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Voices of Survivors

Each of your clients has a story
to tell —
Are you ready to listen?

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“I was living without hope.
Without hope, there is no life.”
 

P. is an educated man, a professional who worked for internationally-known business firms – but he was also an activist. “I was a member of this movement struggling to eliminate discrimination,” he recalls. “When they realize that you want to speak the truth, or claim your rights, then they find ways to abuse you, to arrest you, to detain you. I was arrested four times because of my political views. Because I wanted to express my opinions, I was detained and tortured.” 

“The cells are small and they put a lot of people in there. They strip you naked. There is no light most of the time, no toilet facilities – you sleep naked on a wet floor and they beat you up every morning – in the evening, the same thing. They beat you on the soles of your feet, on your palms, on your head, all over your body. I couldn’t take it any more. If I continued living there they eventually would have killed me, and my family would be the loser.” Probably because of the beatings P. experienced, he had begun to lose his eyesight. By the time he arrived in the United States he was legally blind, but during the year and more before he was granted asylum, he had no access to any vision aids. He couldn’t even read a newspaper. “I was living without hope,” he says, “Without hope, there is no life.”

Eventually, with help from the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, one of our outreach partners, P. was granted asylum status and soon after was able to bring his wife and children to the U.S. BCRHHR also helped him to get the adaptive equipment he needs to function professionally, and he is now working again in his profession, and supporting his family. 

(P. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“There was no way to come out and say I was
tortured…I thought they might lock me up.”

R. had been imprisoned and tortured by Uganda’s Idi Amin. “When you’re thrown in military detention,” he says, “you are there to be killed. They did a lot of bad things, a lot of castration. They cut people up and all kinds of stuff. Those still alive – your job was to clean it up.” After coming to the United States, R. suffered from debilitating anxiety and recurrent nightmares. Sometimes he would run in his sleep, and once smashed into the wall so hard that he had to hide the bruises from his co-workers. His doctors never asked about his experiences, but simply prescribed sedatives for his sleeplessness. When those failed to help, they began asking him if he was using drugs, and suggesting inpatient treatment – which he saw as another form of prison. “There was no way to come out and say I was tortured,” he says, “so I started withdrawing from going to the healthcare, because I thought they might lock me up.”

After R. moved to Minneapolis, a friend encouraged him to check out the Center for Victims of Torture, where he began seeing a psychologist and a social worker. “For the first time, I started connecting to my losses…to my sister, my brother, my father who died during that time. All those connections had never been there, because you don’t have time to cry. One day I came up here and I just cried for about 30 minutes. He let me cry, just cry…and something like that had never, never happened. For years, I had never cried. Then things started falling into place. The type of treatment I needed started coming into place.”

(R. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“I was tortured. A couple of ribs had been broken…
my doctor didn’t even read the damn clinical history!”

C. was a pediatrician and a softball player – on her national team in Guatemala: “On my way to a game I was intercepted by a couple of cars. They crashed my car from the back and stopped me with guns.” She was taken to a clandestine location and interrogated about her contacts in the opposition movement.

“These persons who kidnapped me were from the elite of intelligence, who used to torture and kidnap, kill people, politicians…everyone. They held me for eight days. They beat me and they tortured me with various methods. The usual behavior from the government back then was to kill their victims.”

“They had broken a couple of my ribs, and had kept me with handcuffs the entire time, but they didn’t touch my face. They beat me in my thighs – my thighs were by then the color of eggplant, but they were very careful not to beat me in the parts that could be visible.” She found out why when she was suddenly released after being forced to film a “confession.” Though C. didn’t know it, her kidnapping had been witnessed and friends and colleagues on the outside had organized a campaign for her release. Expecting that her captors would still try to kill her to keep her quite, however, she left the country.

As a physician herself, C. was particularly aware of the insensitive treatment she sometimes received in the U.S. In one case, when she was being seen for a respiratory problem, she made a point of writing on the intake form, “’I was tortured in February, 1990, for three days (was beaten.)”

“I put there that a couple of ribs had been broken. And I gave it to him, and I just waited,” she says. “He didn’t even read the damn clinical history!”

(M. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“I think my doctor doesn’t like who I am…”

M., a 26-year-old immigrant from eastern Africa, was forced to leave her country after being severely beaten and pistol-whipped while participating in an anti-government protest. Her brother was detained by the armed forces, and her cousin was killed shortly after the demonstration. Terrified and alone, she first sought refuge in neighboring Kenya, then managed to get to South Africa, and eventually to Mexico, where contacts helped her get to the United States.

“When I first arrive in Texas, I feel free. I feel like my whole hard time is finished,” she says. Her Mexican contacts had assured her that she would find refuge and assistance in the United States, but her freedom was short-lived. She was picked up at the U.S. border and thrown into detention for three months.

M. had suffered terrible headaches since her beating, but received no medical help in detention – only painkillers. After her release, her uncle advised her not to go to the hospital because it would be too expensive, but her pain finally drove her to seek help. The doctor, she says, ignored her pistol-whipping by the police and told her that her headaches were caused by tying her hair too tightly. “He asked me, ‘Where you come from?’ and asked about insurance. I told him, ‘I’m immigrant, I don’t have any money, no insurance.’ I think he doesn’t like who I am.”  

Through TASSC, the Torture Advocacy and Survivor Support Coalition, in Washington, DC, M. is experiencing the support of other torture survivors from many parts of the world. TASSC staff – survivors themselves – have helped her to get appropriate medical care.

(M. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“It’s like it happened to me yesterday, that’s how I feel…” 

A. was only eighteen when he was arrested in his west African country. “I was tortured, you know. Sometimes they make you stand for hours. Beatings…I went through all that. They tried to get information that I don’t even know. It’s like telling somebody to find a nail in the ocean, because you don’t know what they are talking about. Do I have to lie? Sometimes, yes, you have to lie, just for them to stop the pain.”

Although A. survived imprisonment, his father, a community leader who was also jailed, wasn’t so lucky. “If I talk about it today, it’s like it happened to me yesterday, that’s how I feel. The guilt was just too much for me. I just wanted to get it over, like just take my life. Life had no meaning for me anymore. I was completely lost.”

Staff and volunteers at CTTS, the Center for Torture and Trauma Survivors in Atlanta,  helped this young man – as they have helped so many others – to deal with his losses, both through individual counseling and through involvement with a group of other survivors. They also helped him to file his claim for political asylum, which was ultimately successful, and to cope with a serious medical condition that is a probable consequence of his torture. “At CTTS, I never felt like a stranger. It’s kind of like a trust, you know – they are my family, that’s how I feel.”

(A. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“We split the orange, and I never saw him again…”

V. was four years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. “They put us on a train. Now that I look back, it was similar to what they did with the Holocaust people, the Jewish people. There was only standing room. You could not take any belongings.  I remember my parents were trying to grab hold of all of us to make sure we don’t get separated. I was thirsty and I didn’t understand what was going on. I was screaming to my dad to give me water.”

In the Khmer Rouge work camp V. became ill and was sent to the camp hospital. “There was no food. One day they gave me one orange. That morning, my dad came and he says, ‘I’m going away for a couple days.’ I said, ‘Where are you going? And how long will you be gone?’  And he says, ‘The government needs me to help out with something.  I’ll be back in a couple days.’ And we kind of sat and looked at each other.  I said, ‘Take the orange.’ He said, ‘No. You’re sick. You eat it.’  He had to leave so I said, ‘Ok. We’ll split it.’  After we split it he left.  We split the orange, and I never saw him again. My uncle who was a police officer, he was killed already. My grandfather who was a judge was already killed. I think my dad knew. He was a high-ranking official and he – I think he knew.”

Now a community leader, V. is concerned about his community’s attitudes about bringing up the past, and toward western health and mental health care. “You’re seeing a lot of the news coverage of the War in Iraq, Afghanistan. I go to the elders in the community and say, ‘Here’s what’s happening, here’s what the media is saying.  How do I deal with this?’ They tell me, ‘Don’t connect the trauma with the Khmer Rouge.’ To them it’s still like, ‘We’re going to be looked upon as sick, crazy.’  Mental health – we don’t use that word.”

(V. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“I say it was not bad, but it ruined me.
It ruined
me in many ways. It disabled me. 

S. was betrayed by a friend who had invited him for tea. Agents who had been hidden in an adjoining room tied and gagged him, stuffed him in the back of a car, and took him to prison.  I don’t want to tell a lie,” he says. “I want to tell exactly what happened.  If they were nice to me I should say they were nice to me.  If they hurt me, they hurt me. It was three years and two months that I was in prison, and it was solitary confinement for three whole years.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited U.S. prisons in the 1830’s, said that solitary confinement “produces…a terror more profound than chains or beatings…the punishment is simultaneously the mildest and the most terrible that has ever been invented.”

S’s experience supports de Tocqueville’s judgement: “They put me in a small room with very little ventilation and light. The floor was marked and dirty and kind of bad smell coming out from the floor.  It was very cold and I had stomach trouble all the time — they didn’t give me any medicine. I remember they kept an iron bar on my legs for three months and then they removed it. They just kept me isolated and they wouldn’t let me sing or say anything. If I said anything they would come and threaten physical punishment. So it was not that bad compared to what happened to other people; it was not that bad… I say it was not bad, but it ruined me. It ruined me in many ways. It disabled me.

S. has been a client of the Center for Torture and Trauma Survivors in Atlanta, Georgia. Shown in the photo above with CTTS founder Kitty Kelley, he says today: “Being able to tell about yourself to another person is a great relief. That’s the starting point of getting help.”

(S. was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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“Doctors and psychologists have their own expertise, but we claim
expertise to talk about torture…about what torture does to people.” 

Orlando Tizon is the Helping Hands Coordinator at TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition, in Washington, DC. Orlando was a community organizer in the Philippines, and was imprisoned and tortured for four years. When he was released, he came to the United States, to Chicago. 

“I was irritable and I got angry easily. I had difficulty relating even to my own family. Eventually I met a Vietnamveteran and we became friends; he told me about the experiences of veterans, and how some of them were helped by therapy. One of the first torture treatment centers was in Chicago, the Kovler Center. So I went there and was able to see a therapist.  

“It is difficult for a survivor of torture to talk about his or her experiences to other people who haven’t gone through it, and it is difficult for other people to understand what really happens. So we decided to form our own organization. Not only do we believe that we can help one another in the healing process bycoming together but, also, some survivors have had bad experiences with doctors and psychologists and therapists — not only while getting help from medical people, but some have experienced the presence of doctors or even psychologists right in the torture process. 

“Very often torturers will tell the person, ‘If you tell others about this we are going to torture you more or kill you, or torture your family.’ They are made to keep silent about it. We have always insisted, in TASSC, that survivors be allowed to tell their stories, to talk about what happened to us. We claim expertise to talk about torture. Doctors and psychologists have their own expertise, but we claim expertise to speak about torture, and we should be given a chance to talk about what it does to people.”

(Orlando was interviewed for our forthcoming documentary,
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2010 8:19 PM

    Incredibly powerful stories. I look forward to seeing the documentary!

  2. Aaron Acharya permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:10 PM

    S’s story up there is much more profound and sad than it comes across here because it was committed in a country that is touted around the world as the last Shangrila, a bastion of happiness and tarnquility, by the government of a monarch who is sold around the world as an enlightened Buddhist (compassionate) and more advanced than any democratic leader in the world. People go to this country today to discover Gross National Happiness, while 1/6 of the population of this country has languished in refugee camps for two decades, many of whom are survivors of the most inhumane atrocities imaginable.
    S stood up for freedom and equality which did not chime with the compassionate and enlightened ethics of the absolute monarch of that country. While S suffers the consequences of the torture inflicted by this monarch’s henchmen, the monarch pretends to elevates himself above petty politics, manufacturing fake democracy and exporting quaint ideas about happiness. S and others like him know what happiness ought to be, because it was stolen from them.

  3. Ron permalink
    April 25, 2011 10:18 PM

    Both grandfathers had been in camps during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Being of Dutch origin they had it bad as both the Japanese and Indonesians were against them.
    Several years later they and their families were lucky enough to be able to into the Netherlands.
    My Paternal grandfather was a prisoner on the Burma line and was in bad health when he came out.
    Even after having gone to the Netherlands his health was not good and he passed away in his 50’s. Apearently I was the one who tried to wake him up while we were at my grandparents place. I think that I was about two at the time.

    I believe that both grandfathers did not disclose all to their families. My paternal grandmother spoke about their time in camps but never mentioned much about my grandfather. I was told that at one time there was a bomb raid and they were to go to bunkers for safety. Prior to leaving the house, my grandmother told everyone to wait and pray firsts. When they finally got up to go to the bunkers they noticed that their neighbours had been slaughtered by the Japanese soldiers. Had they left when the alarm was sounded, they like their neighbours would most likely have been killed.

    My paternal grandfather had also mentioned that the Korean soldiers were far more sadistic than the Japanese soldiers.

    Even having been given short bits of my families history, I cannot even come close to understanding what those who have experienced first hand have experienced. Now at 47, by tomorrow, I so far have lived my life in total freedom. In 1981 my parents and I came to Canada and had a new beginning here. It is my hope that my children and their families will never have to experience war. In todays world however it is a reality that they might have war during their lifes. During the times that my great grandparents, grandparents and parents lived, was still different than what it will be like nowadays. With todays so called technology, there are very few places to hide.

    9/11 in the US showed us that freedom can end at any time. I hope that this part of history will never repeat itself. Being in Canada does not make us immune to it. We have to be on constant guard.

    Sadly we seem to have learned nothing from previous wars.

    • April 25, 2011 10:39 PM

      A very interesting and moving family narrative, Ron. Thanks for letting us know about it. One of the folks we interviewed said that we would be surprised how many Americans — and I’m sure it’s equally true of Canadians — how many of us have a story of torture or similar abuse somewhere in our family history. He made the point that, in fact, our whole national history is of people — beginning with the pilgrims — who fled their homes to escape persecution and looking for a place of refuge.

  4. Kathryn Robertson permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:13 PM

    I honor the courage of these survivors! Each of these stories are incredibly moving and I look forward to viewing the documentary. Freedom is a gift which we in the “free world” should not take for granted…..

  5. Ryon permalink
    July 4, 2011 11:59 AM

    S’s story up there is much more profound and sad than it comes across here because it was committed in a country that is touted around the world as the last Shangrila, a bastion of happiness and tarnquility, by the government of a monarch who is sold around the world as an enlightened Buddhist (compassionate) and more advanced than any democratic leader in the world. People go to this country today to discover Gross National Happiness, while 1/6 of the population of this country has languished in refugee camps for two decades, many of whom are survivors of the most inhumane atrocities imaginable.S stood up for freedom and equality which did not chime with the compassionate and enlightened ethics of the absolute monarch of that country. While S suffers the consequences of the torture inflicted by this monarch’s henchmen, the monarch pretends to elevates himself above petty politics, manufacturing fake democracy and exporting quaint ideas about happiness. S and others like him know what happiness ought to be, because it was stolen from them.
    +1

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