Survivor Engagement

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What does it take to survive torture and then use your experience to support others and take the lead in the global anti-torture movement?

The IRCT’s ‘Survivor Engagement’ project aims to put the answer to that question at the centre of our work on healing and justice. We believe that survivors who can and want to should be the principal agents in their own healing journey, and that their experiences of overcoming often unimaginable hardship can serve to improve rehabilitation services for themselves, and others.

Torture damages the physical and psychological well-being, and the socio-economic and legal situation, of survivors and their families, as well as their communities. Not only does it violate their personal integrity in these ways, but, according to survivors, it also deprives them of two of the most fundamental forms of human agency, which are essential to rehabilitation: their right to livelihood, and their ability to speak out about what happened to them.

The IRCT will support its members to create more safe and inclusive spaces where survivors can share their experiences, take ownership of their rehabilitation and exercise their rights, including to participate in the fight for justice. The IRCT network will continue to serve as a platform to represent the experiences of survivors and work to amplify their voices in our advocacy.

Credit: ASSAF, Israel

Yohannes (an alias) was kidnapped,  tortured and held for ransom by criminal gangs on his journey as a refugee from Eritrea to Israel. Like many survivors, it has taken him years to even begin speaking about his experiences. And though he wants his story to be known, he also wishes to remain anonymous.

Photo credit: Tree of Life

Survivors Speak Out:

Manar Shweiki was 14 years old when she was arrested and beaten by Israeli police after an altercation with Jewish settlers as she walked home from school in Jerusalem. Each year, the Israeli military arrests and prosecutes 500 to 700 Palestinian children, according to Defence for Children International.

A recent study by Save the Children found that more than 8 in 10 were subject to physical and psychological violence, with no effective legal safeguards. Manar denied charges of possessing a knife and plotting a stabbing attack, and was interrogated without a lawyer or her parents. She was convicted after she says an Israeli police woman, posing as a social worker, visited her cell and tricked her into agreeing with anti-Israeli statements, while secretly filming her. Manar was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was eventually released after four years, and received rehabilitation treatment at TRC Palestine.

Survivors Speak Out:

The West Bank of Palestine has been under military occupation by Israel since 1967. But since the Oslo Accords of 1993, the Palestinian Authority (PA), based in Ramallah, also deploys its own security forces. Suha, who is a Palestinian, US and Panamanian citizen, was arrested by the PA on suspicion of spying, and taken to its detention centre in Ariha. “I felt like I wasn’t human from the way they treated me,” says Suha “I watched the young men being arrested and tortured, so I knew that what they will do to me.”

Suha, who has a heart condition and was hospitalised three times during her detention, says she was beaten, forced to strip, threatened with rape and put in solitary confinement. Palestine’s Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) says it received some 4,300 claims of torture and other ill-treatment by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip between 2016 and 2021. The UN Committee Against Torture, reviewing Palestine for the first time in 2022, urged authorities to end impunity for allegations of widespread torture and other ill-treatment and allow for independent monitoring of its prisons.

After 70 days in custody, Suha was released and was referred to IRCT member TRC Palestine. “When I started at TRC I was not in a good mental state. My religious faith had been shaken … You no longer trust anyone and everything is broken. TRC helped me to get up again, and to feel safe. I was able to get married and to go on with my life and with my children, helping them with their education.”

Survivors Speak Out:

Fatima – not her real name – was arrested by Israeli forces in 2018 in a raid on her university dormitory. She maintains her innocence and believes she was made an example of to deter fellow students. As a Palestinian living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Palestine, Fatima is subject to Israeli military law, which allows Israeli security forces to arrest Palestinians on any grounds they believe are a threat to public order – including organising demonstrations and waving the Palestinian national flag – hold them for years without charge in prison, or put them on trial in secret military tribunals.

“In my first court appearance I was asked to do a strip search, but I refused,” says Fatima, who was held at the Ofer detention centre, which is both a prison and a military court. “Then a male and female officer and prison warden came in and severely beat me. The goal is humiliation.” By comparison, Israelis who live in illegal settlements in the West Bank are subject to the laws of Israel’s civil code, which protects individual rights. “When I was released two years after I was arrested, I was confused. There was a chasm between me and reality. I had lost my abilities and was in constant fear of being arrested again,” says Fatima, who wished to conceal her identity for fear of being returned to prison after receiving online threats. Fatima’s rehabilitation with medical specialists at TRC Palestine helped her regain confidence, although she has yet to return to the job in the media that she loved before her arrest.

Survivors Speak Out:

Osvaldo Rodriguez, Mexico

Osvaldo Rodriguez is one of tens of thousands of Mexican citizens tortured with impunity over the past two decades. In their ‘war’ on organised crime, Mexican police use arbitrary arrest and torture to extract confessions from the innocent. After 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, IRCT member, the Collective Against Torture and Impunity (CCTI) helped secure Osvaldo’s acquittal and release. “The most difficult aspect of torture is not really the beatings. It’s more the damage that leaves you marked for the rest of your life. I would prefer not to feel it. Fear of not knowing where next … I still need to do a lot of work. There is much left to do.”

Survivors Speak Out:

Ahmed, Syria

The Syrian uprising of 2011 began after the Assad regime’s secret police arrested and tortured children. Here Ahmed, a 13-year-old schoolboy at the time, describes why he joined a protest for freedom in Syria and the torture he endured after his arrest. “He was shouting at me, ‘You want freedom? You want to topple the regime?’ And he beat me … We were demanding freedom because in our country there is no freedom. There are no human rights. There’s nothing. Everything is oppressed … When we were in the cell they started beating me. They electrocuted me in my leg and in my chest … They hammered the big toe nail with the screwdriver, until it became loose, then they ripped it out with pliers. I started crying because it was the ultimate pain.”

Survivor Engagement

Survivor engagement can be defined as the process by which survivors of traumatic experiences actively take part in activities related to the anti-torture movement that go beyond the receipt of individual treatment. It’s a process that empowers survivors to control, not merely be consulted on, their own rehabilitation, and can be considered as operating at three levels: Personal, Community, and National and in three key areas: Governance, Health, and Human Rights Advocacy.

Examples may include, but are not limited to: participation in peer support groups; becoming volunteers or paid staff members to provide services to other survivors; giving insights from lived experience and expertise to service providers or governments in order to shape service provision and improve access to justice; advocating with politicians and other key decision makers to eradicate torture.

The aim of survivor engagement initiatives is determined by survivors themselves. Some seek to engage with their wider networks as part of their healing processes; others want to share their experience to help others; some seek justice in a more direct manner.

Developed and implemented through a Steering Committee of five member centres with experience in integrating survivor engagement as a component of rehabilitation, the Special Project is one of the goals the IRCT has set itself under its Strategy 2022-2025.

Source: IRCT Global Impact Data 2021

The Survivor Engagement Steering Committee:

Freedom from Torture (FFT), UK
The Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT), Kosovo
Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, International (TASSC), US
Tree of Life Trust (ToL), Zimbabwe
Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF), Israel

IRCT’s Global Standards on Rehabilitation

Standard 9: Victims’ Participation in Rehabilitation

Promote the meaningful contribution of victims in service design and delivery, research, decision-making, and governance processes of rehabilitation services through recognition of victims’ experience in service development and recruitment processes, open consultative and feedback processes, and other participatory methods that are contextually and situationally appropriate.

“Empowering survivors and giving them a platform to speak out is essential in the global fight against torture. This is how we equip the sector to better fight torture and the injustice lived by survivors.”

Natasha Nzazi, Freedom from Torture, UK

“The narrative of torture survivors is powerful, but the survivors have been silenced by the perpetrators. Rehabilitation helps them regain their dignity and humanity and helps them speak up again.”

Dr Boris Droždek, Psycho-trauma Centre, South Netherlands

Natasha Nzazi and Kolbassia Haoussou from the Survivors Speak Out Network at IRCT UK member Freedom From Torture.  Credit: Freedom From Torture

Life After Torture: Survival and Support

To mark international day against torture, the IRCT in Copenhagen invited torture survivors and those who support them to tell their stories to an audience of stakeholders.

‘I would recognise the voices that had been silenced.’

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 recognise voices that had been silenced. Everyday new voices would come in and old voices were silenced. But I never saw anyone.”

Arrested at school in Kirkuk in 1979 for refusing to sign a paper joining the student union of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, Ali 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. 

“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.”

“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

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,” said 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 too 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.”