Write to Life - Body Maps

When I was researching the PEN anthology, Another Sky: Voices of Conscience from Around the World (Profile Books), I came across Cheikh Kone’s horrifying account of his time spent in an Australian holding centre for refugees. Kone, a journalist forced to flee the Ivory Coast, remained in detention for three years and wrote of the dehumanising effect of being reduced to a number. His descriptions of fellow inmates mutilating themselves, some sewing up their lips in despair, the suicide attempts, children living behind razor wire and the constant crying, has stayed with me ever since. Kone survived by writing about his experiences.

The cathartic effects of writing are well known. During my time as Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, I became aware of how detained writers often found solace in being allowed to put pen to paper in their prison cells and how some used writing as an escape – a way to cope with isolation and torture. Others wrote about their experiences on their release.

Last year, I joined Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life programme as a creative writing mentor.  I was immediately struck by the resilience and humour of the group. Working in a safe environment can help torture survivors turn horrifying experiences and memories into poems, essays, short stories and journalism that shed some light on their suffering but also help them to deal with the problems of exile and asylum.

Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture) was founded by Helen Bamber in 1985, to provide survivors with medical treatment, counselling and therapy and to document evidence of torture. From its humble beginnings, situated in two rooms in the former National Temperance Hospital in Hampstead, the Foundation rapidly grew and now has five centres in the UK. The London headquarters is currently housed in a large purpose built treatment centre in Finsbury Park.

Award winning playwright, Sonja Linden evidently had the therapeutic effects of writing in mind when she set up the London-based Write to Life programme eleven years ago, offering the Foundation’s clients the opportunity to come to terms with their past. The group was initially comprised of four clients and two volunteers and Linden quickly demonstrated how writing can help a survivor better cope with the difficulties of adapting to an unfamiliar language and an alien cultural landscape.

Film-maker and novelist Sheila Hayman took over from Linden in 2001 and expanded the group’s horizons. They began to read at the Edinburgh Literary Festival and attended the Arvon Foundation’s residential courses.

Write to Life is now comprised of around eighteen clients, all referred by counsellors who recognise that, for some, writing can help the healing process. Six unpaid mentors meet with the group fortnightly and take it in turns to lead creative writing workshops. They also mentor individuals, many of whom are journalists, performers or poets.  Group members are now regularly invited to read their work at a variety of festivals and, through their writing, are keen to correct the misconceptions and myths that often surround the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. They also serve as ambassadors for Freedom from Torture’s valuable work.  Last year, a number of them participated in ‘Feast on the Bridge’, which involved writing about a memorable meal, cooking it and then reading about it to passersby at the Thames Festival.

This year I helped put together the eighth anthology of the group’s work, entitled Body Maps. Most of the refugee stories we read about are published in the media and a lot of it is negative. But the stories we hear at Write to Life are about the emotional scars of torture and the struggles of building a new life. Many torture survivors who have fled to the UK live in a terrifying limbo – acutely aware that each morning they wake up could be their last day in safety. For some, if they are sent back they face the prospect of further torture and even death.

The members of the group have only their states of exile in common. Over time, the exchanging of stories has helped them to bond. One writer poignantly summarised the overwhelming relief of finding asylum in a safe country by comparing herself to the giant hand of Atacama:

My hand is my sign

Revealing who I am, where I’m going

My existence, my new life.

Most of them have had to contend with the pain of leaving their friends and family behind. Before each workshop we sit down and share a meal provided by a mentor and this simple act helps the group to feel like they are part of an extended family.

All are remarkably eloquent when describing their experiences. Another writer I worked with recalled the abruptness of having to leave her country in a poem, revealing how she ran out of the house without packing anything, “even my sanity”, and her sadness at how the country she once called home had become “a butcher’s den.”

Scars from burns and beatings are common. Many of Freedom from Torture’s clients have been subject to falaka – being beaten on the soles of the feet – which temporarily causes difficulty with walking as well as being extremely painful. Torturers favour it because it doesn’t leave any physical signs of abuse. A number have been raped. HIV, fertility problems and pelvic inflammatory conditions are extremely common.

For one, the sound of a door slamming provokes the bitter memory of a prison door opening: “The noise is unbearable” she writes because “You know they are going to take you for torture”

Every year, the Foundation’s doctors, psychologists and counsellors document evidence of the impact of torture on individuals by preparing Medico Legal Reports (MLR). These reports, commissioned by legal representatives, are submitted to the Home Office to support a torture survivor’s asylum claim, or are presented as expert testimony in court at an appeal if the individual’s application has previously been turned down.

During the production of a report, clients are asked to give a full history of their ill-treatment. Scars will be scrutinised and the doctors check for other injuries such as badly healed fractures, lacerations and burns, damaged ligaments or chronic bone infection. They also document evidence of severe psychological problems experienced by survivors.

Inevitably it is a distressing experience to have to revisit and one of our writers described the alienating effect it had on her in the following passage.

I tried to speak, but no sound came out. My mind had lost all touch with the events that must have caused some of the scars he found. I could just hear him continue, “Cigarette burns, sharp object...” It was as if he was talking about someone else.

The emotional scars of torture may fade with time but they never fully disappear. The counselling clients receive at Freedom from Torture helps to ease the psychological pain. The Write to Life programme allows survivors a voice and gives imagination a free rein. Many continue to battle against repression, racism or other prejudices. But their courage shines through their writing and pays testament to the strength of the human spirit. The annual anthology enables them to share their experiences with the outside world and provides us with the opportunity to celebrate their extraordinary courage.

You can buy copies of Body Maps (£5.00) by emailing digital@freedomfromtorture.org

In 2010, 1,726 torture survivors were referred to Freedom from Torture for help from 77 countries, including Iran (293 new referrals), Afghanistan (159), Sri Lanka (135), Democratic Republic of the Congo (82), Turkey (82), Pakistan (71), Sudan (62), Nigeria (60), Cameroon (58), Uganda (56), Iraq (52)