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Picking Up The Pieces: Survivors Of Torture Persevere


Survivors of torture may be left with deep psychological wounds that can linger long after their physical injuries have healed. Even so, some manage to carry on despite their horrifying experiences.

— By definition, people who survive torture are resilient. Still, they may be left with deep psychological wounds that can linger long after their physical injuries have healed.

Even so, some survivors of torture manage to carry on despite their horrifying experiences.

In Kenya in 1995, the government started to round up suspected dissidents. Taiga Wanyanja was arrested, and accused of trying to overthrow the regime. He was sent to a series of detention camps.

"Oh, the worst is being isolated," recalled Wanyanja. "The second one is, you know, the torture. They were using electrical cords, you know, putting them in my private parts. You know, they're using those electrical cords to paralyze your body, and that kind of thing. So when I remember that, it is really terrifying."

Wanyanja was held for more than a year. He says he was tortured countless times.

Wanyanja says early on he figured out the purpose of the torture.

"To break your mind, to break your body so that you cannot really survive," Wanyanja said. "But the moment, you know, you enter into it, you say, now I'm going to accept, to have that will to survive. And that's exactly what came into my heart, and I said, I have to survive by all means. And that's what I did. I came out."

But when he got out, he was a wreck.

"It was terrible," said Wanyanja. "I had problems, you know, I needed a lot of medication. Then thereafter I also needed some kind of psychological assistance in terms of counseling, to enable me to come back to the real life."

Wanyanja was recently in San Diego to visit Survivors of Torture International, a local non-profit that helps survivors from dozens of different countries recover from trauma.

Deana Gullo is the agency's clinical director. She says torture survivors often have a lot of psychological issues.

"Severe depression, maybe some suicidal ideation, severe anxiety, maybe some difficulty sleeping," Gullo pointed out. "Many people come to us and report that they sleep maybe a few hours a night, if they sleep at all. Flashbacks."

Majur Malou comes from Sudan. He was a college student when a coup overthrew the government. Malou and some of his friends protested when the new regime instituted Islamic law. They were detained in a military prison, and beaten around the clock.

Malou says he struggled for months after he was released. He was plagued by nightmares.

Eventually, he came to the U.S. as a refugee. Malou got counseling and other medical services at Survivors of Torture. He was also given some useful tips.

"One of the things I learned, you know, you keep yourself busy, because if you are lonely, the whole memories will come back again," Malou said. "The way I manage it myself is keeping myself busy, with school, and with job, and making a lot of friends. And if you don't make friends, that's another area that, you know, you will not be healed."

At first, Malou was clinging to the idea of going back to Sudan and getting revenge on his torturers. But he gave up those thoughts when he decided to forgive.

"Having the sense of forgiveness," Malou said. "Forgiving those who have done something bad to me, or those who have tortured me. You know, I had that sense of forgiving them, and I think that also helped me to really do well."

Malou gets a big boost from his work. He runs a San Diego agency that helps newly arrived refugees get on their feet.

For Malou, the nightmares have stopped. He's happy and well-adjusted to his new life. But he doesn't forget what happened to him.

"I think about it, because it will never go away," stressed Malou. "As long as I live, it will not go away."

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement estimates there are a half million survivors of torture and war-related trauma in the country.

Last year alone, San Diego-based Survivors of Torture International helped 275 local refugees.

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