Torture rehabilitation in the Western Balkans – stories, challenges and the importance of working together

(left to right) Natasa Cvetkovic Jovic of IAN, IRCT Regonal Coordinator for Europe Mushegh Yekmalyan, Dragan Jugovic of “Dusha"

(left to right) Natasa Cvetkovic Jovic of IAN, IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe Mushegh Yekmalyan, Dragan Jugovic of “Dusha”

As part of his work as IRCT Regional Coordinator for Europe, we hear from Mushegh Yekmalyan as he travelled to the small town of Petrovac, Montenegro, to discuss anti-torture work from three torture rehabilitation centres and around 20 other human rights organisations in the Western Balkans.

Meeting new people is always an exciting experience, especially when you get the chance to hear from fellow human rights defenders and how the work we are all part of has aided rehabilitation, recovery and revival among people and communities.

The three-day roundtable meeting, organised by the International Aid Network (IAN), an IRCT member, was the final event of a three-year torture prevention project in the Western Balkans.

Torture survivors were present at the meeting. It was particularly moving to hear the problems of de-humanisation in their stories, the help provided by rehabilitation centres to mend the damage torture causes to families and communities, and who should be providing the rehabilitative services in the region.

The problem of de-humanisation

In many legislations, mentally disabled people have no right of appealing an assessment of their mental disability – an assessment often made by doctors who may have even not seen them and have come to a conclusion on the basis of some paperwork that was done by others.

The same is also true about the justice system where judges often do not see the person alleged to be mentally disabled, so just base their judgements on an opinion of a doctor.

The shocking reality that only the legal guardian has a right to appeal such decisions constitutes the very fact of de-humanisation as the person has no right to protect himself/herself when the rest of the world seems against you.

This situation was abused thousands of times in authoritarian regimes to de-humanise political opponents and dissidents, who were not just imprisoned but were simply sent to the psychiatric wards where nobody could see them and hear from them. Unfortunately this loop hole still exists in modern times and there is always a risk of having a person locked up in a psychiatric ward because of human error or abuse.

Addressing the far-reaching effects of torture

The crime of torture can not only traumatise the direct victims, but also their families and communities. In general, after years of repression, conflict and war, regular support networks and structures have often been broken or destroyed.

Providing support to survivors of torture and trauma can help reconstruct broken societies. Rehabilitation centres therefore play a key role in promoting democracy, co-existence and respect for human rights. They provide support and hope, and are a talisman against terror and torture.

It was fascinating to hear how the IRCT members in the region are engaging with communities damaged by conflict and torture in the Balkans. Much of the work focuses on remote villages where social workers, accompanied by doctors, are frequent visitors to families affected by torture in an attempt to make the survivors of torture feel integrated into their community. This work is often supported by UN agencies and other donors, and much work is being accomplished thanks to these close ties.

The war-torn Balkans have numerous stories from torture survivors who were former prisoners of war, or civilians caught in the crossfire. The victims not only suffered from the violence of conflict, but also humiliation from their communities because of their victim status.

The responsibility to provide rehabilitation

But who should offer support and provide rehabilitation? In many contexts where the survivors of torture are still within the same country and even often within the same municipality where the torture happened, a need of proper protection of the survivor and the caregiver must be guaranteed. However, in many contexts where the state has a blind eye to the problems of torture – and perhaps even supports the punitive actions of police force and paramilitary – the support must come from human rights organisations and networks working outside the state structure. This is why the rehabilitation centres not only in the Balkans but also across the globe are so important – they provide help where it seems like there is no room for hope.

Many IRCT member centres are on frontline and often are overwhelmed by horror stories of war, violence, torture and ongoing brutalities. But collective understanding of the importance of the work they do at meetings like this help them to carry on and help those in need.

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