Rita Wall meets carers who offer a refuge to those scarred by power-seekers
TORTURE happens. There is no denying that people are beaten, immersed in polluted water, given electric shock treatment and raped in the name of authorities, governments and power seekers all over the world.
Of the many who survive this horrendous treatment and flee with their lives, sometimes to the UK, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture offers a welcome refuge.
The Foundation was set up four years ago to offer help, advice and medical treatment to victims of torture. Most of the work is done by doctors and other health professionals who give their services free of charge. Helen Bamber, a social worker, saw the need to establish such a centre through her voluntary work with Amnesty International. Linking up with other health care professionals, she was instrumental in starting a contact organisation which now deals with 1,000 cases each year, and that number is growing.
Torture can be defined in many ways, according to Jenny Watson, press officer at the Foundation.
As with Helen Bamber, Jenny too discovered when working with Amnesty International that torture is a very broad term. Most noticeable is physical torture, when someone's hand has been chopped off, or their body wounded, but there it also the mental torture, which though not so visible, leaves harrowing psychological scars that can take many years to heal.
"We had a case in last year, a man who had been tortured at a Japanese concentration camp," Jenny recalls. He returned home after the second World War and married, but never told anyone of the torture he had suffered.
Many people just don't want to burden others with their sad experiences, explains Jenny, or else fear that they will be misunderstood, so they bury them in the back of their minds, hoping to loose them.
However, torture cannot be so easily buried, and does return to haunt the victim. With this particular man, Jenny remembers, when he and his wife visited the local bank to apply for a loan, many years after the war, the routine questions from officials triggered off a memory of his torture, and he became very frightened and agitated. Luckily his wife had heard about the Foundation, and he arrived on their doorstep looking for help to heal his memories.
People like this man do recover, stresses Jenny. The survival of the human spirit is comforting amid stories of horrid cruelty. However, it is not an overnight process. It can take many years to ease the fear, and the physical and mental hurt.
On arrival at the centre, people are met by a friendly team. From receptionists to the care workers, there is a genuine air of empathy, warmth and welcome. Depending on particular treatments, the person will be assessed and advised on how best the centre can help. There are physiotherapists, doctors, social workers, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists.
At the centre, people can uncover backs scarred by thrashing, or soles of feet damaged by beatings.
"There are not many ordinary GPs who know how to deal with someone who has been a victim of torture," comments Jenny. With this in mind the Foundation is intent on informing GPs in Britain that the centre does exist, and they can refer people there.
Apart from individual therapy and help, the centre also contributes to the developing of a history of the client which can contribute to the acquiring of refugee status.
In its first year the Foundation saw 76 people. This year the number has grown to 1,000. They come from Kurdistan, Somalia, Iran, Sri Lanka and Latin America.
Naturally the Foundation would like to be out of business, but as long people come forward seeking help, they have a mission.
"There is a denial that torture happens," Jenny feels. "And its very handy to suggest that it only happens in far away places, but there is evidence that it has also happened and is happening in Britain."
The centre has been popular with visiting professionals, from other countries, anxious to learn from its work.
Mainly voluntarily funded, the centre does secure some funds from the European Community. Jenny smiles as she shows off the newly renovated building they occupy in London. The architect and trades people have all offered their work at a reasonable cost, but still the bills mount up.
Stars of the TV and stage, including Judi Dench, Clive Anderson and Jim Diamond have all rallied to the cause but extra help and funds are always needed to cope with an ever increasing workload.
"We can't wipe out the past, but we do attempt to help people to face what has happened to them, to cope with it and to face the future with confidence and optimism." says Jenny.
If you would like to help the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture write to 96 Grafton Road, London NW5 (081 284 4321).