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Help for Victims of Torture

Help for Victims of Torture

 Help for Victims of Torture



A YOUNG man strolls down a peaceful street in a European city and pauses to look at some merchandise displayed in a shop window. Suddenly, his hands tremble. His knees shake. He clutches his neck as if he were going to choke. In the window, he has just seen the reflection of two uniformed policemen. The young man has broken no laws, and there is no reason for him to be afraid. Yet, the mere sight of men in uniform takes him back to a place thousands of miles away and to a time years ago when he was a victim of torture.

This could be the story of any one of millions of men, women, and even children. It could be the story of someone you know. The victim of cruel mistreatment may be a refugee or an immigrant who has moved into your neighborhood. His children may attend school with your children. You may know him as a quiet, calm, polite neighbor who generally keeps to himself. But outward appearances can be deceiving; they may conceal the inner turmoil that the victim feels as he grapples with memories of past physical and mental suffering. Any sight—or sound—may cause him to relive past horrors. One such victim explains: “Whenever I hear a baby cry, I think of people I heard crying in the prison. Whenever I hear a sweeping sound in the air, I remember the rod going up and down—the sound it made just before it hit me.”

Torture is not the sole domain of political extremists and terrorist groups. In a number of countries, it is also employed by military and police forces. Why? Torture can be a quick and efficient way to obtain information, to extract a confession, to obtain incriminating testimony, or to take revenge. According to Denmark’s Dr. Inge Genefke, a leading expert on torture, in some cases governments “have come to power and maintain their position through the practice of torture.” One victim put it this way: “They wanted to break me so that others could see  what happens to you when you criticise the government.”

To many people the idea of inflicting torture on fellow humans is strictly reminiscent of the Dark Ages. After all, in 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Article 5) Some experts believe, however, that up to 35 percent of the world’s refugees have been tortured. Why is torture so widespread? How are victims affected, and what can be done to help them?

The Aftermath

Not surprisingly, many victims of torture flee their homeland to start a new life elsewhere. But while the locale may change, the suffering—both physical and psychological—continues. For example, the victim may experience feelings of guilt because of being unable to protect friends or relatives from mistreatment. He may also develop a profound mistrust of others, fearing that each person he meets could be an informer. “The torture victim is forever going to be a stranger,” says writer Carsten Jensen. “He has forever lost his trust in the world.”

The result is a mixture of physical and mental trauma that can baffle the victim and anyone who sets out to help him. The physical problems can sometimes be treated readily, but not so the psychological. “In the beginning we thought, ‘All right, we’ll put their bones together—then they can walk home,’” admits Dr. Genefke. “But we soon learned that it was the pain in their hearts that was eating them up.” Nevertheless, Dr. Genefke notes: “It has been a surprise to learn that it is possible to relieve and to help victims, even if many years have passed.”

In 1982, at Copenhagen’s National Hospital, Dr. Genefke along with other Danish physicians set up a small unit for treating refugees who were victims of torture. From these small beginnings grew a global network under the name International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). From its headquarters in Copenhagen, the council is directing relief work through more than 100 centers worldwide. Over the years, the council has learned much about treating victims of torture.

How to Give Support

It is often helpful for victims to talk about their experiences. “Some 20 years ago,” says a presentation sheet from the IRCT, “torture victims were often victims in a double sense. First by being exposed to the physical/psychological act of torture, and then second by not being able to talk about it.”

Granted, it is not pleasant to talk about a topic as dismal as torture. But if a sufferer wishes to confide in a friend and the friend refuses to listen, the sufferer could sink deeper into despair. Therefore, it is important for the victim to be assured that someone cares. Of course, no one should pry into the personal affairs of another. Ultimately, it is up to the victim to decide if, when, and in whom he or she wants to confide.—Proverbs 17:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:14.

Most experts recommend considering both the physical and the mental aspects of torture. For some victims,  rehabilitation requires professional help. Approaches to treatment include exercises in breathing and in communication. * Feelings of shame are usually among the first to be addressed. One therapist told a woman who had been repeatedly raped and beaten: “The shame you feel is normal and understandable. But remember that it is not yours. The shame belongs to the people who did this to you.”

Concentration Camp Survivors

During World War II, millions of people suffered horrible indignities in Hitler’s concentration camps. Among these were thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were persecuted because they refused to renounce their religious beliefs. Their faith undeniably helped them to endure such trialsome circumstances. How?

Long before their incarceration, these Christians had been careful students of God’s Word. Thus, they were not puzzled when trials arose, nor did they blame God when their suffering did not immediately come to an end. Through a study of the Bible, the Witnesses had learned why God permits wickedness and how he will put an end to it in his due time. Bible study had taught them that Jehovah is “a lover of justice” and that he is outraged when men mistreat their fellow humans.—Psalm 37:28; Zechariah 2:8, 9.

Of course, many of these concentration camp survivors have had to cope with the traumatic aftereffects of their ordeal. In doing so, they have been greatly strengthened by following the counsel of the apostle Paul. While Paul languished in a Roman prison, a situation that must have brought him considerable anxiety, he wrote to fellow believers: “Do not be anxious over anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication along with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God; and the peace of God that excels all thought will guard your hearts and your mental powers by means of Christ Jesus.”—Philippians 1:13; 4:6, 7.

Through Bible study, these integrity keepers have learned that God has promised to make the earth a paradise, where the painful effects of indignities such as torture will eventually be erased.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are sharing this Bible-based hope with their neighbors in more than 230 lands. Turbulent world conditions bring them into contact with many who have suffered because of man’s inhumanity to man. When they meet victims of torture, the Witnesses endeavor to share with these individuals the Bible’s promise of a bright future. How happy they are to spread the glad tidings of a future time when torture will be a thing of the past!—Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:4.


^ par. 15 Awake! does not endorse any particular treatment. Christians should be sure that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles.

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● Show empathy. You might say: “I know there is a lot of trouble in the country you come from. How are you coping?”—Matthew 7:12; Romans 15:1.

● Do not pry or be too insistent about providing help. Rather, be kind and considerate. Let the victim know that you are willing to listen.—James 1:19.

● Avoid being overly helpful. Do not deprive the sufferer of his self-respect or his privacy. The idea is to share the burden with the sufferer, not to attempt to carry it completely.