Archive for category From our members
*the client’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS) is the only accredited torture treatment center in San Diego, California and is one of the 18 IRCT-accredited torture treatment centers in the U.S. and Canada. Since its inception 20 years ago, SURVIVORS has served over 2,000 clients from over 80 countries. Torture survivors who go to San Diego become part of the SURVIVORS’ family, and many keep in touch long after they stop receiving treatment. Today, SURVIVORS’ current and former clients are going to school, starting their own businesses, working full-time, and becoming U.S. citizens. Here is a Q&A with a former client who shares his story and his successes that many other SURVIVORS’ clients ultimately achieve.
Question: Where are you from and why did you leave your home country?
Abebe: I am from Ethiopia. I fled because I was active in a political party against the corrupt government in power that was oppressing people and violating human rights. They imprisoned and tortured me and they killed many people. That’s why I left Ethiopia.
Q: What was it like when you first arrived here?
A: At the beginning it was very difficult because I didn’t have any documents and I was not able to work or study. I didn’t have a community and I only knew a few people. I was not stable financially. It was stressful. Q: How did you hear about SURVIVORS? A: I heard about SURVIVORS from my lawyer. She told me they could help me with some basic needs including a psychological and medical evaluation that would support my asylum case.
Q: What was it like being at SURVIVORS for the first time?
A: I just liked the place. It’s very peaceful and everyone was very nice and welcoming to me. I felt at home. I knew that I would be helped.
Q: What services did you participate in?
A: Besides the documentation for my case I went to counseling for three years; it was, of course, free of charge. I also went to group therapy where we painted, told stories, and learned to write. I was matched with a volunteer family. It was very nice for me. We used to go hiking and go to the beach. SURVIVORS also helped me get a scholarship to take a GRE preparatory course and pay for the test. Most importantly, they helped with basic needs like hygiene products and even food.
Q: Are you still in touch with the people you met at SURVIVORS?
A: Yes. My befriender and I exchange emails. And I constantly see SURVIVORS. When I became a U.S. citizen, even though I gave short notice, SURVIVORS came. Even my friends couldn’t come, but SURVIVORS was there for that big moment of my life.
Q: How long was it before you started to feel better and to feel like a part of the community?
A: At the beginning I felt very alone. After about a year and a half I got my work permit which made me more productive and helped me meet people. SURVIVORS helped me meet people too, so I became more relaxed and more focused. Now I’m studying to get my master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership and SURVIVORS helped me find the program and information on how to apply.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: I worked as a case manager for three years assisting refugees and asylees. Right now I am focusing on school and I will graduate in May. I work part-time as an interpreter. I also volunteer for Casa Cornelia [a local public interest law firm] with interpretation to help other Ethiopians those who are asylum seekers.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
A: Of course, I want to finish my education and find a job in my field in the United States. One day I plan to go back to Ethiopia to open a nonprofit because there is a lot of need for that. Otherwise, I’d like to work for the United Nations or an international organization.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: I’d like people to know that the work SURVIVORS does is really amazing and a person like me has been helped to become productive. They are open-minded, trusting, and friendly, but also professional and help us and guide us to become the people we want to be. I still continue to feel like a part of the SURVIVORS’ community and I really enjoy it. Whenever I think about SURVIVORS I always feel safe. I hope and pray that the mission of SURVIVORS will spread all over the world so that they can help more people – people like me.
This blog is a re-print of the interview originally printed in SURVIVORS’ Newsletter, “The Survivor”, Volume 19, Issue 2 (November 2016). Learn more about the work of SURVIVORS and support their work at http://www.notorture.org.
Last month, the Turkish government fired some 4,500 court clerks, librarians and computer experts considered “dangers to the state”. The move, which is part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on alleged coup sympathisers, takes the number of public servants who have been dismissed to around 125,000. Adding to this, more than 40,000 people have been arrested since last year’s failed coup, while reports of torture and ill treatment have become commonplace in a country where respect for human rights and freedom of speech has been put aside.
Among the people who have been arrested since the attempted coup is Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci who is the President of IRCT member centre Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT). Dr Fincanci was arrested in June 2016, along with two other prominent human rights defenders, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, for taking part in a solidarity campaign to defend the independence of the newspaper Ozgur Gundem – a paper that is often critical of the government and aligned with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
While international pressure helped secure their release 10 days after the arrest, the three human rights defenders are still facing charges under the country’s Anti Terror Law, pending an investigation into their alleged involvement in terrorist propaganda. If found guilty they could face up to 14 years in jail.
It is not difficult to see why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government consider Dr Fincanci a threat. A leading figure in the anti-torture movement, she was one of the contributors to the development of the United Nations reference standards on the investigation and documentation of torture (the Istanbul Protocol) and she has conducted endless forensic investigations to expose torture in Turkey as well as other countries. All of these are achievements not appreciated by the government.
Now, with the government ramping up its crackdown, the number of cases of alleged torture and ill treatment in police detention has also increased. Speaking to a journalist from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one woman explained how she was taking care of 13 people after all the men in the family had been arrested. Some of them had been tortured while in detention with one documenting the police beatings in a statement:
“They beat me on the soles of my feet, on my stomach, then squeezed my testicles, saying they would castrate me,”
Another man told the journalist about the torture that his 66-year-old father had endured while in prison. This included having his toenails pulled out.
Despite international outcry and condemnation, Turkey continues to tighten its grip and those who provide rehabilitation services to torture victims or help them with the forensic documentation of their cases continue to be seen as “dangers to the state”.
Several HRFT staff targeted
Dr Fincanci is far from the only HRFT staff who has been targeted by the Turkish authorities because of her anti-torture work. Other colleagues have also been arrested or dismissed from their public duties and in 2015, HRFT itself was fined approximately 30.000 EUR in connection with its work to support torture victims from the anti-government protests.
One of the staff targeted by the authorities is Dr Serdar Küni who was arrested on 19 October last year for no apparent reason and has been detained in Şırnak Prison since then. His first court hearing took place on 13 March, but Dr Küni was not released. Instead he is still in custody, waiting for his next hearing to take place on 24 April.
As for Dr Fincanci, Önderoğlu and Nesin, their trial has been postponed twice already, but a new court date has been set for next week. At the last hearing, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT, Miriam Reventlow made it clear that there is strong international support for all the human rights defenders currently on trial: “The IRCT, as part of the global movement for the rehabilitation of torture victims, continues to stand with Dr Fincanci, her family and other colleagues in solidarity and support at this challenging time.”
Dr Fincanci herself is despondent about the situation in Turkey and her pending trial:
“It is really one of the most difficult times for Turkey in any way. Torture is now common in detention centres, and conditions in prisons worsen every day,” she says. “As for my trial, we can never be sure, because this is also a period of unpredictability. Nevertheless, we are starting to see convictions in similar cases, such as postponed imprisonment of one year and three months and fines of 6000 Turkish Lira.”
“When we succeeded, funders asked us to open other centres, as they saw the impact of what we were doing. It was the first time people were speaking about torture. The word torture had been forbidden, the previous government forbid people to talk about it.”
When Salah Ahmad founded a rehabilitation centre in the city of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq in 2005, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead to the establishment of a network of nine branches throughout Kurdistan-Iraq.
Since 2005, these centres have provided services to more than 20,000 men, women and children. It is a remarkable success, but has not been an easy journey for the organisation, which is now called the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights.
Salah recalls that when the Kirkuk centre was founded in 2005, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people were still living in fear. “I had a patient who came to me and told me he needed my help, but said I had to promise not to write down anything. I asked why and he said, ‘Because I am afraid if they come back they will know everything about me.’”
Yet the Kirkuk centre went from strength to strength and funders like the German Government, EU and the UN recognised the need for more centres like it. All the centres have the same system in place and provide psychological, medical, legal and social support. Some have specific programmes to respond to the needs of torture victims in the area. One of these programmes is an inpatient clinic for women victims of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
The programme came about through the work the Jiyan Foundation is doing in the Khanke refugee camp near Dohuk in Northern Iraq, which is home to over 18,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of the women living in the camp have been liberated from ISIS and have had horrific experiences.
“They are in a very bad state. They lost everything, their life, their city, their health. These women have been sold, raped, every awful thing you can imagine. ISIS destroyed them as human beings,” Salah says. He realised they needed specialist help, having seen how many of the women were committing suicide, and that one two-hour session each week was not enough to help them.
The Jiyan Foundation started a centre 300 km away from the camp where the women could go for different periods of time and could bring their children with them. The recommended length of a visit is eight weeks and Salah says the intensive therapy has made a big difference in their lives.
“It is important to get them out of the camp, because there they only speak about their problems. We take them in small groups, because the cases are so complicated and difficult. Then they can get follow up treatment when they go back to the camp. This clinic is now more than a year old and we have helped more than 100 women this way.”
Yet just finding the money for transport to get the women to and from the camp is an ongoing challenge for the Jiyan Foundation team. The lack of infrastructure in general makes getting things done, and done quickly, difficult. Salah says, “You have to start from zero all the time. This makes the costs higher. The government cannot help because we have such a big financial problem. We have a large number of IDPs and refugees. We don’t have the capacity, it is too much for us.
“When we started the Kirkuk Centre there was no infrastructure. To build up the foundation in a country like Iraq is not easy. Sometimes you can need up to two months to get to speak with the authorities to get an agreement to get something done.”
Despite all of this Salah says the Jiyan Foundation is going in the right direction, “In these 11 years we have succeeded in doing a good job in many ways and we support thousands of people.”
The Foundation is named after Jiyan, the Kurdish word for life and it is clear that the work that Salah and the 170 staff members working in the centres are doing, is bringing life and healing to Kurdistan.
In France, IRCT member centre Parcours d’Exil uses a vast range of methods to treat their clients. Among these approaches are art therapy, language classes and cultural events, which can help accelerate torture survivors’ recovery. For one torture survivor art therapy proved the key to easing his fears and allowed him to deal with the horrific trauma of his past.
In August 2015, Parcours d’Exil was contacted by a volunteer of Iranian descent working for the Red Cross, who had benefitted from one of the centre’s training programmes. She asked the centre to make an emergency appointment for an Iranian asylum seeker who had arrived in France two days before.
On the day of the consultation, asylum seeker N appeared to be in a state of fear, incapable of uttering a word, watchful of everything and everyone and crying all the time. He made it clear that he was afraid of the therapist and he showed signs of being afraid he was being watched and threatened.
As the consultations went on, N slowly started to communicate with the help of an Afghan translator, who the centre had chosen to avoid bringing back his memories of the Iranian “aggressor”. He managed to tell the therapist about the traumatic events he had endured.
Parcours d’Exil quickly realised that verbal communication would be complicated, and could hinder therapeutic cooperation as they brought back N’s impressions of the interrogation. Centre staff decided to introduce him to their art therapist. Art therapy, in this particular form, proved to be the real entry point, helping N to accept and engage in the broader therapeutic process at the centre.
In their first meeting, N and the art therapist found themselves sitting on rugs, drinking tea while listening to classical music.
It became clear that N patient presented a post-traumatic dissociative disorder. He complained of anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic nightmares (in which he found himself, for instance, in a bunker without any light), memory disorders and an inability to focus, which forced him to write down everything. He could not take the bus or metro for fear of not being able to exit it. He also complained of being unusually irritable, always fearing that the person he was speaking to would try to take control of him.
Like many other patients, N did not want any medication, having been exposed to “harmful” treatments in the past. Furthermore, he had been hospitalised in a psychiatric ward after two suicide attempts before being incarcerated. External elements exacerbated his symptoms, particularly when he learned of his mother’s hospitalisation back in Iran.
In order to familiarise him with Parcours d’Exil’s Health Centre, he was invited to attend French courses and music workshops that the centre organises, while continuing the art therapy. It soon became clear that participating in these classes, within the reassuring frame of the centre, had become a “necessity” for him, and his social behaviour changed dramatically.
He never missed any of the cultural visits organised by the centre, and he was gradually able to socialise again and regain some confidence. He put himself forward to sing Persian songs during music classes, started to communicate in French during the French for Foreign Speakers sessions and decided to try to learn how to play the piano.
Like in many cases, one simple detail or situation can easily trigger bad memories. During a French language lesson, N was shown a picture of a bathtub. He immediately froze and was overcome with an immense sadness.
Although the nightmares were a constant reminder of his imprisonment and torture, the courses enabled him to recover the long-forgotten feeling that life could be seen through a positive lens. Along with psychotherapy, art therapy, music and French language lessons were key aspects of the positive outcome of his treatment, in terms of his quality of life and speed of recovery.
All the more so given the fact that his case was extremely complex, and such patients often take years to recover. On numerous occasions, N was able to talk about the improvements in his life, and how he behaved and felt about himself. It took less than six months for N to make this progress.
N’s story confirms the idea that Parcours d’Exil promotes: That the inclusion of artistic and creative activities is a powerful catalyst to accelerate self-reconstruction.
In the heart of Sweden’s third biggest city, Malmø, lies one of the Swedish Red Cross Treatment Center for persons affected by war and torture. Every day the centre provides specialised treatment to torture survivors from all corners of the world. Since the centre first opened its doors in the late 1980s, it has helped nearly 5,000 traumatised men and women who have escaped violence and persecution, war and armed conflict.
On some occasions, the trauma from torture will not rear its ugly head until decades after the incident, explains Anette Carnemalm, Head of the centre in Malmø, which is a member of the IRCT. She has seen this happening with many of her clients, particularly women victims of torture, who only start to suffer from trauma and depression years later when their children are grown up and their time is no longer filled with caring for them on a daily basis. This shows in the group of clients that the centre treats.
“Of course we have many clients from the Middle East, but there are still many clients from the Balkans, especially women who survived the war,” says Anette. “What happens is that when a family arrives, the woman is consumed with looking after the family. When the children move from home the woman will often experience an existential crisis, which can lead to the trauma and depression that was left dormant for so many years.”
Knowing this, it is perhaps not surprising that Anette predicts that we will see a similar thing with Syrian women 20 years from now.
While the consequences of torture haven’t changed, the refugees coming to Sweden have. Before the war in the Former Yugoslavia, there were the dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s, which saw an influx of refugees from this part of the world. Today, many of the refugees coming to Sweden are from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Somalia and Eritrea.
“It’s been a year since Sweden saw a great raise of influx in refugees arriving in the country, but we only started receiving clients much later, which is a natural consequence of refugees trying to integrate and settle. Not until they’re beyond the acute crisis will they seek help for trauma symptoms,” says Anette and continues: “The real influx in clients will be seen in a year or two from now.”
Unlike other Red Cross centres in Sweden that take many asylum seekers waiting for their case to be processed, the centre in Malmø treats a higher number of people with permanent residency. In fact, Malmø is Sweden’s most multicultural city and in the inner city there are residential areas, which are home to a large number of families with an immigrant background, as well as students and artists.
Despite this, Sweden at present has the lowest denominating standard in the EU when it comes to asylum seeking law, after just recently having introduced increasingly strict legislation on immigration. For many traumatised asylum seekers, this means they face a great deal of uncertainty, which often hinders their treatment.
“It is important to create a safe environment for a client in order for them to seek treatment, but it’s very hard in the present situation to convey that this is not a threatening environment, when it does seem threatening for a refugee who is here alone and doesn’t know if he or she will be allowed to stay,” says Anette, as she points out that the situation for centres like hers is also uncertain. Even though her centre has so far been protected from any funding cuts, there are no guarantees.
“The political climate has changed and we now see political parties objecting to our funding so we don’t know where we’re heading in this sense.” So far, the centre has managed to expand to meet a growing demand for its services and today it has 22 staff, 19 full-time and three part-time. Their work has made a difference to not only many of their clients, but also to the torture rehabilitation movement.
“We see our efforts make a great difference in our work with the Istanbul Protocol, documenting torture, but also when a patient tells us that they are feeling better. It is immensely rewarding working, or even just sharing a coffee, with a person who has survived such terrible circumstances. See them fighting to get their life back, improving their relationship with their family and regain some of the trust that has been lost.”
“It is clear that Anette treasures her work despite the challenges that her and her colleagues face: “From here I don’t know where to go. I’m with the Red Cross and I am doing this job, and I don’t know where I would want to go that could be any better. It’s a very rewarding job, but obviously also very strenuous. As the Head of the centre it is very important to ensure that my staff don’t get too overwhelmed or stressed and stay healthy.”
Work challenges and strict immigration policies aside, Anette does hope that her centre, as well as the global rehabilitation movement will become better at sharing knowledge and influencing the current political climate.
“I hope that our knowledge will influence the political debates to a larger extent and that we can convey our knowledge about torture and rehabilitation to the rest of the world so we can change people’s opinions and understanding. There is this political movement, which is global, but there is also a growing knowledge of trauma, which is a good thing. We do a lot of lectures and people are always taken aback when they hear about our work. They didn’t know… so we need to be better at sharing knowledge and raising awareness.
“I hope that we continue to build our scientific knowledge about trauma and how best to help. As an example, there is a lot of research on how to treat PTSD among war veterans, but not much research on how to treat PTSD among people in exile – people who are supposed to integrate in a different country. What is it like to suffer from trauma in a different country, without your family and your social network, not knowing the culture nor the language?”
It is clear that the rehabilitation sector still has work to do in terms of developing and sharing its knowledge about trauma among refugees and asylum seekers and what the best treatment methods are. It is also clear that centres like the one in Malmø have a key role to play in doing so.
Anette Carnemalm was among the presenters at the IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium, which took place from 4-7 December in Mexico City. The Symposium brought together more than 350 participants from across professions, sectors and countries.
UN International Day of Non-Violence is marked every year on 2 October. At World Without Torture we regularly share the stories of those who have experienced acts of violence that have changed their lives forever, so the effects of torture can’t be forgotten or ignored. Today, the story of Palestinian AA reminds us that for some, violence is seen as a tool of oppression and fear and torture is seen as an effective means of interrogation. It is because of this that days like the International Day of Non-Violence are important, it is because of people like AA.
In Jerusalem in January 2014, 17-year-old Palestinian AA was walking home from football training with his cousin when they were attacked by soldiers who first shot them in the feet and then told them to get on the ground. As they called for help a dog was unleashed on them. They allege that a group of ten Israeli soldiers beat them with their rifles and stood on their bullet wounds.
AA’s cousin describes how they were then blindfolded and dragged to a military camp. “I was put in a room and interrogated violently; my clothes were torn. I had one wound in my hand, three on the right side and seven on my left thigh and area around my knee.”
The interrogators refused to believe they had been playing football and tried to force them to admit they had been throwing stones at the soldiers. They were told that if they confessed to these charges, they would not be beaten. They both refused to sign the confession, which was written in Hebrew so they could not understand it, and were continuously beaten for four more hours.
They were eventually brought to a hospital where they received medical care. AA’s cousin was operated on and woke up at 2pm the following day to find himself handcuffed in bed and under the supervision of eight soldiers. AA had three infected bullet wounds in his left thigh and was kept in hospital for a week, with his hands and legs handcuffed the entire time aside from when he was brought meals. During this time they were not allowed to have any visitors.
They were then transferred to a court and met by their lawyer who petitioned the court to release them since no indictments had been brought against them. Both were still in need of serious medical care and were transferred to a hospital in Jordan where they received treatment for two months. AA needed stitches on his head and his right thigh bone was fractured, while his cousin also needed stitches, had a fractured hand and torn hamstring. His legs were also badly damaged from the bullet wounds.
When returning from Jordan, they were not allowed to travel via the airport in Tel Aviv so they had to cross the border between Jordan and the West Bank as they both have West Bank identification cards. En route they were arrested by Israeli intelligence officers and brought to a settlement near Jerusalem. They were then interrogated for three hours and allege they were forced to confess to charges stating they had been trying to attack a military camp.
In the presence of their lawyer they were transferred to Ofer Prison, an Israeli facility in the West Bank where they were detained for 18 days until a deal was struck between their lawyer and the military prosecutor to prevent their families from pressing charges against the soldiers. They were both sentenced to 70 days in prison and fined 3,500 shekels and subsequently released in June 2014.
Today, AA and his cousin are receiving treatment from a psychiatrist and psychologist, as well as individual behavioural therapy at IRCT member centre, the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture (TRC Palestine). They still struggle to process what happened and the impact their injuries have had on their lives as AA has not been able to return to school or play football again.
Sadly, the story of AA and his cousin is far from unique. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues so does the violence, which affects thousands of people. TRC Palestine works with many people like AA and his cousin to reduce the devastating physical and psychological consequences of torture and politically motivated violence, as well as the retaliatory behaviour of the victims through its treatment and rehabilitation programme.
With no prospect of peace between the two sides and violence continuing, the work of organisations like TRC Palestine provide invaluable support and a glimmer of hope to the many victims of violence.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and ongoing human rights violations have forced thousands of people to flee the country. Based in the capital, Tegucigalpa, IRCT member CPTRT offers relief and support to those affected by violence and torture.
For a country of less than 10 million, Honduras faces some big challenges. High rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as a poor human rights record have led to thousands of Hondurans fleeing their country. For those who stay, organised violence, rape and torture are real threats.
This is the harsh context, in which organisations like the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives (CPTRT) operate.
Founded in 1995 by doctor, politician and human rights activist Juan Almendarez, CPTRT has become a leader within its field and a strong voice in the fight against torture. The centre employs a team of doctors, psychologists and social workers, as well as a group of volunteers.
Over the years, this team has successfully treated thousands of victims of torture and violence, but it is often a case of too much demand and not enough supply. CPTRT is one of just a few torture rehabilitation centres in Honduras, and as the national health system does not recognise torture as a health problem, there is little specialised treatment or rehabilitation available.
A paradox perhaps, given the many accounts of torture that CPTRT encounters. Gustavo N. Peña, Psychologist and Project Coordinator at CPTRT says the centre deals with many different types of victims, “from those who speak out against human rights abuses to the families of those in prison, students and those deprived of liberty”.
Since the army ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the country has struggled with violence and unrest. The majority of victims of violence are women, children and the young people as well as activists and political leaders. Women and children in particular are often vulnerable and easy targets for the perpetrators who are usually never punished.
To change this, holding perpetrators responsible is a key issue for the CPTRT. The centre is committed to fighting impunity and by providing technical and legal assistance, it does everything it can to help its clients get access to justice but this is not easy as many victims do not want to speak out.
“Fundamentally, torture contributes to the development of a widespread sense of insecurity and fear that paralyses citizens and stops them from demanding justice. The population prefers to keep silent about the abuses that it is subjected to,” says Gustavo N. Peña.
In addition to its legal and technical assistance, CPTRT looks at the physical, cognitive and emotional health of its clients, using medical, alternative and psychological treatment to individuals and their relatives. It also runs capacity building programmes with various community group
Looking at a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on health worker-to-population ratio in Honduras, it is easy to see why CPTRT’s services are in demand.
According to the WHO, there is an extreme shortage of physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists in the country with as little as 20.8 physicians per 10,000 population. And to make matters worse for the many Hondurans exposed to torture, most of the physicians do not have the knowledge to recognise torture or carry out rehabilitation of torture victims.
Juan Almendarez, Director of CPTRT has previously spoken about how, “The number of human rights violations by the military is rising, and the threat is greater and growing because military police operate with their faces covered and without visible identification, which fans impunity.” Gustavo N. Peña agrees that this culture of impunity is a challenge to eradicating torture in Honduras saying he believes that, “Torture is seen as a mechanism of investigation, as well as punishment”.
Today, CPTRT is a key player within the Honduran human rights movement and despite the daily challenges they face, centre staff continue to dedicate their lives to making a difference; as Alba Mejia, Assistant Director at CPTRT says, “Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change”.
Five and a half years on from the ousting of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the country remains in an unstable state, facing the threat of IS and political infighting. Gaddafi was killed in February 2011 and on this year’s anniversary of his death, interim president Abdul Jalil insisted his government had, “opened our arms to all Libyans, whether they supported the revolution or not”. Acknowledging this message of inclusion, let’s not forget the many people with links to Gaddafi who were targeted in the aftermath of the dictator’s death. One of these people is HH who was tortured by the police.
HH was just 18 when Gaddafi died and her family was one of many to be persecuted because of their connection to his regime. The fact that they also belonged to a minority ethnic group made their situation even more dangerous. Immediately after Gaddafi’s death HH and her family were threatened and harassed by the new authorities who wanted them to leave the country.
Her father was captured in 2014 and not released until 2016; she believes he was tortured during this time, though he never spoke about it. Soon after his release he was murdered on the street. After her father was taken away, HH was also arrested by the police and taken to prison. Over the course of a month, she was interrogated, sexually assaulted and beaten. Her head was shaved and she received death threats constantly. She was also forced to witness other family members being beaten.
Sadly, her story is far from unique. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Libya released in February 2016, found that killings and torture are being committed with impunity by “a multitude of actors – both state and non-state”.
HH was released a month later and knew she needed to leave the country if she was to survive. Along with a close relative she made her way to Croatia, but the trauma of what she had experienced made day to day life impossible. HH was referred to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb by the Red Cross.
When she arrived at the centre she was suffering from depression, insomnia, nightmares and a loss of appetite. She also struggled to form relationships with people as she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She had physical injuries as a result of the sexual assault but like many victims of sexual violence, refused to speak about what she had experienced.
RCT Zagreb provided social, medical, psychiatric and psychological support to both HH and her relative – also a victim of torture. The centre found accommodation for both of them and staff worked hard to establish trust so they could start the treatment and help HH integrate in Croatia. She was enrolled in a language course and received help to search for a job.
Through her therapy she began to deal with her grief at losing her family and the promising future she once had in Libya, where she was an ambitious student. A year and a half later and thanks to the work of the RCT Zagreb staff life had become more manageable for HH. She left Croatia in 2016, hoping to find a better future in Germany.
While HH escaped the violence and left her life in Libya behind, an article in The Guardian suggests that many people are losing hope in the country. In the article, which was written around the time of the five-year-anniversary, one student who supported the revolution said, “Some people say they want to go back to the time of Gaddafi. I don’t. Where I want to go is out, out of the country.”
Late last year – as hundreds of thousands of refugees were passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe – we spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at local rehabilitation centre International Aid Network (IAN), about helping refugees arriving in the country. At the time of the interview, IAN was the only organisation providing psychological support to refugees transiting the country. Now, 10 months on, we have caught up with Bojana to find out if the situation has changed and if IAN is still reaching out to refugees through its mobile team unit.
WWT: When we last spoke, your centre was providing medical first aid and psychological support to refugees in parks and shelters. Are you still doing this?
BT: Yes, we still provide these services in the parks near the bus station in Belgrade. Unfortunately, we have fewer resources now than last year. Since April this year we’ve only received emergency funds from the UNVFVT [United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture], allowing us to only work once a week.
WTT: We are so sorry to hear that. Are you still using the mobile unit despite lack of funding?
BT: Yes, the weekly visits are through our mobile team. The team consists of a medical doctor, a nurse and a psychologist. The nurse also acts as an interpreter because she speaks fluent Arabic. Sometimes we also have a Dari interpreter, but we don’t have enough funds to finance two interpreters for every visit.
WWT: It sounds like the lack of funding really has affected your work with refugees.
BT: Yes it has. We aren’t travelling to the north where we used to work due to lack of funds, but there is still a great need for our services in the parks in Belgrade.
WWT: The issue of refugees traveling through Europe is no longer front page news. Now the focus is on those who have made it to countries like Germany etc. What is the situation like for refugees in Serbia?
BT: The closure of the borders didn’t stop the refugees’ transit through Serbia towards the EU countries. However, their journey has become more difficult and uncertain, given that most of them decided to reach their destination with the help of people smugglers. I don’t know the exact number of refugees who are currently in Serbia, but approximately more than 2000 refugees or migrants are here, mostly waiting to go to Western Europe. Many of them pay smugglers to illegally cross the Hungarian border, but many of them have been ‘pushed back’ to Serbia from Hungary. In June, the number of refugees allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary was reduced to 15 per day at each border crossing. This means that many refugees are trying to enter the EU illegally with the ‘help’ of smugglers.
WWT: Where are the refugees coming from and do they talk about why they are fleeing their countries?
BT: In the parks, the majority are from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, etc. They are fleeing armed conflicts, terrorist attacks or looking for a better life. There are also refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing war.
WWT: Have any of them been tortured or ill-treated?
BT: There are torture victims who have been tortured in the country of origin, but many of them have also been tortured in transit countries such as Bulgaria and in Hungary. Some of them, when illegally crossing the border to Hungary, have been beaten and returned to Serbia.
WWT: What kind of physical and mental condition are they in?
BT: Their health problems are acute mostly. During the warm weather, they had stomach problems such as diarrhoea. They also suffer from skin infections, pain in their legs and body, allergies, insect bites, etc. When we talk about mental problems, they usually focus on their last experience, which is often something bad, like a bad experience with smugglers or authorities in transit countries. They want to share with us their thoughts, feelings and their stories.
WWT: I can only imagine that they must feel incredible frustrated. Are they still hopeful of a better life?
BT: Well, they are frustrated because they can’t cross the border legally and only a small number of people per day is allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary. One month ago a group of 100 refugees demonstrated and walked from Belgrade to the north of Serbia, close to the border to demonstrate and show their frustration with the fact that they cannot cross the border to Hungary.
WWT: You no longer travel to the border, but are you able to tell us what the situation is like there?
BT: The situation there is very bad. The refugees, including women and small children, live in tents in open air, in unhygienic conditions, close to one of the two so called “transit zones”, waiting to be allowed access to the asylum procedure in Hungary.
WWT: Previously you said the Serbian public generally had a positive reaction to the refugees. Do you think that is still the case?
BT: The issue of refugees is no longer front page news in Serbia like it isn’t in other European countries. In these parks where we operate, people are generally friendly towards migrants, or at least indifferent.
WWT: What about the Serbian government. Has it changed its stance on refugees?
BT: The borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria are still very much controlled by our authorities in order to prevent refugees crossing illegally. Since the law on asylum was established in 2008, 30 refugees have been granted asylum and 40 subsidiary protections in Serbia. In the first half of 2016, eight refugees have been granted asylum in Serbia and 14 refugees have been granted subsidiary protection. So the number is increasing and that is a good thing, but still the asylum procedures are very slow, and the integration programme is not very efficient. There is an absence of regulations facilitating integration of refugees.
WWT: Finally, is there a particular person or family whose story really affected you or was especially powerful?
BT: There are so many young boys who have left their families – so full of hope that they will find a better life somewhere in Europe and that they will be able to help their loved ones in their home country. For me it is very sad to know that they have such an uncertain future ahead of them and are not aware of it. They have been travelling for months. One boy was pushed back four times from the Hungarian border, one of the times he was beaten, and still he believes that something good is waiting for him in some European country… he is not giving up… it is so brave and so sad at the same time.
We would like to thank Bojana for taking her time to speak with us. You can find out more about IAN and the work they carry out by visiting their website.
In 2015, a record 1.2 million refugees applied for asylum in the EU, most of them fleeing from torture, violent conflict, persecution and repressive regimes in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Despite legal obligations to support torture victims applying for asylum, many European countries have failed to provide adequate reception conditions and treatment for the trauma caused by torture. One of these countries is France where, according to a new report, the absence of an early identification procedure is the reason for many of the problems experienced by torture victims seeking asylum.
“In our view the French authorities do not ensure that torture victims receive the necessary treatment for the damage caused by torture.”
This is how Director of Development at French rehabilitation centre Parcour d’Exil Jerome Boillat describes the current situation in the country. According to him, more can and should be done to help torture victims seeking asylum. His sentiments are echoed by a new report looking at the challenges faced by torture victims seeking asylum in the EU.
According to the report, released by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, the absence of an early identification procedure is at the root of many of the problems experienced by torture victims seeking asylum in France, as well as many other countries. Early identification could ensure that victims are provided with adequate housing and located in regions and cities where they can access rehabilitation services.
Yet, the country still has no specific assessment procedures or mechanisms that authorities can use to identify vulnerable applicants, aside from girls and women who have experienced female genital mutilation.
This means that many asylum seekers are housed in hotels through emergency schemes but there is also a worrying number of asylum seekers who end up homeless as local authorities and NGOs are unable to pay their hotel fees. Homeless asylum seekers have to rely on civil society or relatives for shelter.
Jerome Boillat says that, “Homeless torture victims find it particularly difficult to meaningfully engage in the rehabilitation process due to their extremely precarious situation. Although the French government aims to increase the number of asylum seekers housed in regular reception facilities to 55 percent by 2017, we are concerned that even this figure might not be achieved.”
Torture victims already struggle throughout the asylum process. They are unable to work and find it difficult to maintain and develop relationships with others because they cannot trust them or prefer to be alone. Although asylum applications in France have not increased as sharply compared to other countries in the EU, it is clear that the country is struggling to provide adequate care and meet basic needs like accommodation for refugees and torture victims.
The French authorities have been trying to improve the system over the last two or three years and have expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue with NGOs like Parcours d’Exil. However, with unrest continuing in several countries the refugee crisis shows no sign of easing. Torture victims who are not identified will continue to miss out on rehabilitation and be unable to process their asylum request unless changes are made quickly, as those in need continue to fall through the cracks in the system.
To read the report in full, click here.