Torture Photos Traumatize Refugees in Germany | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.05.2004
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Torture Photos Traumatize Refugees in Germany

Officials at German centers for the treatment of torture victims say the graphic photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse have triggered painful memories among their patients, most of them asylum-seekers.


Disturbing, especially for victims of torture.

The images of a naked Iraqi man held on a dog leash by a female prison guard or that of an Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with his head covered, and wires attached to his hands sparked disgust around the world.

But for hundreds of torture survivors undergoing therapy at Berlin's Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims (BFZO), the graphic photographs have rekindled horrifying memories they have spent years trying to get over.

"The photographs flashed on television and in newspapers have awakened sad and shameful memories for many of our patients," Salah Ahmad, a therapist at the BFZO told DW-WORLD. "Especially for Iraqi patients, the images have triggered memories of the old regime -- they are shocked that these things are still happening," he said.

"A 73-year-old patient of ours from Kirkuk, Iraq, who had witnessed a young boy being forced to strip naked and being beaten while in prison under Saddam's regime, was absolutely traumatized by the photographs -- he's started having the same nightmare over and over again," added Ahmad.

Many asylum-seekers fleeing torture

Founded in 1992, the BFZO treats people from 22 countries. Most of them come from Turkey (mostly Kurds), Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Balkans, Africa among others. The majority arrive in Germany seeking asylum as they flee political persecution, torture and civil war.

Asylanten im Frankfurter Flughafen

Asylum-seekers at the Frankfurt airport.

According to Amnesty International, torture is still practiced in 111 countries in spite of the United Nations Convention against Torture which came into effect in 1987 to abolish torture as a means of organized state violence.

Germany has signed up to the U.N. Convention against Torture, which means it is mandatory for it to provide medical and psychological help to the victims of torture.

Germany currently has 16 centers that offer medical and psychological aid to torture victims. According to estimates by the working group of psychosocial centers for refugees and torture victims, around 20 percent of refugees who come to Germany have been physically or psychologically tortured. That amounts to around 25,000 people every year.

Therapy designed to restore dignity of torture victims

Ahmad says 500 patients were registered at the BFZO last year, around 100 of whom were in intensive therapy for extreme trauma.

Treatment, which includes medical care, psychiatry, family counseling, art therapy and social work, lasts an average of two to three years and even longer for some. The aim is not just to treat the physical complaints but also try to give torture victims -- who often feel humiliated, disenfranchised and rootless -- their dignity back.

Anni Kammerlander, head of the Munich-based Refugio center, which treats around 1,000 torture victims, including several hundred children, a year, said that many patients who are severely traumatized are often not even aware of their condition.

"We often get patients who have no idea what trauma is, they just come and tell us that they get bad headaches or can't sleep or feel scared," she said. "We first explain to them it's a normal physical and psychological reaction to a painful experience."

"The whole therapy takes a long time -- unil the patients begin to trust you and can openly talk about their torture or rape experience," Kammerlander added.

Images shameful for Iraqis

Many say the latest public evidence of torture in Iraq is a catastrophe for the country.

Kammerlander said the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being made to strip naked before their American captors was an especially shameful and humiliating event in a Muslim country where sexuality and baring of skin is still considered taboo.

"We don't even expose ourselves to our close relatives," Haider Sabbar, an Iraqi prisoner at the Abu Ghraib prison who was photographed naked by U.S. prison guards, told Arabic television channel Al Jazeera. "But here (at Abu Ghraib) we were naked in front of American men and women."

Need to set up treatment center in Iraq

Therapists agree that the most important thing now is to help the Iraqi victims of torture. "But, there isn't a single group in the country right now that can provide any kind of psychological treatment to them," Ahmad said.

He added that the BFZO is involved in talks with various groups and the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in trying to set up a project in Iraq, both for the current victims of torture and those who suffered under the old regime. He admitted, however, that the plans were hobbled by a major lack of funds. "We've got such advanced methods of treating trauma and torture in the West, we can certainly help them with our know-how," Ahmad said. "The most important thing is to set up a protective center in Iraq, where the victims -- who need moral and psychological help -- are first assured they are safe here."

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