Every survivor of torture and trauma has a unique and moving story. Most of the survivors of torture and trauma that FASSTT agencies work with come to Australia as refugee or humanitarian entrants. National or local conflict often drives displacement. In some cases, government persecution may result in imprisonment and torture for political reasons, which presents a reason to flee the country on release. Typically, our clients have had to flee from conflict, leaving home, possessions, family, friends and country behind, to walk long distances to find a safer place. After this journey, refugees may stay in a refugee camp, sometimes for years, before gaining residency in another country if they are fortunate. The extracts below give some insight into the experiences of survivors of torture and trauma throughout the world.
Before, when I could sympathise with the Vietnamese or with people who were tortured in Brazil, in my heart I felt that their stories were a bit exaggerated – how could they not be! But when we (in Chile) began to experience all this horror, I understood that it had all been true, that these things really do transpire between human beings.
(Moy de Toha, ‘The Soldier's Friend’, in P. Politzer, Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989)
Even before interrogation, I was brutally beaten. Afterwards, each question was systematically accompanied by punches, kicks, cigarette burns. Each of my replies provoked new blows. After the interrogation they hung me up, my body was suspended like a sandbag, defenceless against the kicks and punches of my interrogators. They entertained themselves by putting out their cigarettes on my body, which they used like an ashtray. They scored my back all over with the point of a knife.
(‘I am Timorese’, Testimonies from East Timor, London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1990)
It is different for women. Women have continuously these sexual harassments ... Yes, for women almost all the tortures are sexual. A lot of times, the soldiers start with raping a woman, before she is going to be interrogated.
(Filipino woman, in N. Schilders et al., Sexual Violence: You Have Hardly any Future Left, Amsterdam: Dutch Refugee Council, 1988)
To threaten women with rape is the most popular thing that they use. The worst thing I was afraid of during the tortures was that they tried to rape me. That is the worst thing that can happen. It is for me the same thing as death.
(Turkish woman, in N. Schilders et al., Sexual Violence: You Have Hardly any Future Left, Amsterdam: Dutch Refugee Council, 1988)
Refugees often contribute immeasurably to the countries in which they settle. Here are some success stories extracted from Refugee Resettlement: An International Handbook to Guide Reception and Integration, published by the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture in cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2002:
In 1944, Dr Anita Donaldson is born to Latvian parents in a children's refugee camp in Germany. In 1993 she becomes the Dean of Performing Arts at Adelaide University.
In 1975, Alem Desta, a woman from Ethiopia, is granted asylum in the UK. Later, in the Netherlands, she establishes and becomes president of the Refugee Organisation Netherlands, an umbrella organisation for 230 local and national refugee support organisations.
In 1977, Sir Gustav Nossal, renowned scientist and refugee from Austria, is knighted. He will later be named Australian of the Year for his work in medical research.
In 1981, Makau Matau flees Kenya for the USA following arrests and detention for student activism. He is now a Professor of Law at the State University of New York.
In 1989, Philip Emeagwali, a refugee from Nigeria 15 years earlier, wins the Gordon Bell Prize (computing's Nobel Prize) for solving a problem classified as one of the 20 most difficult in the world.
In 1994, former Education Minister of Mozambique, Graca Machel, who had spent many years in exile in Switzerland and later Tanzania, is appointed to chair the United Nations Study of the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. In 1995 she was awarded the UNHCR Nansen Medal for her outstanding contribution on behalf of refugee children.