Victims of torture are receiving vital care and rehabilition in Birmingham. Victoria Farncombe talks to a man who survived the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison.
The tears fall from his eyes and Aras wrings his hands as he recalls his former cellmate.
We’re sitting on brown leather sofas in a cool blue room decorated with cushions, throws and floral prints.
But Aras is not really here. He’s back in his hot, cramped cell in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the terrible smell of his friend’s decomposing body filling his nostrils.
“I couldn’t recognise him,” says the 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd. “They had dropped a concrete block on his face. It must have weighed 30kg.
“Then they left his body in our cell. It is very hot in Southern Iraq. The body swelled up. It was bloody, it was smelly and they left it there for four days.”
When exactly this happened, Aras cannot say as his experiences have left him unable to remember his life chronologically. From the age of 14 to 24 – when he fled to the UK on the back of a lorry – the Iraqi Kurd spent his life in and out of prison, jailed for his ethnicity and his late father’s political affiliations.
His most humiliating and horrific experiences were at Abu Ghraib at the height of Saddam Hussein’s reign.
Heavy gas cylinders were hung from his testicles, his body was tied up for days at a time so that he could not sit or lie down and he was electrocuted through wires attached to his nipples.
Along with the pain came attacks on his senses. Guards spat in his food, played loud ‘‘silly’’ music when he fell asleep and deprived him of light for weeks on end.
Worst of all, he was forced to watch fellow prisoners being beaten and electrocuted to death.
“Then they fed them to wild dogs,” says Aras, shaking his head to stop the memories overwhelming him.
Up until a year ago, the Birmingham-based asylum seeker told no one of his experiences and was at risk of being sent back to Iraq by immigration officials.
He was homeless and destitute and disturbed by images of his past. Then a GP referred him to the newly-opened Medical Foundation, in Caroline Street, in the Jewellery Quarter.
Through clinical psychologist and centre manager Dr Maria Downs, Aras has opened up about his experiences to such an extent that he has agreed to be interviewed.
“Aras is very keen to do this interview,” said Maria. “It’s important to him that people know about the terrible human right violations that occur on a daily basis in Iraq and the devastating consequences for those involved.”
Aras’s story has no beginning, middle or end. He jumps from horror to horror, still unable to recall when or why each happened.
Midway through remembering another friend who was slowly electrocuted to death in front of him, his eyes glaze over and he stops talking.
Torture survivors experience such vivid flashbacks it can feel as though they are reliving the situation.
For this reason, it is important that they have some sense of their current surroundings and the fact that they are safe. But there is a limit to how much pain Aras can recall in one sitting.
“I’m sorry, I cannot talk about what happened to my family today,” he explains, in his quiet, polite way. “When I cry too much, I get a migraine.”
Aras’s parents and siblings were killed by Iraqi government forces during a Kurdish uprising in the early 1990s when he was eight.
His wife was killed in Iraq sometime in the last six years. The former baker does not know where his children are.
“Aras is not only struggling with the aftermath of repeated imprisonment and torture, but also with the profound grief for the loss of his family,” said Maria.
The physical and psychological consequences of torture are long-lasting and the therapy he receives at the Medical Foundation is just the beginning of his rehabilitation. His ordeals have affected his memory and he can only sleep for short periods. He talks of being visited by the ghosts of his dead friends.
“Aras could barely talk about his experiences a year ago,” said Maria. “I think it’s incredible that he can talk at length and so articulately about such difficult things to you, whom he has only just met. The progress he has made in a year has been amazing.
“Working with torture survivors, we hear about and see evidence of the very worst that human beings can do to each other, but we also see an amazing resilience and strength of character.”
For many people, therapy will help them to begin to make sense of their experiences and to reduce the intensity and frequency of flashbacks, nightmares and other psychological effects of torture.
But there is another advantage to opening up. After revealing his experiences and being examined by a doctor at the Medical Foundation, a medico-legal report was produced which documented the extent of Aras’s physical and psychological trauma.
Thanks in part to that report, Aras can now stay in the UK indefinitely and has been housed in the West Midlands.
The Medical Foundation’s West Midlands centre, which provides care and rehabilitation for torture survivors, marked its first birthday last month and in this time has received referrals for 117 people living in the West Midlands.
Employing five people, it costs just £215,000 a year to run and relies greatly on the support of a team of 17 volunteers which include doctors, clinical psychologists, social workers and therapists.
Their work includes training NHS staff in working therapeutically with torture survivors, carrying out research and raising awareness through policy and advocacy work.
For Maria, the most important thing is that the voice of the torture survivor is heard.
“When people ask me what I do for a living they are generally surprised and ask ‘do we really have people who have been tortured living in Birmingham?’” she said.
“There are 4,000 asylum seekers living here and we can only guess what percentage of them have been tortured. I want their voices to be heard.”
The torture victim’s name has been changed to protect his indentity.
THE MEDICAL FOUNDATION
*The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (MF) is a registered charity which was established in 1985 and is the only organisation in the UK dedicated solely to the treatment of torture survivors
* Around 70 per cent of the Medical Foundation’s income comes from individual donors, with the remainder coming from charitable foundations, companies and legacies. To ensure independence, the organisation does not accept government funding
* The Birmingham centre has recently secured £333,000 from the Big Lottery Fund’s Reaching Communities programme to fund child and family development work over a three-year period
* Clients come mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and the Congo
* The most common country of origin for people referred to the West Midlands centre is Iran – around 20 per cent
* The kinds of torture clients have faced include sexual assaults, beating, whipping, suffocation, hanging and being deprived of food and water
*Clients cope with a range of mental health problems including complex post-traumatic reactions, severe depression, psychotic illnesses and relationship problems. Their difficulties are often exacerbated by physical health problems and chronic pain resulting from torture