Category Archives: Torture

Little Dramas, Big Traumas

After my action-packed day at the farmers market, Huntly Castle, and Bogairdy, there were days of routine, which was fine with me.

I needed to start looking for a place to live when I returned to the states in a month.  I had closed on the sale of my condo while I was in Eton, with my realtor standing in for me to sign all the papers.  I started to surf rentals on Craig’s List, and the perfect one popped up right away.  This never happens—I have always had to look at 25 places before I find the right one; I have always had to apply for 50 jobs in order to land a decent one; I won’t even mention dating here—the point is, I’ve always had to really hustle to get what I wanted. When I sent the owner of the perfect duplex an email she responded to say she had 10 people coming to look at it the next day so I should probably keep looking.  Darn.

It was weird to not have a mortgage or rent payment for a couple months.  I tried to give Lynn some cash for my keep but she fended me off, so I found other ways to contribute.

I was working on proposals to the British Department for International Development, or DfID, and another donor with an acronym everyone stumbled over—ELHRA.  During these intense proposal development times, the emails fly fast and furious.  I can easily receive 200 emails a day unless I hop on Skype (either chat or video/phone) to just talk through an issue.

I often had Skype calls in the late afternoon, and that was when the Internet slowed down.  Lynn and Richard’s theory was that, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, Internet was like an old-fashioned telephone party line. The kids came home from school and started streaking on Snapchat, the adults came home from work and logged on to Facebook, and everyone grumbled about how slow the connection was.

More than once, my Skype call would droop and I would walk through the house with my laptop yelling, “Can you hear me?” until I reached the library, where the router was.  Why being close to the router should help, I don’t know.  Richard would look up, startled, and abandon his desk to me, bless him.

“I was just shopping for flasks anyway.”  Richard collects antique flasks—pewter, leather, copper—they’re beautiful.

“You don’t need any more flasks!” Lynn would ring in.

It was around this time that I did problem solved with a donor, and this has possibly come back to my benefit.  It was someone at the US State Department; we had already been approved for a grant but she was having trouble opening one of our documents.  It’s a boring story but we went back and forth for an hour or so; I tried sending it via my Gmail account, I tried converting it to a different format, etc. until she discovered it was a glitch on their end.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I submitted a proposal to this same donor in the US Government online system, which is the most stressful part of the whole process.  That may sound silly, but if you do the slightest thing wrong they can disqualify you.  There can be technical problems with the online portal so we always allow two days before the actual deadline to upload everything.

I hit “Submit,” did a victory lap to the kitchen for some Girl Scout cookies, then logged off and left to take a much-anticipated day off.

I woke at 3am.  “Did I upload a pdf?!  Is that allowed?!”

This morning I checked and indeed, they require a word document, not a pdf.  I had pdf’d it out of habit.  My contact at State said it would be okay since I was letting her know ahead of the deadline.  I don’t think it was a quid pro quo; she’s just a reasonable, nice person.

This is my glamorous life in international development.  I have to keep in mind that, if we are funded, a thousand torture survivors will get help healing from their trauma.

A Fish Tale

I joined Lynn and Possum and their friend Andrew for a long dinner at the Italian restaurant.  Andrew was a former Oxfamer, now a finance consultant.  He was preparing to walk along the south coast of England to raise money for Oxfam, and we ribbed him about the impending stormy weather.

He laughed back at us, Ha, ha, I’m going to Italy for a week after the walk.”

When you work for an international organization, you meet such interesting people.  People who love to travel, people with good hearts, people with good stories.

The organization I work for supports survivors of torture and war trauma to rebuild their lives through counseling, physical therapy, and social work services.

You might think torture is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  Governments all over the world employ it to scare their populations into submission.  My own government has tortured people it suspects of being terrorists.  My organization estimates that about 1.3 million of the refugees in the US were tortured in their home country.  And there are likely tens of millions more in other countries.

One way for us to reach more people is to work with other organizations, and that’s why I had come to Oxford—to meet with some people about possibly partnering with Oxfam.  Oxfam is an international organization that started in Oxford, and the largest branch, Oxford Great Britain, is there.  OGB dwarfs my organization.  It had income of $565 million last year, compared our income of about $15 million.  Was there some way we could go in with OGB on funding applications, doing a small part of a big project?  It could make their proposals more competitive to add our specialized services, and we could reach more survivors.

That’s the theory, anyway.  It takes a long time to bring these partnerships to fruition, if they ever do.

I had meetings the next day in three different locations.  When I asked the driver of the #8 bus to Headington where I should get off, he gave me a rude and incorrect answer.  I ended up walking about eight blocks in the warm rain.

I still arrived early, so I did reconnaissance for how I would catch my next bus, and then looked at ads in an estate agent’s window.

This one is pure Oxford:

Yes, the house comes with a giant fish sculpture.  What’s so excellent and British is that there is no reference to it in the ad.   Entrance hall?  Check.  Three bedrooms, check.  Living room, yes.  Garden?  Yes.  Giant fish? Huh, what fish? Pay no attention to that fish plunging through the roof.

I found the coffee shop and had a lovely talk with a woman who worked for OGB for 17 years and is now a fundraising consultant.  Her two young children played quietly while we talked NGO-speak.

“Which sector are you under?” she asked. “Health, GBV, protection?”

“Usually health but with PRM we’ve been protection and also with this DFiD NOFO we’re responding to, and we’re thinking GBV for Iraq with OFDA.”

“That makes perfect sense,” she nodded.

It was nice to talk to someone who spoke the same code as I do.

I next boarded the #10 bus, which wound along Windmill Road, which turned into The Slade, then Holloway Road, then Between Towns Road.  I alighted at The Original Swan pub, from where I would walk to OGB.  I had walked this route every day when I lived here, but today—when I was running a little late—I got lost.

OGB is in a business park where all the buildings look alike and are arranged in a circle so you can go around and not realize you’ve gone around.

It’s a nice office park, as such places go.  There are fountains and trees.  But there are no signs or directories, or I missed them.  I was so sure I would remember the route, but I didn’t.  After my disastrous meeting in London I had invested in some big-girl professional work clothes and now they were damp with sweat as I huffed along.  I tried to ask directions from three passersby and they looked at me like I was insane and scurried off.

Penultimate Day in Ethi

My penultimate day in Ethiopia.  There, I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Today I would be observing a training and a women’s group.  But first, I settled up my canteen bill, handed in the Chinese dongle that had never helped me get an Internet connection, and returned the ancient Nokia I had been given the first day.  For once, my age was an advantage with technology, since I had learned to text using the ABC system way back in 2005.  Pity the millennial or younger generation who has only known smart phone qwerty keypads with autocorrect.

I could receive messages but the phone wouldn’t send them.  I could see a queue of failed sends attempted by previous users.  I also received various messages in Tigrinya.  I will never know if the message below was important.  Had I missed an incredible two-for-one offer on camel milk?

Maki sent me several messages and I responded to her via my iphone.  Then she would reply to the Nokia. It was a little confusing.

I did some packing and noticed that my mattress was covered with this fabric.

I stared at it.  Why were there kangaroos all over my mattress and why had I not noticed before?  I had been here a week.  I can only posit that it was an example of how the mind narrows down when it is overwhelmed with too much new stimulus.

It could also be related to what I call “the gauze effect.”  I have often gone on a trip to a developing country thinking I’ll write blog posts every day, or fill my hours drafting a novel, or learn French because I’ll have lots of time on my hands.

I do none of that.  In fact I do nothing much, because the pace of life is so slow, the heat so intense, and getting the smallest task done feels like a major miracle.  It feels like a soft cotton gauze has settled over your head.  You can’t think, you can’t act.  Making a photocopy feels like a big accomplishment worthy of being rewarded with a nap.

I attended a two-hour training on attachment in the morning that was given by our expert psychotherapist to employees of other NGOs working with Eritrean refugees.  Several young women had brought their very cute babies, and I thought it must be a nice bonus for them that they got paid to learn about child development and attachment on the job.

A rooster had flown over the wall of our compound and was crowing incessantly in an alcove outside the training room.  Suddenly I saw one of the cooks stride purposefully past the door and the rooster gave an alarming “Bwuauck!”  We would be having poultry for dinner tonight.

After lunch we rode to one of the camps and hung around waiting for clients to show up.  One by one, women arrived, some with children.  CVT has a childcare tukul but the babies stay in the groups with their mothers.

About 15 minutes past the hour there were 10 women assembled and the facilitator began.  Thankfully she didn’t ask me to speak, she just told them who I was and I gave the same introduction as the rest of them: name, age, marital status, number of children, and how long I had been in Ethiopia.  “One week,” I said, smiling. And I thought, pained,  And I get to leave tomorrow, while none of you knows when she’ll return home or be resettled, if ever.

The facilitator translated here and there but mainly it was similar to the boys’ group the previous day; I knew enough to get the gist of what was going on.  All of the women were married with children and dressed in traditional clothing except one.  She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt and had her hair in a glamorous up-do.  At first she sat slouched down in her chair with her arms crossed as if to say, “I’m not one of you.”  But as the group went on and the women shared she sat up and leaned forward.  It was a remarkable transformation, and a great example of the power of group counseling.



Toxic Clouds, Toxic Smoke

I had been asked to say a few words of greeting from Center for Victims of Torture headquarters to a counseling group of 12-14-year-old Eritrean refugee boys.  This was daunting, not only because I had laryngitis but because, well, what could I say that could possibly be of interest to them?  I stood up and rasped out a few words about how we in Minnesota do our best to tell their stories to the world, and thanked for allowing me to sit in on their group because it would help me raise more funding so we can work with more refugees.  I hoped that last part would actually be true.

The boys watched me with curiosity as I spoke, probably wondering why I sounded like a chain-smoking man.  My words were translated into Tigrinya, then they nodded and smiled at me and turned their attention to the young counselor who would facilitate the group.  I had expected them to maybe feel self-conscious with me there, but I think they forgot all about me.

I love kids of all ages.  Each age has its adorable and unpleasant aspects, but I couldn’t find anything unpleasant about these kids.  Like boys this age anywhere, they were awkward and gangly.  Some were tall for their age and had deep voices while others were puny and squeaky voiced.  Some had peach fuzz on their upper lips.  They slouched, hunched over, spread their legs wide, and tipped their chairs back until I wanted to lunge forward and say, “Don’t do that—you’ll fall over!”  I thought how difficult it must be go through puberty in their situation.  Many if not all of these boys were on their own, without any family members.  They lived in groups with an adult caregiver in very small houses with no privacy.

When my son was 12, if anyone asked him how he was feeling he would have rolled his eyes, made a joke, and changed the subject.  These boys showed no reluctance to talk about feelings and how to manage them.  In fact, they took the group very seriously.  As I wrote in a previous post, this was the third of three groups designed as a kind of “coping bootcamp” for young Eritreans who were at risk of suicide or of leaving the camps in a futile search for a better life.

None of what was said was translated, but it didn’t have to be.  There were visual aids (complete with misspellings) and I was pretty familiar with the concepts being taught by now.

For instance: it’s normal to feel angry or hopeless considering what they’ve been through; feelings come and go, like clouds, so usually if you wait they will change; emotions can be managed by talking, exercise, meditation, etc.  The facilitator had already taught these concepts in the first two meetings and was drilling the boys about them.  They were totally engaged, almost all raised their hands enthusiastically to answer, spoke gravely, and discussed points of clarity with each other seriously and respectfully.  I may have imagined it or may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me as if they treated the information as if it was a matter of life and death.

I was a bit relieved when the group ended and the boys spilled outside to share some ambasha, a traditional bread.  You could say that branding is literally baked into everything CVT does.

People have asked me how the food was in Ethiopia.  It was really good.  CVT has a staff canteen where two cooks serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I paid about $11 for an entire week of meals.  There was just enough—no seconds, no gorging—you wouldn’t gain weight if you lived there for a long time.

Here is one of the cooks, heavily pregnant, baking ambasha over an open fire on the roof because the power was out (I always asked my coworkers if it was okay for me to take and use their photos).  She had used plastic bags to get the fire started, over my protests.  Note the can of paint nearby, probably highly flammable.  Employee health and safety have a long way to go in Ethiopia.

Losing My Voice

The day I was supposed to give the second half of my presentation, I awoke with no voice.  I couldn’t force out even one husky syllable.  I don’t know if I had a cold, or if it was all the smoke and chemicals, or both.  regardless, this was going to be awkward.

I wrote, “I Have Laryngitis” on a piece of paper.  Then I thought no, they might not know what that was, so I wrote another that said, “I Have Lost my Voice.”  Then I thought dang, we are always talking about giving refugees a voice to speak up for their rights.  What if they think I am making some kind of bizarre white western yuppie artistic statement?

People did give me strange looks when I showed them my sign, but what else could I do?  I slid a note over the breakfast table to Maki: “I can’t give a presentation with no voice.”  She nodded and shrugged.  Did she think I was faking it to get out of doing the second half because I had worried the first one hadn’t gone over well?

“You can go with Yonas to get your camp pass this morning,” she said.  Yonas, not his real name, is our loggie.  “Loggie” is shorthand for logistician.  I nodded and followed Yonas to the truck.

The power and the generator were both off, so the wireless router was going “BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP …” You get the picture.  It was loud and annoying and no one else seemed to notice it.

I had planned to force out some words but didn’t think I could make myself heard above the beeping.  I showed Yonas my note about having no voice and he smiled, nodded, and proceeded to talk to me very loudly.  Ethiopians are normally soft spoken.  I assumed he was trying to be heard over the beeping but he kept it up after we’d left the compound.  I’ve noticed this the other times I’ve had laryngitis; for some reason people seem to think you are hard of hearing.

We went into two camps and called on the administrators with the agency that manages them.  They don’t let just anyone into the camps, for good reason.  Refugees are vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation because they tend to be desperate for solutions to their uncertain plight.

In each office, Yonas and I sat across from the official and the two of them made small talk.  Yonas did all the talking.  I smiled and nodded deferentially to everything.  Yonas explained how I was a CVT employee who was here to observe the programs, that I had come from the US, that I was a fundraiser  who was here for a week.  The official would nod slowly at each statement and then there would be a very long pause as he or she scrutinized the forms Yonas had submitted weeks earlier.  They appeared to relish the power of being able to keep you in suspense as to whether they would grant the pass or not.  Finally, just when I was sure they would stamp “REJECTED” on my pass, they stamped “APPROVED” and that was that.

If I make it sound like Ethiopia was dreadful, that’s not my intention.  So I had a sore throat and lost my voice.  So what?  The thousands of refugees in these camps had lost their homes, their families, their peace of mind, and their hope.  I was so grateful for the opportunity to experience where we work and what we do first hand.

I can’t and wouldn’t show photos of refugees.  You know, there’s that whole thing about treating people like they’re animals in a zoo.  And the thought of posting photos of people online—people who have no Internet access and so will never even know their photo is out there—feels wrong.

Here’s some CVT signage.  It may look depressing but it’s hard to keep it looking good with the mud and rain.  The good news is that CVT has planted a lot of trees, which makes our corner of the camps welcoming, and the fencing is to protect them from goats.  The illustrations are “before” and “after” counseling.

Feelings on a Stick

Day two of my work week in Ethiopia.  I was sitting in on the second day of a training for our staff.  It was interesting enough, but as I wrote it all had to be interpreted into Tigrinya, and the Eritrean staff’s questions had to be interpreted into English, then the answers back into Tigrinya, and on and on.  I was super impressed by our interpreter, who must have been exhausted by the end of the day.  He started every interpretation with a word that sounded like “selezzie,” which I assumed must mean, “he says.”  I also noticed there were certain words that must not have a Tigrinyan word because they jumped out at me in English when he was speaking Tigrinya.  I could understand why “name tag” and “photo copy” might not have a Tigrinyan translation, but “silence” or “responsibilities?”

We worked our way through the manual that counsellors would use to run the groups.  One exercise involved everyone drawing a face on a circle of white paper on a stick to show how he/she was feeling.  You can’t see the faces because everyone except one counsellor drew them very, very small.  Well, and because the iphone takes crappy photos in low light.  It was like the faces drawn by the counsellors were floating inside big white balloons.  When it was my turn to show my face, everyone laughed because it fit the white circle.  I will never know what that was about.

During one of the longer interpretations, my mind started to drift.  I was tired due to living through The Night of the Rat.  I began to do what I usually do in meetings to keep myself looking engaged; I counted how many men there were, then how many women, and calculated the percent that were women.  Then I looked around and guessed how old each person was.  Back home, I would normally calculate what percent of the group were overweight, had blue eyes, or were gay, but in Ethiopia those were non-existent or hidden attributes.

I looked down at my feet as though I was concentrating closely on what was being said and thought, “Dang, I need a pedicure.  I wonder if I’ll have time to give myself one later, or should work on my presentation more, or take a nap ….”

I had been asked at the last minute to train our staff in Ethiopia on proposal writing.  I would have one the one-hour after-lunch slots on Wednesday and Thursday.

This was a great opportunity but also a tall order because I felt I couldn’t train people on how to write proposals without backing up and explaining things like, how do you find donors to apply to?  Who gives away the most money? How do you choose among many different funding opportunities?  What kind of skills to you need to raise funds?  And so on.

I had created an outline offline, then spent hours trying to email it to Maki so she could review it.  I considered loading it onto a flash drive, printing it out, or just handing her my laptop before I finally got an internet connection.  We wasted so much time trying, and trying again and again to get a connection.

During our morning break, I finally got to offload the sweets I had brought all the way from Holland and Austria.  I had stroopwaffle and tiramisu cake and a strudel, all hermetically sealed in plastic and probably loaded with preservatives because they were none the worse for wear except for being a little smashed.

The cook cut them up into small pieces and they were circulated with the popcorn and coffee.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this treats, and one of the youngest counsellors came over and asked me what the tiramisu was.  When I told him, and said it was Italian, he looked at me skeptically.  “I thought I knew all the Italian words for foods,” he said.  “Lasagna, spaghetti, linguine,” he rattled off his Italian food vocabulary.  “Teer-ah-mee-soo,” he repeated a few times to himself, then wandered away to find more.

Cool Scotland

I am sitting on a big bed in a big bedroom in a big house in Scotland.  It’s so quiet, so clean, so cold.  It’s August 6 and there’s frost on the windows.  But the view out my window in the greenest green you can imagine.  Well, you don’t have to imagine it, here’s a photo from yesterday afternoon, when the high reached 60F.

I’m at Lynn’s house; I’ve written about our travels together many times.  I have sunk into a routine of working, eating, reading, walking, more work, more eating, and watching Dickensian, a brilliant BBC TV series that jumbles together all the Dickens characters into one murder mystery.  I don’t know why it never made it to the states.

Europe, Ethiopia, and England seem like dreams.  The episode I wrote about in my last post has already morphed from panic-stricken flurry of drama into something that will make a good story some day.

After returning from Lalibela, I put in a week of work in the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border and in our offices in Shire.  I’ve written about the “sensitizations” we carry out to tell people about the effects of torture and trauma on mental health and what we can do to help them heal.

I also sat in on a two-day training in which all of our counsellors were trained in on a new group manual for adolescents.  That probably sounds like a lot of gobbledegook.  There are a lot of adolescents who have fled from Eritrea.  They’re there without their families.  They don’t know when they’ll ever see their families again.  They attend school in the camps and there are recreational facilities where they can play football and so on but in general they feel hopeless and like most teenagers, they’re restless.  So they leave the camps and try to get to Europe.  These are those people you see in the news who are being fleeced by human traffickers, only to drown in rubber rafts in the Mediterranean Sea.  The lucky ones make it to Europe or Israel, where they again live in camps.

So there have been spates of suicides and suicide attempts and the groups for adolescents aim to prevent that and teach kids how to cope with the uncertain situations they live in.

I’ve written about the content already.  This staff training was really good, despite the fact that it all had to be translated, which made it twice as long as if our Kenyan psychotherapist could have just said it once, in English.  It was also despairingly hot and stuffy in the room, and why oh why did they keep one of the Landcruisers running right outside the window, so the exhaust fumes wafted into our room?

We had a break mid morning during which we were served the strongest coffee known to mankind and popcorn.  Yes, popcorn, which happens to be my favourite snack.  (“Counsellors,” “favourite,”—I am working on two grant proposals to British funders right now so my documents are set to UK English.)

This was also my chance to catch the cleaning lady and stop her from spraying poison and air freshener all over my room.  She smiled and gestured as if to say how this was her job, how important the poison was to control the rats, how wonderful the Country Peach air freshener would smell.  I smiled back, trying to convey that under no circumstances did I want this shit in my room.  The toxic-smelling floor cleaner she mopped around was bad enough, thank you.  I would take my chances with the rat sans poison.  She smiled in return and I’m pretty sure she went ahead and did what she’d been trained to do once I was back in the training room.

There were 25 counsellors in the training, and almost all of them were millennials.  They dressed like American millennials, in skinny jeans and Converse and T-shirts.  But unlike their American counterparts would have done, there were no cell phones in sight.  They all had cell phones.  Was it out of respect for Sandra, the trainer?  Or was it because they couldn’t get a signal or wifi anyway?