On a non-descript street in an ordinary London neighborhood
extraordinary tales are being told. At the Medical Foundation for the
Care of the Victims of Torture the unspeakable is the topic of discussion.
The Medical Foundation is dedicated to one purpose, helping those who
survive the experience of torture. It is a place for the few. "Most
people do not survive torture," according to consultant psychotherapist
John Schlapobersky. "The people we see here are the walking wounded."
The Medical Foundation was set up by Helen Bamber. Now in her mid-seventies
Bamber has been working with survivors since she went to the concentration
camp at Bergen Belsen at the end of World War II to work for the Jewish
Relief Agency. There she learned the basic lesson of dealing with people
who survive unimaginable brutality. The best way to help them was to
make them tell their stories and listen.
This is easier said than done. One of Bamber's first clients at the
Medical Foundation was Luis Munoz, a Chilean trade union activist who
spent 18 months in the torture chambers of Augusto Pinochet being severely
abused. "I want them to kill me," Munoz remembers now. "
I asked them many times and probably that's why I'm here. People who
begged for their lives, they killed them."
For almost a decade after he was released and granted asylum in Britain
he spoke to no one about his experience. It was too horrible to speak
about. But his silence was eating away at him from the inside. Through
his talking therapy with Bamber he was able to come back from the brink
and re-start his life
From the Beginning...
The Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture was set
up in 1985. At the beginning Helen Bamber and her team had two "clients"
to care for. Last year the Medical Foundation saw more than 5,000 people.
As asylum seekers from all over there world make their way to Britain
- sometimes on airplanes frequently after hellacious journeys through
mountains and deserts hidden in the backs of trucks - the Foundation
has seen its role grow to include advocacy on their behalf.
Domestic refugee politics and international geopolitics dominate the
work of the Foundation. Consultant psychotherapist John Schlapobersky,
who was tortured in his native South Africa during the dark days of
aparheid, believes that one of the keys to coping with the psychological
trauma of survivors is a strong political belief system. He feels it
is those caught in the middle who have a hard time dealing with torture's
aftermath. A perfect example is Chantal, a Rwandan woman who was caught
up in that country's genocidal civil war.
Chantal is a Tutsi. It has taken years for her to learn to speak about
her experiences at the hands of the Hutu militias in 1994. Even today
she needs to stop for long periods to collect herself. But given what
she has witnessed it is understandable, at the age of 16 her whole family
was slaughtered. "They ask my father to choose two deaths,"
Chantal remembers. "If he wanted to be shooted or he want them
to use machetes, knives, or bayonets. If he choose guns he have to pay
15,000 Rwandan money straightaway. He said, I will pay you more but
leave my children, please don't touch my children. One of them was laughing
aloud, 'What are you talking about? You all have to die.'" Chantal
was the only member of her family to survive. She saved herself by throwing
herself into a mass grave and pretending to be dead.
All over the world children are tortured. "Rape is ubiquitous,"
according to child psychotherapist Sheila Melzack. The Medical Foundation
uses a variety of techniques to deal with children traumatized by violence.
Music therapy was a very effective tool for an Iraqi teenager named
Muna who arrived in Britain unwilling to speak to anyone about her brutalization
at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime. Music therapist Matthew Dixon
engaged her for months in a dialogue in music. Listening to the young
woman move from angrily bashing drums to sweetly striking some chimes
is a lesson in the power of musical communication.
At the age of 76, Helen Bamber, founder of the Medical Foundation still
puts in a full day: treating clients, assessing newcomers, raising money.
A lifetime of listening to people who have survived the most appalling
experiences has taken its toll. "I feel frustrated and angry sometimes,"
she admits. "I do despair. I do despair. Mostly about the people
who do not want to know about torture but somehow know."
The final question for those who survive torture is how you deal with
the fact that the person who tortured you will probably never be brought
to justice for perpetrating this crime against humanity on your body?
Chilean Luis Munoz, remembers his therapist putting some pillows on
the floor in one session indicating they were his torturers and saying
"Do it." So Munoz began to assault them. "With my own
bare hands -- and it was really happening -- I was ripping them apart,"
he remembers. "Here on the throat with my own hands: apart, apart.
After beating them up. After I finish them I run away. And the therapist
says where are you going. I'm going to the bathroom to wash my hands
because they are covered in blood. Munoz recalls collapsing in tears
and adds, "It's so rooted, so inside, its so enormous the damage
they did to me. That I can't accept they got away with it."
Luis Munoz concludes, "You don't do these things to other human