A Day in the Life of Survival [Building a Future from Fragments]

By Hinshelwood, Gill | New Internationalist, September 2000 | Go to article overview

A Day in the Life of Survival [Building a Future from Fragments]


Hinshelwood, Gill, New Internationalist


The path towards survival a victim of torture has to travel is slow and painfully difficult. Many survive literally, but may spend a lifetime wishing they had been killed. Some kill themselves years later.

Gloria, who fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), succeeded in finding a life worth living, albeit utterly different from the past. Her story is both unique yet representative of those who have had to overcome torture and exile, a double dose of fear and danger.

At the time of torture, the victim is one helpless and mindless scream of agony. When she is released or escapes, seemingly superhuman strengths are drawn on in order to reach a place of safety. Yet on arrival these 'survivors' often trudge back and forth to hospitals and social services seeking relief for apparently inexplicable symptoms.

Gloria felt lost and alone when she reached a place of safety, but relief kept her buoyant at first. It did not last. Three months later she presented to a refugee centre with a carrier bag full of medicines to treat symptoms from top to toe, appointment cards and papers, looking thin, tired and utterly defeated, saying: 'No-one understands me.' This is what torture does to people. It fragments, breaks their links: externally, with the family, community, country; internally, so that bits of the mind and body seem to have isolated primitive existences beyond control.

A typical day in Gloria's first few months of exile demonstrates this. She has been housed in a room in a large and noisy mixed hostel. Her day begins at about five in the morning, waking with heart thumping and a tight feeling across her chest, fighting with the bedclothes, possibly screaming. The light is on because she is terrified of the dark. She is frightened to sleep and have the same nightmare yet again, a nightmare of being chased, dogs, and her child in danger.

Fatigued, with a throbbing head, she sits with a cup of tea and some aspirin, trying not to think, as dawn breaks. Avoiding her neighbours, she goes to the one fixed point in the day, her language class. She thinks that if she learned the language of her host country she would not feel so helpless and misunderstood. But she who used to be a teacher cannot learn; her mind wanders and she forgets easily. Gloria sits apart, avoiding eye contact with her classmates. She feels dirty and ashamed, as if she had been raped yesterday instead of several months ago. As the lesson progresses, she gazes out of the window in a world of her own, and the memories flash back, triggered by the siren of a passing police car. Her headache, and now abdominal pain, increase and she leaves abruptly.

Absentmindedly she steps into the road. A screech of brakes and an irate voice yells: 'Watch where you're going, idiot!' People stare. Rushing back to her room, she buries herself under bedclothes and cries for about two hours, which brings some relief, so she sleeps fitfully. She prepares tea, bread and beans, and eats half of it.

She thinks of all she had intended to do that day but cannot face now. Visit her immigration lawyer. Her most dominating fear is of being refused asylum. Her lawyer explained the legal process, but in Gloria's anxious state, they were just words. She thinks they could come for her and send her back at any time. Visit her doctor, again. But what for? The insomnia, fatigue, headache, backache, pain in knees, forgetfulness, feeling crazy, palpitations, breathlessness, hand tremors, nightmares; or should she try and put into words her wish for an examination. Gloria is terrified that she has a serious sexually transmitted disease, but she can't summon up the words to ask for an examination when she sees her doctor, so her fears remain unabated.

The therapeutic task is to restore links, and in Gloria's case this begins with trying to connect the items in her bag with herself. 'What were you given this for?'; 'Terrible headaches'; 'and this? …

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