Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Survivor secrets

From the cells of Guantanamo Bay, to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, to the thousands of secret, brutal places in more than 80 countries across the world, the experience of torture is described by Berlin’s Dr Christian Pross as a ‘toxic agent’.

‘This new season of cruelty’, Pross says, ‘infects not only the victim, but the family, friends, the torturer, the therapist, the wider community. It fundamentally disrupts human relations in a diabolical way’.

Pross is Founder-Director of the city’s renowned Centre for the Treatment of Victims of Torture (BZFO) which he set up in 1992 to help those who had suffered at the hands of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.

Particularly from the early 1960s, when the West German government began to pay the DDR to release dissidents from its jails. Berlin has had an outspoken community of artists and others who were tortured. One of the sinister side effects of the publicity, as well as the international monitoring of torture by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was a change in the methods used.

‘At first persecution in the DDR was mainly physical—beatings, bad hygiene, bad food. People often died from TB’, Pross says. ‘Later the Stasi became masters of sophisticated techniques of "zersetzung” (disruption) which can do deeper harm by making you doubt your own perceptions. Victims were told: “When you leave this place, no one will believe you”.

‘And even if people never went to prison, their family and social networks were manipulated to create failures, so that step by step they lost career opportunities, status, job, income, family. Of course it was a world described exactly by Orwell or Kafka.’

The intention was ‘to break a man’s soul’. Pross describes the case of a poet in one of his therapy groups. He was a member of the small underground movement that met once a month to read poetry together. After he was twice arrested and released with the threat, ‘we’ll find a way to shut you up’, he gave all his poems to his closest friend to look after. The third time he was arrested, the Stasi officer sat across the desk from him and read him the poems, leaving him utterly confused and paranoid. During that time he had all his back teeth removed because he was convinced that microphones had been implanted in them. After 1989 when he accessed his Stasi file, he said the moment when he understood his best friend had betrayed him was as if ‘the world had broken down over him’.

Pross is also quick to point to the growing evidence that such highly effective psychological methods were also used by the torturers of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison. A recent article in the New Yorker by veteran American journalist, Seymour Hersh—based largely on his conversations with disaffected members and ex-members of the US intelligence community—charts how official approval was given for the use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, endless interrogation and sexual degradation, as part of a covert policy of ‘whatever it takes’ in the war on terror. Investigations by the University of Minnesota’s Professor Steven H. Miles, published in the August issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, draws similar conclusions, arguing much torture took place with the complicity of prison doctors.

Increasingly, Pross’ centre treats refugees from Iraq, as well as from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Africa and Chechnya. Last year more than 200 of the 501 patients were women, 48 were children or teenagers. Moreover the centre has a long waiting list and a constantly growing demand on its services. The Copenhagen-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, to which BZFO is affiliated, estimates that for every person treated another ten are in need. Approximately 17 million people are of concern to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and UNHCR estimates that 30 per cent of these people have been tortured.

Deliberately planned as a multidisciplinary clinic, the centre uses a range of therapies from music and handicrafts, to dream analysis, stories, physiotherapy, group work and psychotherapy. Social workers help patients to find accommodation, jobs, to make visa applications or apply for welfare. Medical treatment is provided for the physically ill and injured. And last week the BZFO formed an official alliance with PLACET (Berlin’s Plastic Surgery Centre for Terror Victims) whose special focus has been children from war-stricken countries such as Afghanistan. An 18-year-old girl from Chechnya whose face has been severely disfigured and partially blinded by scar tissue begins treatment next week under this scheme.

Both Pross’ clinical experience and wider professional research leave him in no doubt that victims of torture often carry the scars for a lifetime. The effects are physical, psychological and social, including flashbacks, severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression, memory lapses and breakdown of relationships triggered by the humiliation they’ve endured or the guilt of having betrayed family and friends.

‘At the BZFO we have become modest over the years’, he says. ‘Our therapy is not a cure but it can slowly help people cope, to regain dignity and hope in life. It can take years but the important thing is that the patient finds through a therapist there is still a human being on this earth they can tell their story to and they won’t be betrayed.’

But in the clinical experience of the centre’s Kurdish therapist, Salah Ahmad, sexual degradation and humiliation, as well as the potential stigma of seeming ‘crazy’, are areas of agony which make treatment of Muslims sometimes difficult. Rather than using traditional therapies, Ahmad, who trained in Germany and helped Pross establish the BZFO, tells stories from the Qur’an, or from myth and folklore, to open a dialogue with his patients that is the beginning of healing. Ahmad also believes that torture treatment centres can help heal whole communities like those in Iraq that have suffered long years of trauma culminating in the present continuing war. After five years of writing submissions to various governments and NGOs, Ahmad has finally received funding to set up a branch of BZFO in Kirkuk, northern Iraq which will open in 2005.

At the same time both Pross and Ahmad emphasise that without ‘detoxification’ through debriefing and mentoring by colleagues, simply treating torture victims can also ‘do harm to your soul’. Two or three times every day a therapist is ‘dipping into despair’. For Pross the challenge is to act with compassion, but not be drawn into the abyss.

At best such compassion may be no more than an imaginative act of kindness. One example is the situation of an Iraqi man who week after week described how he was besieged by a nightmare in which he was trapped up to his neck in a frozen lake. He could not save himself or call out for help. Finally his therapist took out a warm blanket and wrapped him in it. He looked at her in astonishment and then began to weep.

The therapist described his treatment from then on as a process of ‘defrosting’, with moments of ‘refreezing’.  

Dorothy Horsfield is a writer and journalist currently based in Berlin. Her most recent book is a memoir of her late husband, Paul Lyneham.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Let them stay

  • Clare O’Neil
  • 10 May 2006

While Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders are now eligible to apply for non-humanitarian visas, the Federal Government is introducing yet another hoop in  this humiliating process.