A few years ago, I heard Cheikh Kone’s horrifying account of his time spent in an Australian holding centre for refugees. Kone, a journalist forced to flee the Ivory Coast, remained in detention for three years and recounted the dehumanising effect of being reduced to a number. His description of fellow inmates mutilating themselves, some sewing up their lips in despair, the suicide attempts, children living behind razor wire and the constant crying, has stayed with me ever since. Kone survived by writing about his experiences.
When I joined Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life programme as a creative writing mentor. I was immediately struck by the resilience and humour of the group. Working in a safe environment can help refugees turn horrifying experiences and memories into poems, essays, short stories and journalism that shed some light on their suffering but also help them to deal with the problems of exile and asylum. Members of the group have only their states of exile in common but, over time, the exchanging of stories has helped them to bond. Most of them have had to contend with the pain of leaving their friends and family behind and they are all remarkably eloquent when describing their experiences.
Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture) was founded by Helen Bamber in 1985, to provide survivors with medical treatment, counselling and therapy and to document evidence of torture. From its humble beginnings, situated in two rooms in the former National Temperance Hospital in Hampstead, the Foundation rapidly grew. The London headquarters is currently housed in a large purpose built treatment centre in Finsbury Park.
Most of the refugee stories we read about are published in the media and a lot of it is negative. But the stories I hear are about the emotional scars of torture and the struggles of building a new life. Many torture survivors who have fled to the UK live in a terrifying limbo – acutely aware that each morning they wake up could be their last day in safety. For some, if they are sent back they face the prospect of further torture and even death.
Scars from burns and beatings are common. Many victims have been subject to falaka – being beaten on the soles of the feet – which temporarily causes difficulty with walking as well as being extremely painful. Torturers favour it because it doesn’t leave any physical signs of abuse. A number have been raped. HIV, fertility problems and pelvic inflammatory conditions are extremely common. I've met refugees who have been rendered speechless, unable to function for a time, because of the horrors inflicted on them. With due care many find their voices again, they make some sort of recovery, a sense of hope is rekindled.
The physical scars of torture may fade with time but the effects of emotional trauma never fully disappear.
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