Dec. 1, 2008

Speakers address attempts to heal the bodies and spirits<br />of torture victims

A Tibetan monk -- a renowned artist whose work had been displayed in leading museums throughout China -- was imprisoned for writing poetry that was critical of the Chinese political regime and charged with representing the views of an insurgent group.

After being beaten and badly burned on his hands, the monk escaped to India and then New York City, where he entered the Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture.

Allen Keller, M.D., is founder and director of the program at New York University, which provides healthcare, social and legal services to victims of torture and their families. He shared the monk's story at a Nov. 20 panel discussion, "Survivors of Torture," before about 60 people in Kaufmann Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall.

"Torture has devastating health consequences both for the individual and the community," said Keller, noting that such treatment programs as Bellevue's are crucial for patients' re-assimilation into society. The program, begun in 1995, has treated about 3,000 men, women and children from around the world.

One problem with U.S. policies regarding torture, he said, is how rhetoric and discourse sanitize the acts. Referencing instances at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons, Keller noted that torture is often called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Even after a victim is released, however, his bodily reaction to stress remains active, so he continues to feel threatened and helpless, said panelist and psychiatrist Samantha Stewart, M.D., who detailed the physiological and psychological effects of torture and further explained its social consequences.

Depression is the most common ailment for patients in the Bellevue program, she noted. However, post-traumatic stress disorder, characterized by hyperarousal, lack of sleep, nightmares and memory flashbacks, and feelings of detachment, is more commonly publicized. In both cases, she said, treatment involves individual and group counseling that focuses on connecting patients with other people and helping them find meaning again.

Panelist Homer Venters, M.D., noted that some immigrant victims of torture are later granted political asylum; if they are released, they can provide information on the difficulties they encountered in the U.S. bureaucratic system. However, many immigrants are sent home, and their stories are never told.

He added that of great concern is the health of detainees, especially torture victims who experience trauma and are then thrust into another traumatic situation. When moved from one prison and helpless situation to another, the patient has difficulty recovering his health, mental stability and happiness.

Despite the harrowing political circumstances in which torture persists, the panelists expressed optimism for the future; Keller said he was hopeful that building awareness will lead to change.

The panelists also encouraged audience members to learn more about issues of torture and stay active: "Do not presume that if you do not speak out against torture, someone else will," Keller concluded.

The event was sponsored by a number of academic and student organizations, including the Department of History, the Latino Studies Program and Amnesty International.

Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.