about refugees, but you also treat asylum seekers. As clients, how do they differ from refugees?
AH: When it comes to asylum seekers we tend to work with them particularly during the determination process as this is when they’re really struggling. Their future and fate is in the hands of the government. And they lose a lot of hope and faith during this process.
WWT: You actually worked at RASNZ as a clinical psychologist before taking a job elsewhere for 10 years. You returned last year as the CEO. How do you think the sector has changed since you first started working?
AH: I’ve seen a change in who are coming as refugees. New Zealand doesn’t take many people from Africa now, but focuses mainly on people from Burma, as well as refugees from Afghanistan and Colombia and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. The government has also changed its policy on specific issues over time. Like now, New Zealand no longer accepts unaccompanied minors.
WWT: Speaking of the government. New Zealand has such a strong history of protecting human rights and an equally good refugee settlement programme so we were a bit shocked to find out that the country only takes 750 refugees every year.
AH: In general, there is an overwhelming support for refugees in the country and when the government recently announced that it would increase the intake of refugees, there were great expectations about the number. It is fair to say there was an outcry when the government announced it would only increase the intake from 750 to 1000 refugees. New Zealand takes a very small number of refugees but I think that its resettlement programme is well regarded and we provide a very good service and system. From the moment refugees arrive in the country they get New Zealand residency and have access to the full range of health services.
WWT: It sounds like an efficient system with a strong focus on health and rehabilitation. Does this mean that you have the backing and support you need or do you still face challenges?
AH: We constantly need more money and run at a deficit. My number one priority is getting resources, and not just resources but sustainable resources. We can only employ people for the amount of time that we have money. Regarding our services, there is also a great need for clinical training and various aspects of working with trauma victims. Our team need to be up-skilled, such as being trained in the Istanbul Protocol. We work closely with lawyers and doctors, but at the moment we don’t have any doctors in New Zealand – as far as I know – who are trained in Istanbul Protocol, so it’s crucial.
We are relatively small with just two services in New Zealand and New Zealand is pretty isolated. So sometimes it can feel like we are a long way from the action. I think it’s really important to get that international perspective and to understand not only what’s happening around the world in terms of refugee and asylum issues, but also how other organisations are working and how we can work more collaboratively and support each other. Basically to keep up to speed. I would like our organisation to be able to grow in terms of research and advocacy, but at the moment we just don’t have the resources.
RASNZ has helped resettle United Nations quota refugees since 1995 and is one of just two services in the country providing treatment to refugees. Under international humanitarian conventions, the centre’s clinical team additionally delivers specialist mental health services for convention refugees and asylum seekers either in detention or with cases before the Refugee Appeals Authority. The centre has to date provided support to thousands of people.
Just as we have seen in previous years, creativity played a big role in marking this year’s 26 June campaign. Thousands of people across the globe joined the torture rehabilitation movement in showcasing both the resilience and creativity of survivors and caregivers alike.
TPO Cambodia – Transcultural Psychosocial Organization
This year, TPO Cambodia organised an event together with torture survivors of the Khmer Rouge Regime at their headquarters in Phnom Penh. Survivors, TPO staff and other guests discussed the right to compensation and rehabilitation for the victims of torture. The event began with a guided meditation by one of the TPOs counsellors, Dr. Muny, and a TPOs technical advisor, who reminded the audience about the importance of the commemoration of this day and the development of rehabilitation rights for victims of torture.
In addition, in a symbolic act, TPO staff and survivors freed a dozen of caged birds on the TPO´s rooftop, follow by a speech of a survivor, Mr. Ith Udom, who shared some of his experiences and expressed how important the remembrance of this day is for him and other survivors.
DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Denmark
To mark the UN International day in Support of Victims of Torture, on June 24, DIGNITY held an event in the Kongens Have park in Copenhagen. Approximately 18.000 people joined the event and enjoyed music, food, drinks and talked with DIGNITY staff. Chinah, L.I.G.A, Kesi, The Eclectic Monkier and the kid-friendly show Pippelipop were among the performers who entertained throughout the day.
EATIP – Equipo Argentino de Trabajo e Investigación Psicosocial, Argentina
To commemorate 26 June, EATIP ran a clinical athenaeum and hosted a film screening of ‘The Look of Silence’, an Oscar-nominated documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer that examines the perspective of victims of torture, disappearances and Extrajudicial Killings in Indonesia. Afterwards, the centre organised a post-film debate among the participants.
As part of their 26 June activities, EATIPs staff also organised a photo contest ‘Miradas sobre la memoria y la resistencia’ – ‘Views on memories and resistance’, which is currently running for two months and will finish with a photo exhibition open for the public. The objective of this contest is to further commemorate 26 June and the 40th anniversary of the military civic coup in Argentina.
Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, Iraq
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Jiyan Foundation invited survivors to share their stories with politicians, human rights workers, therapists, lawyers and journalists, at a dinner event. After the dinner, there was a panel discussion, where the participants discussed how survivors could be helped more effectively. A press release in Kurdish, Arabic and English was also published, calling attention to the many people who were tortured by the Saddam regime and need our support.
In Kirkuk, Jiyan Foundation met with the Iraqi Council of Representatives and the Provincial Council to discuss the relevance of the work of the centre, and how civil society as well as the government can support survivors of torture more effectively and cooperate on these issues.
SURVIVORS of Torture, International, USA
A photo exhibition featuring SURVIVORS’ clients and the journeys that may take to rebuild their lives, ran throughout all the month of June at La Mesa Library in San Diego, California. SURVIVORS also held a client Healing Club with a drum circle provided by Resounding Joy and its annual Ice Cream Social. This event was an opportunity for the community to come together in solidarity with torture survivors, meet staff, volunteers, and partners, and write letters of hope to the clients detained at the detention centres.
STTARTS – Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assitance and Rehabilitation Service Inc, Australia
This year, Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services (STTARS) invited Paris Aristotle AM, who is the CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, Chair of the Settlement Services Advisory Council and advisor to the Australian Government on refugee and asylum seeker policy, to speak at the “Sustainable Rehabilitation for Survivors and their Communities” event at the University of Australia. At the event, Mr Aristotle spoke about how Australia can respond to the growing humanitarian crisis, which to date has led to the displacement of an estimated 18 million people in Syria alone.
He also reviewed current settlement issues within Australia. In his keynote address, Paris focused upon the most effective ways to “Support Life after Torture”, not only for the intake of 12,000 Syrian/Iraqi refugees displaced as a direct cause of the terrifying war and ongoing conflict within that region, but to highlight concerns for refugees living in Australia.
Advocacy Centre for Human Rights, Kenya
In Kenya, to mark 26 June, the Advocacy Centre for Human Rights teamed up with members of a local youth group, police officers from Kahawa Sukari police station, members of the local county commission and the administration police. The event culminated with a social forum, where the local youth group interacted freely with the police and participated in a football match. This was a very positive event as the local police has been accused of a number abuses against members of the community.
During the event dubbed ‘Support Life After Torture’, over 140 youths and 21 police officers gathered at Kahawa Sukari Estate to celebrate Life after Torture in remembrance of victims and survivors of torture, sexual violence, inhumane and degrading treatment and other related abuse under the police and helped create a common understanding to hold perpetrators accountable through community based advocacy.
What politicians and the public need to know about life after torture: An interview with Victor Madrigal-Borloz
For the first time, the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture (IRCT) will speak at the Swedish event Almedalen this July. The week-long forum, where political and non-govermental organisations come together, attracts more than 35,000 visitors to discuss relevant issues every year. IRCT Secretary-General, Victor Madrigal-Borloz is one of four panellists who will discuss the physical and psychological effects of torture at a seminar on life after torture. We spoke to Victor about his upcoming visit to Almedalen, what he hopes to get out of it and why he thinks that NGOs like the IRCT and its members need to start a dialogue with their local politicians.
Q: This is your first time going to Almedalen in Sweden. The event is an annual tradition that has connected politicians, political and non-governmental organisations and the public for more than 40 years, what do you expect to take away from it?
Almedalen is a very unique opportunity because it represents direct access to members of parliament, to politicians and to political thinkers. We’re hoping to bring the plight of torture victims into their minds and thoughts.
I also expect that we will be able to liaise with politicians who are interested in creating societies that offer more solidarity and are willing to show empathy and understanding of the plight of torture victims. Finally, I think it will be interesting to meet those who are fuelling irresponsible political discourse. Not only to understand their motivation, but also to expose them to the consequences of their narratives.
Q: You will be speaking at the ‘Life after Torture’ seminar. Life after torture can mean a lot of things. What exactly will you be speaking about?
I think our great advantage in every public narrative we create is that we ensure that victims and survivors of torture are the protagonists. As a representative of the movement, I can then surround their experience and political aspirations with an understanding of the structures that have been put in place. That way we can understand how these individuals’ aspirations can be met through law reform and public policy.
Q: One of the IRCT’s Swedish members Red Cross in Malmø will also be speaking at the event. Do you think it’s important to collaborate with or involve members?
We hope that when activities are carried out in any given country, the local IRCT member centre will play a leading role. This is very important because the members are the ones that actually have an overview as to how the political problems reflect their everyday life and they can identify the particular problems facing torture victims. We can bring the global strategy of the movement and try to connect with the local situation, but I think it’s essential to have the local member be the ones that tell us how this global strategy can connect with their local context.
Q: Do you listen to members or go to them for information to stay up to date with what’s going on around the world in terms of torture and rehabilitation?
I think our members are an important source of information and we always make sure to stay in touch with them and follow their work closely. It’s interesting though, because the way information moves has changed drastically. Now it happens instantaneously and through very efficient channels, which means people find out about major events at the same time.
For us, this becomes clear during major events and political processes where we’re able to carry out a lot of analysis ourselves. But where we can’t actually do without our members is when we need to understand the events that have an impact on them or how rehabilitation is affected by certain political conceptions. It’s very important to have this contextual understanding because sometimes the impact won’t be felt before two years from now, but you still need to take action today.
Q: Why do you think more and more NGOs participate in forums like Almedalen?
I think that forums such as Almedalen provide a unique platform for political and non-governmental organisations to get together to discuss relevant issues. I think many NGOs like the IRCT are hoping to not only contribute to the public debate, but to also put their cause back on the agenda of their local politicians.
Q: Since you started as Secretary-General for the IRCT in 2013, you must have seen and experienced quite a lot in terms of change in political commitment or attitude towards the fight against torture and the need for rehabilitation. Do you think the movement is better or worse off when it comes to political support and understanding?
The movement is becoming stronger in the sense that the strategy is becoming clearer. The commitment of the movement to give a voice to the victim is becoming clearer, as well as the movement’s commitment to being professional and accountable. But the context is becoming a lot more challenging. As already mentioned, irresponsible political discourses fuelling certain opinions that people have where refugees, who includes a significant proportion of victims of torture, are seen as undesirable.
These discourses also fuel the stigmatisation of certain groups in society. I think they make it very difficult for the movement to expect that there will be an acknowledgment of the needs of this group and they also create more difficult grounds for politicians to wholeheartedly support the movement. Finally, these discourses also provide perfect conditions for those who want to fuel hate, xenophobia and fear because it’s easier to draw on those unspoken connections.
Q: What can the IRCT and its members do to influence the political debate and to get the attention of local politicians?
I think it’s very important to maintain a core objective and ensure victims of torture have a visible presence and a voice. This is difficult because we do not have the prerogative to decide who wants to make their story public, but we do have the need and the responsibility to ensure that information about the damage created by torture and about the needs of the victims become very clear to the public.
Q: What about public support? Do we need to continuously raise the issue of torture among everyday people like me or do you think most people are aware of it and feel strongly about eradicating torture?
I don’t think there’s an awareness about the fact that torture occurs and I think that there’s very little awareness about the type of damage that it causes and how unjustified it’s when it’s used. I think there are subtle mechanisms in public discourse that make it easier for people to not realise that this is an everyday occurrence that affects children, the elderly, men and women everywhere.
But the reality is that it does happen and it happens frequently and the damage is horrendous. For that reason, there’s a need to insist on this point. One of the great determinants in public opinion is the media and also the entertainment industry. Today I think we’re plagued with images of torture in entertainment shows that make it very easy for people to think that this is something that may work. With this in mind, I think it’s very important to raise awareness about the issue.
Q: Finally, how do you think the IRCT has made a difference to torture victims around the world? And what are your hopes for the future?
I think the great contribution of the IRCT is to place rehabilitation and the needs of torture victims at the forefront of the narrative of international human rights. Before the movement took this very clear strategy, rehabilitation was seen as a charity or at best as a political reparation. The great contribution of the movement has been to create a framework that is considered to be part of a right or a series of rights.
I hope that in the future we will see a society that through embracing solidarity and empathy actively rejects torture because it doesn’t happen to others, it happens to “us”. It’s about acknowledging that torture victims are us rather than them. I think we can learn from experience and have an appreciation of empathy, whether it’s from getting to know each other or from reading and from renouncing fear and hatred.
The United States-Mexico border at San Ysidro, in the county of San Diego, is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere. Every day, these people, who come in search of protection and a better life arrive in San Diego; one of the many cities that have seen an increase in refugees and asylum seekers.
The inspiring and shocking stories of some of these people have been captured by photographer Misael Virgen and were until recently on display at the La Mesa Library in San Diego.
The photo series focus on the journey from the points of entry to San Diego, beginning with the border and the airport. A collaboration between the organisation ART WORKS Projects and International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), the photographs are San Diego’s version of the international project Sanctuary and Sustenance, which tells the stories of some of the more than 60 million people currently without a permanent home because of war or persecution.
“The images help us share several of the thousands of stories of newcomers to our community,” explains Niki Kalmus, Community Relations Manager of SURVIVORS.
“We want San Diego to understand the long, arduous journeys our clients, refugees, asylum seekers, and all migrants make to rebuild their lives in our city. We also want to show that the lives these migrants lead are very similar to our own. The images Misael captured demonstrate how torture survivors’ lives are hardly different from the lives of you and me.”
SURVIVORS and ART WORKS Projects hope to raise awareness of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, as well as of their resilience, to spark conversations about collective responsibility, welcome newcomers to communities, and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.
“So far we have been able to reach many people who had never heard of SURVIVORS. The clients featured in Misael’s photography were excited to raise awareness about torture survivors, and came to see the exhibits when they were unveiled. One of the clients is highly involved with advocating for the rights of transgendered individuals, the reason she was tortured and forced to flee her home country,” explains Niki.
According to her, the exhibition, which was shown at La Mesa Library throughout the month of June, has inspired lots of visitors to get involved.
“Many of them now volunteer at SURVIVORS or have sought more information from us about how they can help torture survivors. Lots of people commented that they had no idea this was still an issue today, and especially not that it reached our community.”
Sanctuary & Sustenance is a multimedia projection of photography, film, music, and words, launched on June 20, 2013 in honour of World Refugee Day in cities around the world.
Through photographs, moving graphics, and music, viewers have an opportunity to trace the journey of a family during the catastrophic events of displacement, on a path to sanctuary, and through the long process of rebuilding life in a new community. Across the world, it aims to raise the public consciousness of these issues and facilitate conversations about the collective responsibility to welcome refugees and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.
Niki says that in San Diego, SURVIVORS does its best to educate the public about torture and its consequences.
“We raise awareness through community outreach such as this exhibit to let our community know that torture survivors are an underserved and often invisible part of the population. The most important thing we can do is simply understand that they are among us and spread the word about the important work of SURVIVORS and torture treatment centres throughout the world. We believe that by raising awareness about the existence of torture survivors in our very neighbourhoods we can create a more welcoming community.”
SURVIVORS is currently seeking other locations to show the exhibition. You can find out more about the Sanctuary & Sustenance project by clicking here, see more of the work from the exhibition by going to Misael Virgen’s website or get the latest news from SURVIVORS by following them on Facebook.
In this series, we speak with different people from various sectors and backgrounds who all work with and support survivors of torture in one way or another. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
For the third entry in our Q&A series, we speak with Guy Mulunda Kitwe, about his work as a psychologist at the SAVE CONGO Rehabilitation Centre, the legacy of rape and torture in the DRC and the ongoing struggle for funding.
Q: What is your profession and where do you work?
I am a psychologist at the SAVE CONGO rehabilitation centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Q: How long have you worked with torture survivors?
I have worked with torture victims since 2003. I was initially working with USAID as a psychologist on a programme for abandoned children.
Q: How did you end up in this sector? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?
It was during the armed conflict in 1997. Many women and children experienced torture and mass violence and I just thought how come so many people are suffering from torture. It was then that I decided to work for the anti-torture movement.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or your home country?
Torture is widespread in the DRC. For many years the country was known as the centre of rape because of the violence against women. This continued for a long time and now we’re seeing the consequences. Women have had children as a result of the rape and for most victims the trauma continues. We have many clients who experienced torture a long time ago, but are only now seeking help at our centre. This is because the security in the country has improved thanks to the UN peacekeeping forces and a hardworking government.
In the DRC, there are still some rebel groups in the mountains and in the villages, but the number has gone down from 24 to just five to six groups. It is still a long process to treat victims of torture. We are the only centre in the DRC that is working specifically with victims of torture. Sometimes we receive clients referred to us by the UNHCR and UNICEF. We have a close working relationship with these and other UN agencies.
Q: What does your work mean to you?
For me, working with victims of torture means to respect human beings. My work has truly taught me to respect other people. It has also allowed me to progress/grow personally and professionally, especially in relation to increasing my knowledge and ability to working with people.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
In 2000, many torture victims did not have access to rehabilitation. If, for example, they went to a hospital, they would not be given specific treatment. However, over the years, SAVE CONGO has built and developed a range of services. Now victims know where to go and other organisations, such as the hospitals know where to send victims. Another thing is training, which is something we are able to offer because of our work with organisations like the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). I am proud to say that we have supported more than 8,000 torture victims.
Q: How has your sector/industry changed since you started?
The change is that many organisations and hospitals are now involved in the fight against torture.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the sector/industry?
The lack of funding for rehabilitation centres. We are receiving more and more victims of torture, but sadly we do not have sufficient funding to do our job. This means that we have limited resources such as staff.
Q: What do you think needs to be done to make the right to rehabilitation a reality?
In the DRC, the state needs to take responsibility for all the people in the country and do everything in its power to support torture victims. At the moment, there is no national programme on torture and this is something that we really need.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
My hope is that torture rehabilitation will be available for all victims of torture.
On 17 February the last remaining centre for the treatment and documentation of alleged torture victims in Egypt was ordered to close by the Egyptian authorities. The reason given was that the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture had ‘breached unspecified health ministry regulations’. But critics say that the order is part of a sweeping crackdown on human rights organisations and defenders in the country.
At a news conference, the Nadeem Center’s director Aida Seif el-Dawla called the decision to close the centre politically motivated.
“This is a political decision and it’s coming from the cabinet that represents all the actors that are keen on the survival of this regime, despite the oppression and the torture that the Egyptian people are living through on a daily basis.”
The regime that Aida Seif el-Dawla is referring to is that of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Since al-Sisi took office in June 2014, repression and shrinking of the public space has only increased, targeting the entire spectrum of human rights organisations, professional and labour associations, political activists, journalists and media.
In its 2016 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that authorities have effectively banned protests and imprisoned tens of thousands—often after unfair trials. According to the report, National Security officers commit torture and enforced disappearances, while many detainees die in custody from mistreatment.
Despite the constitution forbidding torture and the abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons. In 2014 British newspaper The Guardian revealed that since July 2013, at least 400 people had been tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison.
The Nadeem Center is a private, politically independent organisation that is known around the world for speaking out against torture and other human rights violations. It is the centre’s work to document torture in particular that the authorities see as a great threat to the survival of the regime. Just last December the centre and other civil society organisations announced they were able to document 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons. Allegations that the authorities continue to deny.
Meanwhile, international rights organisations, including the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) have come out in support of the Nadeem Center and Aida Seif el-Dawla.
The IRCT, which has a membership of more than 150 torture rehabilitation centres across the world, including the Nadeem Center, released a statement calling for action and intervention.
“The Egyptian authorities have a duty to protect and promote the work of human rights defenders; any state hoping to be regarded as democratic must abide by the rule of law and respect for human rights. We will continue to be concerned with this situation until it is fully solved,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Secretary-General of the IRCT.
In the statement, the IRCT also emphasised the importance of the centre being able to provide treatment to victims of torture, warning that without it, torture victims would have nowhere to go.
Other organisations are pointing to the fact that the closure of El Nadeem Center would constitute an unprecedented violation of the right to freedoms of association and of expression, as well as a dramatic threat to civil liberties, with thousands of political prisoners behind bars, all virtually threatened with systematised acts of torture. Despite the pressure, the Egyptian authorities have showed no signs of budging.
Yet the Nadeem Center refuses to give up, saying that, “If both the clinic and the centre are closed, we shall continue to release our reports and we shall continue to help victims of violence and torture as long as we are doctors and as long as this state insists to use torture as a means of oppressing its citizens.”
The use of riot police, the construction of a 175 km razor-wire fence and threats of deportation. These are just some of the harsh measures taken by the Hungarian government to curb the influx of refugees entering the country. Meanwhile, Hungarian NGOs are providing much needed support and relief to the refugees who have made it to the country. One of these NGOs is IRCT member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. We spoke with the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi about travelling to the Hungarian border to help out at the front line.
“We have seen a huge number of refugees at the railway stations in Budapest and have heard that the situation at the border is really catastrophic and chaotic.”
In an email, Dr. Lilla Hardi explains why she and 11 colleagues from the Cordelia Foundation rehabilitation centre decided to travel to the border between Hungary and Serbia last month. They made two trips to assess the refugee situation and to offer their support to those in need of rehabilitation services.
On their first trip they were denied access to the refugees. However, on their second trip they managed to treat a number of people each day.
According to Dr. Hardi, most of the refugees she saw seemed to be doing relatively well physically, but suffered from serious mental health problems as a direct result of the traumatising events they had experienced.
“Many of the newly arrived refugees were in a very bad state mentally. They were very exhausted and desperate,” she writes. “I think aggressive manifestations in their behaviour might happen due to their traumatised and desperate state. This situation is another trauma contributing to their already unbalanced mental state and earlier traumatisation.”
Empirical studies by the Chamber of Psychotherapists in Germany echo this assessment, suggesting that at least half of the refugees coming to the country have mental health problems because of the trauma suffered in war or during their dangerous escapes. An even bigger number of these refugees have been subjected to human rights violations, including torture, says the Chamber.
In the ongoing political debate, there seems to be hardly any focus on early identification of torture victims among newly arrived refugees and no coordinated response schemes are available. Currently, the work carried out by the Cordelia Foundation and other organisations in support of traumatised refugees is largely done on a voluntary basis. This shows how urgent the need is for States to acknowledge their obligation and provide the resources and mechanisms to support and protect victims of torture.
However, in Hungary, the government’s response to the crisis so far has been to close off a railway track used by tens of thousands of refugees to enter the European Union on foot. This is all part of its crackdown on refugees coming from Serbia.
Personally, Dr. Hardi did not experience any hostility from Hungarian police, but she notes how strange it is to see police officers wearing masks and gloves. “They wear them in the belief that it prevents them from getting ‘contaminated’,” she explains.
The fact that Hungarian police officers find it necessary to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from disease and contamination illustrates the general lack of compassion for the refugees coming to Europe and the lack of understanding there is for what many of them have been through.
“In one of the detention centres we met a Syrian family of 12 who had been transferred from the border that very day. The head of the family used to be a high-rank public service person in his country. They had witnessed the beheading of about 500 persons in their city,” writes Dr. Hardi.
“All of the family members were seriously traumatised and showed serious symptoms of PTSD. One of them had lost a lower limb and had a temporary prosthesis; another suffered from diabetes and needed insulin urgently. We asked one of the nurses to monitor him and to give him the insulin that he had brought himself.
The team from the Cordelia Foundation also alerted the local authorities to the fact that the family needed help.
“We introduced them to our local therapist and our psychiatrist who is in charge of our clients on a weekly basis. She has been taking care of the family since then. We immediately wrote a short medical report on their state ordering them to be released as they belong to the vulnerable group. However, the authorities did not release them. Instead they extended their stay in detention by another 30 days.”
With the situation in Syria unchanged and other armed conflicts continuing to disrupt the Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan region, hundreds of thousands are left with no other choice than to flee war, violence and human rights abuses, torture being one of them.
When asked what she thinks will happen, Dr. Hardi replies:
“Nobody knows. The situation is permanently changing.”