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Hope for Torture Survivors - 2001-07-30

According to the human rights group Amnesty International, since 1997, people in 150 countries have endured torture by agents of their governments, and the incidence of torture is increasing. At least 500,000 survivors of torture now live in the United States. A unique organization in Washington, D.C. is helping some to find new strength.

The people are from different countries and cultures, and they speak different languages, but they have one bond that transcends all their differences. All but two are survivors of torture. And they belong to a group, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, or TASSC, that may be the only one of its kind. "We come together to give each other strength," said Orlando Tizon, a former priest tortured in the Philippines, who is the coordinator.

Sister Dianna Ortiz, a Roman Catholic nun from the United States who worked in Guatemala in the 1980s, founded TASSC in 1997. That was eight years after she was abducted and tortured by Guatemalan security agents whom she says raped and burned her, apparently mistaking her for a rebel supporter. When Sister Dianna began speaking about her experiences, and met other torture survivors from around the world, she realized that she and they needed a group of their own. "What became evident was that many survivors were living in a world of isolation, not feeling they could talk with other people about their experiences, because oftentimes, when that did occur, people misunderstood," said Sister Diana. "People often told survivors forget what happened, forgive, move on with your lives. But what we have found is that torture has not left any part of our lives untouched." Orlando Tizon adds, "One important point to prove in TASSC is that survivors are not victims, we are not helpless people."

A recent meeting of TASCC included torture survivors from Congo, Cameroon, Togo, Guatemala and Pakistan. Munawar Laghari is a Sindhi, an ethnic minority in Pakistan. He was beaten and tortured in prison, but it is his family's experience that makes him weep. "Then they raided the house, and took my father," he told the group, "but I can't forget my mother, when they took my mother, and I was living near them, in my friend's home, and I was unable to do anything."

Judy Okawa, a psychotherapist who directs a Washington, D.C. area treatment program for survivors, explains, "The goal of the torturer is two-fold. It's to shatter the person and also to terrorize the community, so if someone is disappeared in the middle of the night and they come back a week later, seeming very different, others are afraid to speak out."

Dr. Okawa continues, "Torture is pervasive in the world today. You'd think that it was something of the deep dark past, of the Spanish Inquisition, but instead torture methods have become much more sophisticated, they're methods that in many cases leave no scars, so people are left with no evidence beyond the emotional evidence, so that makes them feel very alone. If they do bear the physical evidence, which may be helpful for them on, say, an asylum application, then they're left with this reminder on their body, the direct reminder of their torture. So I don't know which is worse."

Besides ongoing pain, both physical and emotional, survivors say that severe sleep and memory problems are common, as are problems in close relationships. Some even feel, like Orlando Tizon, a sense of guilt. "I feel guilty that one, I may have given names, I may have caused harm to other people. I feel guilty that some people died and I am still surviving," he said, "and that is quite a common reaction I hear from survivors. And yes, shame, that you could have done better. So you lose even trust in yourself and your own capacity as a result."

In a recent lobbying day on Capitol Hill, small groups of survivors visited U.S. Congressional offices. They want Congress to increase funding for treatment centers for torture victims, and they want the United States to cut off military support to countries which practice torture and to release records showing past covert support. "A number of those who died have been unidentified, their families don't know where they are," said one speaker. The survivors also held a vigil outside the White House, hoping to draw attention from the Bush administration. "Unidentified, unidentified, unidentified," they chanted.

It was a day replete with talking and with prayer. The survivors say that one never really heals from torture, mentally or physically that perhaps healing is possible only spiritually. "At one point during my torture," said Sister Dianna, "one of my torturers whispered in my ear, 'Your god is dead.' And he was right, my God had died in that clandestine prison. I didn't have faith for a long time," she said. "And what I've realized is that many torture survivors have a faith crisis. It's not just a crisis in their faith, but also the issue of trust in humanity. You know, to believe in people, and also to realize that people have the capacity to do so much evil to another person."