Subject: Age: East Timorese torture victims share their pain

The Age

February 15 2003

East Timorese torture victims share their pain

No magic wand, but it helps to talk, says a psychotherapist. Jill Jolliffe reports from Dili.

A small group of East Timorese ex-prisoners listens, transfixed, to the text of the UN's 1987 Convention on Torture.

For the first time they learn that the people who tortured them are considered criminals. The listeners break into broad smiles and give thumbs-up signals.

Between them they represent years of imprisonment and violence. Two women of different generations have been gang-raped by Indonesian soldiers, one in 1977, the other in 1997. Most have suffered electric shocks under interrogation, some have had fingernails torn out and one has had his head split open with a machete.

They arrived at this three-day workshop for survivors of torture with an air of suspicion, but learned that sharing experiences was liberating.

Psychotherapist Viet Nguyen-Gilham, of the International Catholic Migrations Commission, ran the workshop. She does not pretend to offer torture survivors a magic wand, but hopes to make some difference. In coming months she and her Timorese team will begin work in the countryside.

Filomeno Gomes, 61, was jailed and tortured in 1988, 1990 and 1991 for his nationalist beliefs. All these years later, he rarely sleeps, and suffers from nightmares.

"It helps to talk to others," he says. "The worst thing for me is that our Government has been informed of the situation of ex-prisoners, but has done nothing."

It is almost three years since the international community intervened here, yet only now is the widespread problem of torture being addressed seriously. It affects every aspect of life in contemporary East Timor, where anger is quick to boil over and violence is frequently met with violence.

Dr Nguyen-Gilham's strategy is to put people in touch with their feelings.

"I tend to work from a model of strength and resilience," she says, noting that UN and church attitudes have contributed to repression.

"Two years on from UN entry (the slogan) 'Let's build the new nation' hasn't allowed people to go back over what they suffered during these 24 years," she says. "People have been taught to forget the past and to forgive, and the result is that people's feelings are frozen."

Participants have been selected for their desire to help others as well as themselves, as part of the solution. Each person counselled in this group setting will later become a counsellor, initiating groups with an emphasis on treatment in a community setting.

East Timorese collaborators are a key to success. They present the information, lead discussion and support participants if they become distressed.

Maria da Silva, 49, was arrested in 1977 after Indonesian intelligence agents learned she and some women friends were helping resistance fighters. She was driven to a barracks, and led with one of the other women into an interrogation room full of soldiers. "We denied everything," she says. "We were then undressed and gang-raped, punched and burnt with cigarettes."

Portuguese Bishop Jose Ribeiro tried to enter the prison, but soldiers stopped him.

Ms da Silva's ordeal, including three months of solitary confinement, continued until her release 17 months later.

She will testify next week for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first public hearing on ex-prisoners.


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