Archive for category Middle East North Africa
The release of Australian journalist Peter Greste, and a new report by Human Rights Watch has once again turned the world’s attention to Egypt’s poor human rights record. This time focus is on the country’s prisons and its inhumane treatment of political prisoners.
After 400 days in prison charged with supporting a “terrorist organisation”, a farcical trial and an international outcry, Peter Greste from Al-Jazeera was finally released from Egypt’s Tora prison this month. Despite the relief of being free again, Greste called for the release of his two colleagues, his producer Mohamed Fahmy, and cameraman Bahar Mohamed, both of whom remain behind bars.
Like Peter Greste, the two were given heavy sentences for disseminating “false news” and purportedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s first democratic elections.
Sadly, their story is not at all unique. News outlets report of tens of thousands of political prisoners detained in Egyptian prisons. As most of these prisoners cannot claim dual citizenship, their future is one of much uncertainty and despair.
Torture and Abuse
The staggering number of political prisoners is just one side of Egypt’s problem. Despite the constitution banning torture and abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons.
As the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) points out, history shows that the Egyptian military and police disregard the rule of law and have systematically used extreme violence and torture in their repressive tactics. IRCT’s human rights partners in the region have for years documented the systematic torture of those detained by military and police forces.
According to Amnesty International, torture is routinely practiced in police stations and unofficial places of detention, with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters particularly targeted.
Amnesty International also reports that there has been a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody in the past couple of years.
Last year, 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.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch criticising the Egyptian authorities, detailed scores of detainees suffering and even dying while in government custody, but human rights defenders all agree that the number of casualties is likely to be much higher than that.
Preventing torture in prisons and other places of detention is not an easy task with so few perpetrators brought to justice. Of all torture complaints in Egypt, only a very few reach the courts due to institutional barriers to justice.
The independent Egyptian human rights law firm United Group released a report in which it described how it had interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and that it had filed 163 complaints, of which only seven reached the courts.
Sadly, this hopeless and grim situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
Amid continuous reporting on Peter Greste’s release, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death, 34 of whom were not even present for the trial. If this verdict is anything to go by, Egypt is not reforming its prison and justice system. Instead, it appears determined to continue down this dangerous path, ignoring international human rights law.
Peter Greste’s story offers some relief in an otherwise desperate time. After 400 days in captivity, he is back in Australia. Still behind bars, however, are the tens of thousands of political prisoners. They know about the unjust trials and what police brutality feels like. Now they face the prospect of remaining in prisons for years to come – in a country that took away their freedom and human rights.
“There was a call for help in a house which had been randomly shelled at Mujama’a St, East Gaza City. It was nearly 01:00 on the last day of Ramadan. The house was in complete chaos when the team arrived. There was dense smoke everywhere and a very bad smell, which hardly allowed them to breathe. I got the stretcher and the flashlight and entered the building, where I immediately saw a badly injured woman under the staircase. I took her to the ambulance and went back to the house. We managed to fit 3-6 people into the second ambulance….
“What shocked me most about this incident was that I forgot the flashlight in the house and my colleague asked me to go back and get it, since we would need it later for other evacuations. When I went back, I heard the feeble cry of a small baby, which I hadn’t noticed before. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. Then I felt that the voice was coming from under a heap of rubble in flames. I searched in the rubble, though I felt my hands getting burnt, and finally I found a baby around one month old. I took her and ran back to the ambulance, but before I arrived she stopped breathing. I performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on her, and she came back to life.
“I was shocked by the incident, because she could have been one of my children, and I had almost left her behind in the fire to a certain death. I still thank God that I forgot the flashlight, so I was forced to go back to the house and could find her! I found a picture of her in the hospital on the internet, and I saved it, because it is a great encouragement for me. Now I want to look for her and see her grow, to tell her how proud I am that she is alive.”
The author of this story is Yousef Al Kahlout, a PRCS paramedic, who was part of the emergency response to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last summer.
Although accounts vary, most estimates put the number of residents of Gaza killed in the 50-day armed conflict at more than 2,000, of whom at least 70% were civilians. Additionally, more than 11,000 were wounded and over 100,000 made homeless because of the attacks.
The tale of Yousef and the baby he saved is one of hope. However, buried in the rubble in Gaza are many other stories of the short but devastating conflict.
Eight independent medical experts travelled to Gaza to uncover these stories. In a new fact-finding report, commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, they detail the types, causes and patterns of injuries based on interviews with victims.
The report, which is now available, provides a unique insight into the devastating impact war had on the civilians and communities in Palestine, and, at least partly, brings to light some of the stories the conflict nearly erased.
To read the full report, click here.
Today, much the same as 15 years ago, demonstrators in Algiers, Algeria, still campaign for the whereabouts of their loved ones.
A bloody civil war in the 1990s, culminating in a military coup in 1992 stopping Islamists from taking power, killed over 100,000 people.
Amidst this, families fell apart as relatives simply disappeared. Many were murdered. Others were captured.
As a recent Human Rights Watch report notes, since the end of the war there is still widespread impunity and trauma among many Algerians. Reporting in Human Rights Watch’s ‘Dispatches’ series, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division Eric Goldstein reports on his first entry to Algeria for almost a decade. He paints a bleak picture of a country refusing to approach its past.
“I find the families of those disappeared during the war still holding regular demonstrations, chanting ‘Give us back our sons’ on a sidewalk in downtown Algiers,” Eric says.
“The demonstrators have aged. Every several months since my last visit, an email arrives announcing that a parent of one of those disappeared has passed away, without having learned the fate of his or her child.”
In 2006, Algeria’s Law on Peace and National Reconciliation helped 7,000 families receive compensation for the trauma caused by the disappearances. However, the law also provided amnesty to the perpetrators of torture and forced disappearances.
Because of this, there is no justice for the victims. The truth has therefore never surfaced.
“There are those who reject compensation as long as the state does not disclose the fate of their children,” Eric says.
“For many, the truth means much more than learning if, and how, their children died, and at whose hands.”
Adapted from Dispatches: Algeria’s ‘Disappeared’ as published by Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch. To read the original report, click this link.
In her second blog for World Without Torture, photographer Ida Harriet Rump details the destruction in the Syrian town of Ma’arrat al-Numan, which has a target of heavy shelling and conflict since 2011.
In this blog, Ida – a student in Middle Eastern studies at Lund University, Sweden – recounts the fear of shelling from the Syrian regime, how people escape the danger, and stories of torture encountered throughout her trips to the country.
It is striking that almost no houses in Ma’arrat al-Numan have glass in their windows – it has all been smashed by the shockwaves of the fallen bombs.
Around 60 per-cent of the houses and infrastructure in the city is destroyed and very little has been rebuilt over the three-years of the conflict. All the time it seems as if the citizens are evaluating what seems worthwhile to reconstruct. As one activist I met noted: “You never know when it will be torn down again”.
The abandoned destruction stands not only as a very visual testimony of the recent history of extreme systematic violence, but also as a symbol of the town-dwellers’ approach towards their city, to their general life possibilities and mental state of mind, as they seek to resume a life as full as possible amidst the mess.
The city is shelled on an everyday basis and the Syrian regime has a military base in the eastern outskirt of the city from where they attack Ma’arrat al-Numan with rockets. Certain areas of the city near to the frontline are covered with wreckage and are deserted of people. The streets in the city that are being actively used are continuously cleared from rubble and the remainders of fallen houses.
In some of the busy streets the tempo is high, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians fly across the roads to avoid being sniped or shut at, which is an ever-remaining danger from the nearby front, and to a certain extent an internalised habit.
Where to go?
Though most families have spent long periods in the surrounding villages, and in some cases Turkey, the everyday movement is severely restricted to the extent that many citizens nearly never leave their houses.
The movement between the different cities is limited. It is dangerous to driver on the bigger roads and every day cars are hit by the regime, whether from shooting or in a car accident. It takes much local knowledge to navigate the roads and since many roads are blocked, it is of life saving necessity to avoid the regime-controlled areas. Besides the risk of getting hit from the air, the fear of getting kidnapped or robbed prevent many people from traveling.
Kidnapped by the regime
During my trip, there were relatively calm periods in Ma’arra which opened the possibility for relatives to visit the remaining citizens. Many visitors pass from one house to the other to drink coffee and exchange news from the regions of Hama, Aleppo and Idlib.
One of the visitors was a young doctor from Aleppo. Recently released from one of the regime prisons, he would pace the yard without the ability to relax. It transpired his story was a painful one, but one which is not rare. Arrested for unknown reasons, as he has never interfered with politics of the military, he was released on thanks to a bribe and suffered no ill-treatment at the hands of his captors.
But while he would recount his story without torture, he could remember the other prisoners being tortured. When he spoke, his face was twisted and he became visibly uncomfortable talking about what he witnessed.
Tortured by the regime
Another time, I met Jamila – a Syrian-Palestinian woman who came to visit dring the period of calm. As soon as she entered the rooms she began to cry.
Her brother – who lived in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in the outskirts of Damascus but worked in a bakery in the central part of the city – was arrested alongside his cousin during their daily commute, despite being in possession of a special paper documenting the purpose for travel.
Why were they arrested? Again, that was unknown. But only three days before I met Jamila, her cousin was released from prison. In his possession was the ID of Jamila’s brother – sent out of the prison as a proof of death.
They did not say it but everybody knew he died of torture. Another person in the group – a lady named Im Tariq – consoled Jamila by explaining that it is better that he is dead than still under the instruments of the torturer
Im Tariq knows the pain herself. Two years previously her son was kidnapped by the regime and she has heard nothing of him since. She does not know if he is dead or alive.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Ida. For more information on the Witness Syria programme which aided Ida in her journey email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What the bones remember: Doctors from IRCT partner PCATI share their experiences of documenting torture
Detecting signs of torture, often years after they have been caused, can be a tough task. However, due to advancing techniques in medical documentation of torture, physicians are able to establish the injuries inflicted by torture and the best methods of rehabilitation. Three physicians from IRCT partner Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) share their experiences.
For Dr Revital Arbel, torture was not something she had witnessed when her work with PCATI first begun. “Although I have been working in the field for years, particularly with victims of sexual assault, I will always remember a case following the pregnancy of an Eritrean refugee who was raped in Sinai,” she says.
“When she came in to deliver the baby she was accompanied by an interpreter for the first time, and they told me the story. Slowly the things she had been through in Sinai began to sink in. Like other refugee women imprisoned in Saharonim, she had not been able to undergo a termination of pregnancy at an early stage.”
Just as Dr Arbel realized realised the suffering, she received an invitation to participate in the first-ever training program in Israel for physicians and psychologists teaching ways to locate and diagnose torture victims.
The training, an ongoing project organised by PCATI and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), provides training in the forensic aspects of torture. The knowledge is used to identify victims and to provide evidence in court or in other formal examinations, such as applications to the United Nations to receive refugee status.
Arbel now knows much more about torture in Israel and around the world than she thought possible. “Torture leaves marks,” she says, “and these remain in the body many years after the event. The interrogators may be careful not to leave blue bruises, but today we can also identify what’s under the skin – what the bones remember.”
A personal relationship with torture
For clinical psychologist Dr David Senesh, he understands torture all too well. Captured and imprisoned in an Egyptian jail for 40 days during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Dr Senesh has a personal relationship with torture which enhances his professional, medical understanding of its effects.
“I’m post-traumatic,” he says openly. “The guys who were held prisoner with me can’t figure out what I’m doing; how what we went through brought me to identify with the experience of occupation and treat Palestinians who have undergone torture. But from my perspective it’s a logical continuation.”
Neurologist Dr Bettina Birmanns, who works in the same hospital as the other physicians in Jerusalem, attempts to explain why she found herself repeatedly dealing with the topic of torture. “I’m increasingly convinced that when a state permits torture, it damages the fabric of the state and destroys trust between citizens the authorities. Even if ‘regular’ citizens do not believe that they will be affected, the fact that someone in an official position is allowed to use serious violence and deliberately cause someone else pain and suffering, damaging their inner kernel and soul – and we know that this happens – that destroys society. I cannot accept that.”
The three doctors admit that they paid a heavy emotional price for their participation in the series of workshops. Alongside theoretical sessions discussing methods of torture around the world, trainee participants also diagnosed actual cases, engaged in role-playing exercises, and confronted professional and personal dilemmas.
“There’s a reason why the training program attracted relatively long-serving physicians,” Arbel suggests. “I think this work demands maturity, and I’m glad that I didn’t suggest that any of our interns join it. Maturity is important in order to act properly and cope with the difficult exposure to the people involved and their stories. You also require moderation – you cannot be too extreme in either direction, but need a mature view of life.”
‘You just can’t ignore torture anymore’
But they feel that with trainings such as these – and with the sharing of knowledge and mechanisms to ensure states comply with their anti-torture obligations – torture can be stopped across the globe.
“You reach a point where you just can’t ignore [torture] anymore,” says Dr Birmanns. “You hear the traumatic stories, and you see the victims after they were tortured – what they experienced has an impact on their health, their psychological condition, and their relations with their wives, children, and with society at large.”
“People undergo personality changes. They’ll never be the same as they were before they were tortured. They were all imprisoned afterwards and didn’t receive treatment. So first they are tortured during interrogation, which results with various kinds of problems. And then their imprisonment kind of freezes the situation, and when they are released all kinds of issues and experiences erupt and those around them don’t know how to cope with it. People are happy to see them out of jail, but they are not really the same people who went into jail, partly because of the torture.
“I still believe that a law-abiding state should not deliberately cause pain and suffering and ruin someone’s life. There should be a border that remains uncrossed, beyond any discussion.”
To date, just 81,000 Syrians have sought protection in the EU, Norway and Switzerland; representing only 3% of the total number of people who have fled.
With a death toll of 130,000, and refugee numbers expected to escalate to 4 million by the end of 2014, the Syrian conflict is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.
To call on European leaders to protect refugees, and to alert the public to the sheer numbers of Syrians suffering from conflict, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is launching today a new campaign entitled “Europe Act Now” which utilises social media to spread the voices of Syrian refugees throughout the globe.
The unique campaign sees human rights groups, celebrities, politicians, and anyone else who wants to help, donating their Twitter accounts to ECRE for a week. ECRE will in turn give tweeting access to a Syrian refugee who will tell his/her story over a particular number of days, determined by the person who donates the Twitter account.
We at World Without Torture are joining the campaign on 10 and 11 March 2014 from 0900hrs, so remember to check our Twitter account (available here) to read an unique insight into the life of a Syrian refugee.
ECRE hopes the campaign, which will last for four-months until World Refugee Day on 20 June, will raise awareness of the barriers that refugees face when entering Europe and what can be done to reunite families affected by the conflict.
To follow our Twitter feed simply click this link, where we shall be handing over our Twitter to hear the stories of Syrian refugees on Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th March.
And for more information on ECRE and the “Europe Act Now” campaign, click this link.
Despite being the shortest month of our calendar, February has been packed with important news stories, statements and developments across the anti-torture movement.
We summarise some of our most popular blogs, social media content and news releases below. Simply click the relevant links and pictures to read the full stories.
Ever wondered what can be achieved through rehabilitation? Ever wanted to know exactly what can be done to help victims of torture overcome their past? Or have you simply questioned how many centres across the globe offer torture rehabilitation services?
This month we collected the top ten questions asked by our readers about anti-torture work and answered them with links to our work. Just click the picture or this link to read more.
Another popular story this month came from the IRCT whose President, Suzanne Jabbour, has been awarded the prestigious North-South Prize from the Council of Europe in recognition of her lifelong commitment to preventing torture.
The award, which will be presented this Spring in Lisbon, Portugal, has a long list of famous previous winners including Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof.
Suzanne is overjoyed with her victory and we want to thank everyone who joined us in congratulating Suzanne on this award. Read the full story here.
A prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.
This ‘Wheel of Torture’, which uses torture as a game, came to light in the world media this month following an inspection of prisons in the Philippines and shocked human rights groups worldwide.
The practice not only showed us how torture is still being reinvented and adapted in sadistic ways, but also showed just how little is being done in the Philippines to stop torture. You can read our full blog on this, and the statement from human rights defenders in the country, by clicking this link.
A story we shared on Facebook this month garnered much attention – the vivid, hard-hitting documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ achieved must deserved recognition from the British Academy of Film, Television and Arts (BAFTA) this month, receiving the award for Best Documentary at the latest awards ceremony.
Click our status below to watch an interview with the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer following the award.
We caught up with IRCT member the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims in Iraq this month to see what they are doing to help survivors of torture in the region.
The newest member of the IRCT movement, the Kirkuk Centre have extensive links across the north of the country to aid victims of torture from all backgrounds, from those affected by the war in Iraq, to the recent influx of Syrian refugees in the region.
It comes as part of our ‘On the Forefront’ series, which you can see all the entries for by clicking this link.
Incredible news from Tunisia this month, who passed a new constitution promoting equal rights for women, freedom of religious expression, and freedom from torture – all ratified just three years after revolution.
We joined world leaders in congratulating Tunisia on this move which will hopefully push other contries to follow the lead.
However in Bahrain, which also experienced uprisings against the government three years ago, the situation of ill-treatment of protestors and limits to freedom of expression has not changed.
Protests continue on a daily basis, and the three-year anniversary since the beginning of the protests was tragically marked itself by further protests and excessive crackdowns from the authorities.
Bahrain needs to change now. It simply cannot wait any longer. Read the full story by clicking the picture or clicking this link.
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Despite a strong government crackdown on protestors, over 300,000 people took to the streets of Bahrain’s capital Manama on 14 February to mark the three-year anniversary of the Bahraini protests.
And despite three-years of torture, imprisonment, and even deaths of protestors, the demonstrations against the government do not seem to be slowing down.
But also what is not slowing down is the government’s resistance to relinquishing power to the people. On the anniversary march alone, over 50 people were injured by rubber pellets and tear gas fired by police.
The last three years have seen the Bahraini government, the House of Al Khalifa, use extreme force over protestors whom are campaigning for respect for human rights. In every protest, the government has repelled the protestors with the use of force. The result over three years is shocking: according to data from The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), 93 people have died; more than 2,200 political prisoners remain in detention; and torture and enforced disappearances remain widespread on a daily basis.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has tracked the uprising since day one and Maryam Al-Khawaja, Acting President of the BCHR following the arrest of President Nabeel Rajab, knows in detail the harm the government can cause.
Her father, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been imprisoned since April 2011 for allegedly plotting a coup during the pro-democracy protests. Maryam’s sister Zainab – who was recently released from detention – still faces a string of ‘anti-government’ charges. They are just two cases out of thousands who have been silenced by the government.
“People seem to assume that somehow the Bahrain revolution failed but I do not think it is fair to assess the revolution as ‘failed’,” said Maryam Al-Khawaja in a piece to World Without Torture. “It is just an inconvenient revolution – a revolution which is happening in a country which is solidly linked to the interests of the West in terms of oil, trading and so on that it would prove problematic to recognise as an active, powerful movement.”
Three years on, her assessment certainly still seems accurate. Aside from the occasional news report online, the world seems oblivious to Bahrain: the country is still portrayed as a safe haven for foreign investment and tourism; and large-scale international events, such as the Formula One Grand Prix, still continue to uphold the myth that Bahrain is free from unrest.
Yet the sheer numbers of protestors marking the importance of the ‘revolution’ tell a different story about the realities of Bahrain: its people want a democratic change from the 230-year-old Al Khalifa rule.
With human rights coming into question on a daily basis, it is a change that is needed – now, not in another three years.
In the blog this week we profile the newest member of the IRCT network, the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims, offering torture rehabilitation in northern Iraq.
Founded in 2005, the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims is an important multi-branched organisation offering rehabilitative services to victims of torture in the region. It is the second IRCT member in Iraq, and was founded with support from the Berlin Center for Torture Victims, a leading European institution caring for survivors of torture, persecution and genocide.
The Kirkuk centre offers services tailored to a wide variety of social groups including female and young victims of torture, victims of genocide, refugees who are survivors of torture, and many more.
Quite simply, thanks to extensive support programmes, there is no one the centre cannot help. This openness has been highlighted once more with their recent treatment of an influx of Syrian refugees at the centre whom, despite fleeing their homeland in large numbers, have had the same excellent treatment from the Kirkuk centre.
The deep understanding of the challenges refugees particularly face is perhaps ingrained in the centre’s beliefs thanks to the experience of Salah Ahmed, founder and chairman of the centre.
Himself being of Kurdish-Iraqi origin, Salah Ahmad fled his home country in 1981 and sought refuge in Germany, where he studied pedagogics and later on became a psychotherapist. At the Berlin Center for Torture Victims he has treated hundreds of survivors of torture from all over the world.
After the fall of the Saddam regime, Mr. Ahmed returned to his hometown Kirkuk where in 2005 he established the first rehabilitation centre for survivors of torture in Iraq.
Until today, he still recalls one of his first patients, a young woman who had been imprisoned, tortured and held a sex slave for more than 10 years by Saddam’s security forces.
“She had had multiple abortions and given birth to three children in prison. It took more than one year of intensive therapy until I saw this woman smile for the first time”, recalls Salah Ahmad. “She was my first patient in Kirkuk and the biggest challenge of my professional career.”
Since these first days, the Kirkuk Center has come a long way. “Many things have changed since the first patient walked through our door,” Salah says. “The political and the security situation in Kirkuk and in Central Iraq is really worrying. But we have been able to help more than 11,000 patients in six cities in north Iraq.
“When I travel through my country and visit the big cities in the north, I think that hope always dies last. What we have built in this country during the past 10 years is incredible.”
Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.
Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.
There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.
The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.
Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.
Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.
Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.
Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.
Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.