It should not be that we talk of torture from the “past” without understanding what we mean by the past. For many torture survivors, the past is in the present. The past imprints itself, again and again, in the form of unemployment and broken relationships. Its memory lingers literally like a nightmare.
From November 2010 to March 2011, Khulumani Support Group conducted a torture advocacy workshop with a group of ex-combatants from Kagiso, who suffered severe torture during apartheid. The narrative process called HEARTS (based on Karen Hanscom’s work at Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma) was used to explore the ways in which the individuals identified stress and dealt with it. The group shared stories of what happened to them, where they have been and where they are now. From the stories they shared, it was clear that the group felt forgotten. They felt that all their sacrifices of missing out on education while fighting for liberation, of being tortured and wounded, had not counted because when the objective of changing government was finally reached, the rules had been changed. Their sacrifices turned against them. They cannot get employment because they lack skills, because they are disabled, because they suffer the mental effects of torture. In the seminar organised by Khulumani to commemorate UN International Day in Support of Persons with Disabilities, held in the Chapel of the SACC on 3 December 2010, the members of the group of torture survivors expressed how difficult it continues to be to access appropriate rehabilitation services.
What does it mean therefore when people who were tortured more than 16 years ago still suffer the effects of torture today? For Khulumani it indicates the contribution of torture to a broken society, a society where people’s physical, mental and emotional wounds make it difficult for them to function optimally. It means that while some work is being done to heal wounds from the past, more support is needed for people who have survived torture with all its consequential multiple disabilities. The right to access rehabilitation services needs to exist as much for survivors of torture as for people with physical or intellectual disabilities. Torture survivors are a relatively invisible group of persons with disabilities.
The lifelong physical, psychological and emotional effects should never be under-estimated but individuals retain the capacity to take their healing forward when opportunities are presented. Psychosocial programmes need to comprehensively address the physical, psychological and economic consequences of having been survivors of torture in the challenging journey of becoming active citizens.
The second phase of the torture advocacy workshops involved the participants in working with three facilitators linked to the CDP Trust to represent their narratives in art. The members of the group explored advocacy messages that could inform community advocacy against torture and how to use screenprinting techniques to make posters and T-shirts.
At the meeting held on 11 March 2011, in the Kagiso MultiPurpose Community Centre to evaluate the intervention, it became clear that certain kinds of impact can never be quantified. While emotionally healthy people share their pains and concerns with family and friends, torture survivors find it incredibly difficult to do so.The Kagiso group members expressed that the programme had been life-changing for them, because it had provided them with a way of sharing their stories first with each other across their diverse political backgrounds, and then with their families. Most had found new ways of telling their stories to close relatives and they began to feel a reconnection with their loved ones who were allowed to begin to understand what had been done to them.
Most of the group explained that they had learned better ways of communicating about what had happened in the past and they expressed gratitude for having become able to open up more fully to their loved ones, than they had ever been able to in the past. The stress of the daily struggle to find something to put on the table for family transformed for one participant into his family expressing how happy they were to see him happy.
One participant said, “I seldom open up to people about my thoughts and feelings. Through this process for once in my life, I opened up and shared with other people and realised that there are people who went through what I went through. This should be recommended to other people like us who have been living in bondage for so long.”
Another added, “Very bad things have happened to us in the past. When you have things happen to you like what happened to us, you live life feeling inferior to everyone and to yourself. When you get together in a group like this and share with people who went through what you went through, and express yourself in another kind of way, you learn that you are not inferior. Now we can go out and look at the future with anticipation. At least we have a skill that we can use to even generate some income for ourselves now.”
The Kagiso group plan to continue printing T-shirts to raise awareness in their community on different issues, to generate some income for themselves and to pass the skill on to other people. They plan to share their artwork in a public event to be hosted at the Mogale City Hall on 31 March 2011.
Khulumani believes that the rebuilding of community social ties is promoted through having military veterans who have survived torture work together with victims of torture from the same human rights struggle, rather than keeping people in their seperate silos. These proposals will be presented to the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Military Veterans by Khulumani on 31 March 2011.
by Zdena Mtetwa, Khulumani Support Group