Co-authors Aderajew Keleb and Dejen Yewhalaw are counselors at CVT Tigray.
Photo: Gathering for the 26 June activities
June 26 is one of the most moving days to be a staff member at CVT. This is the day that we commemorate the strength and courage of torture survivors all over the world, and we raise awareness in the hopes of ending torture globally. The staff and the communities where we work invest deeply in this event, and the impact is apparent.
In Ethiopia, CVT Tigray held its annual commemoration with a full week of activities leading up to the day itself. CVT Tigray operates in two camps, Adi Harush and Mai Ayni, and the Ethiopian and Eritrean staff in each camp form a committee months in advance in order to plan an agenda tailored to the communities in their camp.
Between June 19 and 27, CVT staff conducted a series of “coffee corner” discussions across the different zones in both camps, with 45-50 people from the neighborhood participating in each. The sessions aimed to raise community awareness of torture and get people to support survivors. To do this, they focused on the UN definition and purposes of torture, different means and impacts of torture including physical and emotional trauma, and ways of supporting torture survivors including CVT services in the camp. Participants were very engaged, and we later found many torture survivors coming to our healing centers for services.
On the evening of June 25, the Adi Harush team hosted a march and candle-lighting ceremony. CVT staff marched from the CVT healing center holding banners with the themes of the day accompanied by a CVT vehicle, in which a CVT staff announced the purpose of the march and other upcoming activities for June 26. The march covered all five zones – we could see many people coming out of their houses to listen and to ask more about the event. Most important of all, it was fascinating to see many non-staff persons join us in the march for some distance.
We stopped at an open space in the camp where people usually gather for events. Slowly, people started to join us as we waited for the dusk to get darker. We delivered the messages of the day and the need from everyone to support survivors of torture. Staff shared facts about torture and Bereket Tadesse, associate trainer, shared about CVT’s role in working towards supporting survivors. Then we distributed candles and everyone held hands together, lighting the candles from one another in silence in support of torture survivors throughout the world. We concluded the event by reminding participants of the different activities planned for the next day to show support for survivors of torture.
Meanwhile, for the week prior to June 26 in Mai Ayni, panel discussions about the impacts of torture were held among the five zone leaders of the camp, who play a great role in raising awareness about trauma and torture and doing outreach to survivors.
On June 26, CVT staff set up the gathering hall prior to the participants’ arrival by scattering greens on the floor, which is traditional for a celebration. Medhanye Alem, associate psychotherapist/trainer, CVT Tigray, delivered a speech and a message from Curt Goering, CVT executive director, saying that “we have chosen to use the theme ‘Life Does Bloom after Torture’ to commemorate June 26 this year. It is for the brave survivors who find the strength to step out of the darkness of their past and bloom into their new lives. We see you, we care about you, and we support you.”
The invited guest Yamah Massaley, associate protection officer (community-based), UNHCR Ethiopia, also delivered a speech. She said that “Torture is the worst experience that can happen to all human kind. Let alone torture, if a child is grown up being told that he is useless at home, the child will consider himself as worthless or someone stupid at later stage. It is everyone’s responsibility to support people who have been through torture or any other atrocity.”
Following this, staff explained how CVT is working to restore the lives of survivors, using visual aids to explain the major activities we use in the group process, such as the table legs exercise, the cognitive triangle, the tree exercise and the ladder exercise.
In addition, CVT had announced a poetry competition ahead of time, inviting people to submit poems related to supporting survivors of torture. A team of CVT judges selected three winning poems based on writing skill and connection to the event. The winning poets read their poems on stage to the attentive audience. The poems focused on the inhumanity of torture, how the survivors lives became difficult, and on urging the community to stand against torture and help survivors.
In Mai Ayni an art exhibition was also held, with entries made by refugee community members and former CVT clients. Drawings related to the themes of torture and recovery were presented as an exhibition in order to raise awareness about torture and its impact on mental health. All attendants of the commemoration participated in voting for the top entries of this exhibition.
Mai Ayni also held a Q&A competition that aimed to raise awareness about the impact of trauma and torture on mental health and to lower stigma. The competition was among six participants of the day led by Shewit Gebreselassie, CVT counselor.
In Adi Harush, Girmay Abreha, associate psychotherapist/trainer, delivered the message from Curt Goering, and a miming competition, led by Solyana Gebru and Haftom Abraha, CVT counselors in Adi Harush, was held in which two teams of three members competed. Each team was given phrases related to torture and asked to act them out and let the event attendants guess what the phrases were. People found it a fun activity, with phrases including ‘say no to torture,’ ‘survivor of torture,’ and ‘let’s support victims.’
The next activity was the “Big Shoe” competition, in which teams of four strap their feet onto two large pieces of wood and attempt to walk and have a race. This activity aims to transmit a message that working together smoothly with the community and other organizations is very important to help survivors of torture.
Participants in the competitions who took first, second and third place were presented with a reward onstage to celebrate their efforts and to reinforce and encourage them for the talent they have. All participants of the competitions were thanked for being part of the program.
Every year, the CVT teams in Mai Ayni and Adi Harush work closely with local bands and performance groups to help create a program which draws both from traditional culture and reflects the themes of torture, trauma and recovery. These bands and traditional Tigrigna dancers played music between each of the activities. This kept the mood celebratory while the songs were composed to help reinforce important messages to the participants about torture and mental health.
In both camps the events culminated with a short drama presented by refugee community residents who are part of the performance group. The concept of the drama in each camp was prepared with the collaboration and supervision of CVT staff to ensure that it would be relevant without being triggering for community members.
In Mai Ayni, the drama was about one torture survivor who had a physical disability resulting from his torture experience and the stigma he and one of his supporters face from the members of the community due to lack of awareness. In the end the community learns more and they apologize for what they did after knowing his story and understanding the difficulty he is having.
In Adi Harush, the drama depicted the act of torture for the purpose of punishment and getting information. The effects of the experience were also highlighted. Then, the protagonist is seen getting support from fellow community members and finally is linked to CVT services.
Overall the dramas carried the message that a survivor of torture should not be stigmatized – survivors need community care and support in order to heal from their physical and emotional wounds. The dramas caught the attention of the audience, who showed their support for the content and the actors via clapping their hands and verbal reinforcements.
CVT’s work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.