Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Treatment center for torture victims opens in Britain

AFP , LONDON

All is peaceful at the newly-opened center for the victims of torture, light years away from the horrors that the men and women who attend it experienced for periods that could last for years.

The new center, in north London, is run by the charity Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, set up in 1985, and was opened last month.

Most of its patients come from Turkey, Iran and Africa. Last year the foundation treated 2,100 new patients. In 2004, it says, there are "a few thousand." They are aged between 16 and 40 and there is a high proportion of under-18s. For years the number of women victims has been growing.

"We try to ease the suffering caused by organized torture," said Charlotte, one of the doctors at the center, which has a staff of about 20 doctors and counsellors and several interpreters. They provide medical treatment, psychological support and material assistance.

Many of the center's patients are asylum-seekers without housing or resources. The center provides the medical reports that are essential for any request for asylum as well as helping with everyday formalities.

It also specializes in identifying different types of torture practiced around the world.

According to Charlotte, who is writing a report on sexual violence in Chechnya, this is an important activity "because human rights organizations don't know a lot about the situation in some countries."

According to foundation spokesman Andrew Hogg, "torture is becoming more and more scientific. They put water on the skin before electrocution."

Methods differ from country to country. In Turkey "they try not to leave traces," Hogg says, while in Africa "they don't care."

Electric shocks, whippings, rape, fake executions and sleep deprivation are all used to break the victims physically and psychologically. Medical and psychological help are at the heart of of the center's operations. All the patients have been tortured or witnessed torture of family members, whether they have been politically active themselves or just close to dissidents. They find it hard to talk of their experiences.

"It takes time -- months, even years -- to reveal their history," said Charlotte. "Some may not ever say anything."

The hardest part is winning their confidence, making them feel sufficiently at ease to open up.

"Torture would destroy anybody's trust in the whole world," Charlotte said.

Using donated money the Foundation built the new center, at Finsbury Park, since the previous building brought back painful memories.

"Some patients panicked while in long corridors or small rooms," said Hogg. "It reminded them of torture."

The architecture of the center takes this aspect into account. From the outside it looks like a sports center: large, modern, with walls painted in lilac and white. The inside is light, with plenty of curves and large open spaces.

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