21 Jun 2021
Life After Torture: The Survivor

Botan Ali, as he asks to be known, has survived a darkness few of us could ever imagine.

“I did not see anyone being killed during torture, but that was because the cells were pitch black. I did not know if it was day or night. The physical torture was not the worst aspect, as the body gets used to it,” said the 60-year-old Kurd.

“It’s when you hear the screams all around you that you feel destroyed. Women and men screaming. Of course, there were many who died. I would recognize voices that had been silenced. Everyday new voices would come in and old voices were silenced. But I never saw anyone.”

Life After Torture: The Survivor

Botan Ali survived torture by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Arrested at school in Kirkuk in 1979 for refusing to sign a paper joining the student union of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, Ali, who spoke at an IRCT event in Copenhagen to mark was accused of being a member of a Kurdish political party, against which the secret police of Iraq’s former dictator waged a relentless and brutal campaign of torture and killings. Ali was one of five speakers at an IRCT event in Copenhagen yesterday to mark the upcoming 26 June UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

“Being a Kurd in Iraq was a crime. It was the same in Turkey and Iran. They would not accept you. Before I was arrested, I did not know what politics was, but I knew my Dad had also been in prison. When I was a child, he was jailed for three years for refusing to curse a Kurdish leader. He was tortured severely and later died because of the impact on his health.”

After being arrested and tortured a second time, Ali fled Kirkuk to join the Peshmerga, the military forces of autonomous Kurdistan, in their mountain stronghold in northern Iraq. “I always say, we Kurds never go into politics by will, but only as a last resort, to survive.”

Attempting to cross Turkey into Europe in 1982, Ali was briefly imprisoned in Istanbul’s notorious Sultanahmet prison, made famous as the setting for the film Midnight Express – “the prison was luxurious compared to Iraq” – before obtaining a fake Iranian passport and journeying on to East Berlin, and from there to Denmark. “The only word I knew in Danish was ‘refugee.’”

Interviewed for two days by Danish police, Ali said he was “simply terrified” that they would put him back in the hands of Saddam’s torturers. After seven months, he was granted political asylum.

Today, having trained at technical college and worked for many years at a printing house in Copenhagen, Ali speaks fluent Danish, has two Danish daughters in high school, and recounts with passion the treatment he received through the RCT, the predecessor of IRCT member centre in Denmark, Dignity. “Until I die, I will be grateful to the Danish psychologist who helped me recover,” says Ali, who undertook two years of rehabilitation through the RCT from 1985, including an education and training programme.

Ali describes a series of symptoms all to familiar to survivors of torture: jolting awake at night from recurring nightmares, his that his feet are paralysed and unable to run as Saddam’s police approach; grinding teeth loud enough to wake a partner; a diagnosis of colour and word blindness, likely caused by head trauma suffered during his torture; and struggles with concentration.

“When I was young, I was very good at maths, physics and science. But after what happened to me, I could feel that my cognitive abilities had declined. It was very difficult for me to even learn Danish. I simply could not concentrate.  If I had not received treatment from the RCT I would not have been able to study and to work. It was not an easy process to go through, but you must believe the rehabilitation can help you re-establish your life. Mine made it possible for me to regain my power and make my new life here in Denmark.”

For more information

Established at the behest of Denmark as an annual event to speak out against torture and support survivors throughout the world, 26 June marks the moment in 1987 when the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) came into effect. Today, the Convention has been ratified by 165 states.


"It was not an easy process to go through, but you must believe the rehabilitation can help you re-establish your life."

Botan Ali, Kurdish Iraqi torture survivor in Denmark.

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