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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

Torture victims find U.S. a source of hope and new fears


As Sauda remembers it, the men mostly came in groups.

In the country she left behind, she was taken from her home at midnight after participating in a peaceful protest demonstration and whisked away with bound wrists. Before relatives paid for her freedom, she was imprisoned for 35 days, held in a small cement room with a barrel as her toilet. Dull light filtered through the metal bars.

“They hit me with edge of a gun and the back of my head split in two,” said the nervous young woman, sitting stiffly in her chair, wringing her hands in her lap. “The men did what they wanted, and sometimes I wasn’t fully conscious because my head was still bleeding.”

Ashamed and fearing for their daughter’s life, Sauda’s family shipped her to America. Now she speaks to her two children by phone.

“We were marching for human rights,” said Abuto, a frail woman who, like Sauda, is seeking political asylum in the United States. The memories tear through her like broken glass.

She pulls a tattered blue cardigan tight her across her chest and winces as if in a hailstorm. “I was arrested and spent six days with the police. They rape and beat me every morning and afternoon and night.” She was forced to leave her only child behind.

Unseen scars

These are the voices of broken people, torture and war trauma survivors who gather at the Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma in Baltimore. Housed in a remodeled dental office on a quiet residential street, the organization serves as a safe house for more than 200 people displaced by war and terror. Walking ghosts, unwanted in their own countries and not yet recognized as citizens of this one, owning little more than unseen scars and unbearable memories. All who spoke to NCR, fearing for personal safety, requested that neither their real names nor their countries of origin be revealed

-- AP Photo/Janet Hostetter

Bayongson J. Nde talks about his recovery from torture in Cameroon as he attends the 20th anniversary of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis in 2005.

Jeremiah is Christian. Tensions worsened in his homeland after the 9/11 attacks. He was beaten in the streets and his father’s home was bulldozed. Penniless, he grew a beard to disguise himself as a Muslim.

“Someone recognized me and cried, ‘This is an infidel, this is a Christian.’ They came out of a mosque and beat me. I tell them I am Muslim but they pull down my pants to see if I am circumcised and then beat me more.”

He pauses here, collects himself, and then said, “I feel like I lose my dignity that time.”

Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma is one of nearly 30 independent torture and war trauma centers that have sprung up across the United States in the last three decades, offering aid to this ever-growing, largely indigent population. Torture care providers have catered to the wounded of oppressed and war torn countries with little notice, many operating on shoestring budgets.

An estimated 500,000 torture survivors are living in the United States. Somalians and Bosnians, Liberians and Ethiopians. West Africans and Burmese. Pakistanis and Afghans. Iranians and Iraqis. On and on.

Karen Hanscom is executive director of the Baltimore treatment center. “Our clients have experienced everything you can think of and a whole lot worse,” she said.

The organization’s licensed therapists and individual case coordinators provide mental health services and counseling to victims struggling with nightmares and flashbacks, insomnia and severe depression, and all too often, suicidal thoughts.

“Sixty percent of our male clients have been raped,” said Hanscom, “and not always human on human.”

Volunteer lawyers help survivors navigate the dizzying labyrinth of court hearings and legal procedures that sometimes lead to citizenship. Community partnerships provide victims with medical treatment, housing opportunities, job training, food bank assistance and English-as-second-language classes.

“The purpose of torture is to break a human being to their core,” said Hanscom. “We must help them rebuild their lives from the core up.”

With initial grant funding, Hanscom’s organization opened in 1994 with a $32,000 budget for 24 clients. She served on a volunteer basis until 2003 when finally there was enough money to pay her a full-time salary. With help from large charitable organizations and public funds, the organization now has a modest $500,000 yearly budget and a staff of nine therapists and case coordinators.

Pain repressed

“Money has always been scarce,” agreed St. Joseph Sr. Jean Abbott, clinical director of the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in St. Louis, which operates out of a rehabbed tavern. “Sadly, clients have not.”

-- James Visser

St. Joseph Sr. Jean Abbott fo the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in St. Louis

Adding to funding woes, she said, is the fact that many people are uncomfortable even hearing about torture. “Most people and organizations,” she said, “really don’t want you to show up and start talking about torture.”

But money is just one of the obstacles for centers established to help these victims.

An overwhelming majority of torture survivors never seek professional help for the physical and psychological damage inflicted on them, said Abbott. Instead, they repress their memories and try to control their symptoms themselves.

“The number of tortured people who carry their pain around is phenomenal,” she said. “And the torture lives on in them until it is treated. Without help their quality of life just diminishes and diminishes.”

Many survivors bear no visible signs of torture, which, compounded with survivors’ reticence, makes diagnosis rare.

“You have to be appreciative of the little things they are showing you,” said Edina Karahodzic, a medical doctor affiliated with the St. Louis center. “It could be they are afraid of being touched or that they come in every 15 days for aches and pains that they can’t readily explain. They are trying to tell you that they have something to tell you.”

Even after seeking help, minor triggers can have a huge impact on a survivor’s healing process. A trip to a clinic or any large institutional building. A doctor shining a light into a patient’s pupil. Any interaction with the police. A gynecological examination. A crowded train. A fire siren. A certain smell. A voice. A face.

“Torture affects the mind-body memory system,” said Abbott, “which in turn reacts to almost everything in daily life.”

Unable to bear their memories of torture some survivors exist in what Abbott refers to as a “disassociative state.” There’s the Bosnian woman who was raped and saw two of her children killed in front of her.

“When she sees a child that looks like one of her children she disassociates herself,” said Abbott. “You’ll be talking to her but she won’t be able to hear you.”

Douglas A. Johnson is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. The oldest and largest torture treatment center in the nation, servicing more than 250 clients a year, it was founded in 1985 and operates out of an old Victorian house on the banks of the Mississippi River. The University of Minnesota rents the house to the center for a dollar a year in exchange for upkeep. The center provides torture treatment training to some 3,500 health care, social service and educational professionals and operates satellite offices in West Africa, which aid an additional 1,000 clients a year.

Johnson said one of the biggest obstacles to torture survivor treatment in the United States is that many front-line immigration officials, human rights lawyers and homeland security officers are not properly trained in dealing with torture survivors.

“Taking a survivor’s testimony is very difficult work,” he said. “We find that some officials want to disbelieve them rather than accept that there is that evil in the world. They shut themselves down to the survivor.”

Sauda, who was imprisoned and raped for 35 days in her homeland, said that after taking her testimony the immigration official “just kind of brushed me off.”

Compounding the work, recent reports of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the U.S. military in the war on terror here have had a highly detrimental effect on torture survivor treatment in this country.

“The country they fled to for safety and asylum is now utilizing torture,” said Johnson, who recently appeared on national news programs and testified before Congress decrying the military’s interrogation techniques. “And they’re justifying that torture with the same language our clients’ former governments used to justify the cruelty that was inflicted on them.

“Our clients are more fearful and looking to us for protection.”

Hanscom of the Baltimore center said that the Abu Ghraib photos of bound and naked prisoners being set upon with dogs led to such a panic among her clients that some were considering moving to Canada.

Abbott said the photos, television images and dialogue surrounding the United States’ use of torture have set off emotional triggers in a “good number” of her clients and have affected the healing process of them all.

“Hope is the cornerstone of any healing,” she said. “And the current situation is chiseling away at our clients’ hope in this country.”

Still, though, the work of healing the unseen scars will go on, and in some cases, hope will transcend evil.

For her part, Abuto said the days seem brighter and the restless nights shorter now that she is receiving care.

“My life is more tranquil now,” she said. “The people here have saved my life. God bless them for that.”

Mike Newall is a freelance writer working in Philadelphia.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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