by Dennis Dalman
Sabine, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, was savagely beaten and repeatedly raped by military men in her home country.
She had been kidnapped, along with her brother and cousin, by a group of armed men. After her captors bound her hands and feet, they kept her captive for three weeks. As if the beatings and rapes were not bad enough, she had to endure something even worse. She was forced to watch as the men beat her brother and cousin and then murdered them.
Fortunately, Sabine was able to flee to Amman, Jordan. There, she suffered from chronic pain, headaches, depression and persistent nightmares.
Gradually, thanks to the Jordan chapter of the Center for Victims of Torture, Sabine began to heal physically and mentally, and now she is more confident, with fewer nightmares and fewer headaches.
Sabine is just one of countless thousands of torture survivors throughout the world who have been helped to make the long journey back to health and stability after suffering unspeakable forms of torture. Some never do make that journey. Many succumb to despair; others become insane; still others commit suicide.
On Oct. 21, at First United Church of Christ in Sartell, about two dozen people gathered to learn about what the Center for Victims of Torture is and the work it does. The guest speaker was Katherine Schafer, a member of the CVT speakers’ bureau. She was invited to share her insights by the United Methodist Women’s Group for their annual fall meeting. Equal numbers of women and men attended Schafer’s talk and slide show.
Raised in Staples, Schafer eventually became a special-education teacher for children with learning disabilities. In 1987, she began doing volunteer work for the Twin Cities-based CVT, at first doing rather menial tasks. She has been a speakers’ bureau member for the past two years.
During her talk, Schafer emphasized hope rather than the grim details of instances of torture. She told of a Liberian man who would often say, smiling, to CVT staff: “You gave me my life back.” As a child in Liberia, he had been forcefully recruited into an army. When the army had no more use for him, instead of killing him, some men made him drink Drano, which caused severe burns and destruction, requiring the rebuilding of his esophagus after he found safety.
While the torture stories are unbearably painful, Schafer said it’s amazing how even those who endured such pain and suffering can rediscover hope and an ability to function, with enough caring people to help them through their darkness.
The CVT was founded in 1985 with the help of then Gov. Rudy Perpich. One day, Perpich’s son, Rudy Perpich Jr. asked his father, “What are you doing for human rights?” Stunned but motivated by that challenge, Perpich directed a human-rights committee to look into alternatives for helping people in the area of human rights. One proposal was to found a rehabilitation center for survivors of torture.
Based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the CVT – the first of its kind in the United States – is an independent, nongovernmental organization. At first, it was housed at the International Clinic of the St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center. Two years later, it was moved into a homier place in a large, restored Victorian home. Care is provided through the St. Paul Healing Center.
In 1993, the CVT outreach programs began work in Bosnia and Croatia as war and horrific human abuses, including torture, occurred in that region. Since then, extensive training of paraprofessionals has taken place in many other places in the world: Turkey, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo, northern Kenya, Syria, Jordan and northern Ethiopia. The work is often done in refugee camps where masses of people have come in order to avoid abuse, torture, starvation or killings. Gradually, a network of professionals was created and strengthened to help people heal from the physical and mental traumas they endured. The CVT has also provided training and assistance to torture survivor-and-rehabilitation centers throughout the United States. CVT’s mission is to help victims heal, to do research, to train many others and to join initiatives in the world to prevent the practice of torture.
Volunteers play a big role in helping survivors readjust to life. Such volunteers come from every walk of life. Some just sit and talk with survivors. Others help them learn languages, still others give them rides to appointments, help them find work, clue them into social skills in a new society and take them to cultural or recreational venues, such as museums or sporting events.
CVT is funded by earned revenue from program services and by contributions from foundations, individuals, corporations and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
What is torture?
The CVT’s definition of torture is “a deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity through physical and psychological pain and suffering.” Its purpose is to destroy a sense of community, to eliminate leaders and to create a climate of fear, thus producing a culture of apathy so those in power can continue their oppression over people.
Ostensible “reasons” for torturing somebody are political, ethnic and religious. Most often torture is perpetrated with the explicit or implicit consent of public officials, such as political leaders, military officers or police.
Methods of torture include beatings, purposely breaking bones, temperature extremes, deprivation of food and water, electric shocks, asphyxiation, rape, death threats, mock executions, physical and sexual humiliations, water-boarding (induced near-drownings) and blinding by the gouging out of eyes.
Besides the initial torments, torture has long-lasting effects: persistent pains, paralyzing fears, anger, sadness, headaches, nightmares, severe depression, anxiety, guilt, self-hatred, an inability to concentrate, thoughts of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. Torture victims can become so immobilized they are unable to function or to participate in family or social life.
Who are they?
Torture occurs in many places worldwide. Its victims are legion. At the St. Paul Healing Center, a team of care providers works each year with about 250 torture survivors and 700 family members of those survivors. Some are bona-fide U.S. residents, and others are working toward getting legal residency or asylum status, Schafer noted.
At international locations, CVT provides care to about 1,800 survivors through group and individual counseling. Since the Twin Cities-based CVT began 30 years ago, about 26,000 torture survivors have been helped to lead more or less normal, productive lives.
The majority of new clients at the St. Paul Healing Center come from Africa. Many of the clients are highly educated and were leaders in their home areas, and many were tortured for their political affiliations.
The average age of people helped by the CVT is 35, and about half are men, half are women – most of whom were raped as part of their torture sessions or during attacks on their homes. About 63 percent of the torture survivors are married; the rest are single.
An estimated 30,00 to 50,000 immigrants to Minnesota have been victims of torture in their home countries, according to a CVT study.
One torture victim, an Iraqi man named Rahim, was kidnapped and then tortured for a month. Later, he was able to flee with his family to Jordan, but he suffered such nightmares and depression he could not sleep. He had constant back pain and numbness in a leg.
In Jordan, Rahim was referred to the CVT where he received counseling and physical therapy. The happy result is his pain was reduced by 80 percent, he recovered a range of motion and he can now sleep without resorting to sedatives.
The CVT website contains similar stories of blasted lives brought back from the brink.
For more information about the CVT or to contribute to it, visit its website at www.cvt.org.
photo by Dennis Dalman
After her presentation about the Center for the Victims of Torture, Katherine Schafer (right) talks with a member of the audience, Susan Henry of Sauk Rapids. The talk took place at First United Methodist Church in Sartell.
photo by Dennis Dalman
Audience members listen as guest speaker Katherine Schafer of Minneapolis discusses the Center for the Victims of Torture. Schafer is a member of the center’s speakers’ bureau.