Judith Twala, MA, is a psychotherapist/trainer with the Center for Victims of Torture in Dadaab, Kenya. Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp in the northeast region of Kenya, close to the Somali border. Most refugees in this complex of camps are from Somalia with others from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries.
Note: While this story includes graphic details that might be disturbing to readers, it also notes the hope and healing our work gives to survivors.
“Your help to me is mandatory because if you do not help me I will die.” Those were the first words from Oba, a young Congolese man who joined one of our counseling groups.
I was the clinician around when Oba needed extra support and the case manager asked me to support him on individual counseling. Oba appreciated the way CVT staff handled him, and when I listened to him, his story really touched me. I asked him if we could share his story. I assured him of hiding his identification to protect him completely and he accepted. He gave me a story he had written in Swahili about his painful experiences and I wrote it in English.
“My name is Oba,* from the Northern part of Democratic Republic of Congo where tribal differences brought about war. In this area there are more than five groupings of gunmen. The aim of these gunmen is to kill citizens and to fight the government but their main goal is to torture, leave citizens feeling helpless and vulnerable, to kill and disempower people. They also loot property, including houses, slaughter people like animals.”
This was the most touching story to me at that time and I kept wondering why human beings can cause such atrocities to fellow human beings. Luckily enough that day I had a scheduled Skype supervision session with my Clinical Advisor, Paul Orieny. At least I was able to share the story which helped to reduce the secondary trauma. He supported me with more ideas on how to better support Oba.
“[The gunmen] were operating even at night and they sent us out of the houses –so many people — and took us along Tanganyika River,” said Oba. “They took one person at a time and butchered them as we cried for their mercy. I felt so powerless and vulnerable as I watched my father being cut into pieces.”
When Oba narrated about the slaughter and cannibalizing of his dad, his facial expressions changed. I noted his loss of voice — a kind of choking with words and trembling and tears in his eyes. What made his story most difficult for me was to comprehend feeding on human being flesh and being forced to participate in the death and desecration of a loved one. I also found myself wondering about the psychological effect of forced cannibalism, which many communities is looked at as sorcery and demonic. Oba told me how he screamed in pain at his father’s death and that he felt that he could never forgive the men who killed his father.
Oba also told how the gunmen separated the children from their mothers, killed the children and then tormented the mothers before killing them. These acts are designed to separate people from their families and communities, marking individuals forever as cannibals, rapists and child-killers, and ultimately breaking down the community. As a mother myself, the act of separating mothers from their children is very painful. Children look up at their mothers as their source of help, comfort and love and being separated from them must be so traumatizing to both the women and the innocent children.
Oba continued his story. “The government officials traced us and after discovering where we had been held hostage, they threw explosives and so many people died there including some of the perpetrators. As I tried to escape, some of the explosives landed on my foot and I got serious injuries. Most of us continued running for their lives regardless of the injuries they sustained and this is how I came to Kenya.”
Oba explained to me how these events took away his desire to live in this world. “I still wonder if these gunmen were in their own senses or they were operating under what power. I hated God for abandoning me and for allowing all these ugly things to happen. I wanted to die more than anything else in life. What was left for me in this world anyway after losing my parents and five siblings? I get nightmares and often my heart beats fast when I remember these things.”
Fortunately, Oba was referred to CVT. He joined a counseling group and has found his will to live again. The group that Oba attended is over, though CVT is still providing follow-ups and home visits. The group comprised of young Congolese men who were all torture and war survivors with some of the most unbelievable stories I have ever heard in my trauma work. The most outstanding challenge that the group members faced was lack of basic things like shelter because of shortages in Dadaab shelter providers. The other major challenge was that all of the men had gone through so much and most of them kept sobbing throughout the difficult moments sessions. Counselors and trainers, however, supported the group members by normalizing their feelings and administering simple relaxation exercises and hence were able to continue with sessions.
Oba was a pillar in his counseling group. He never missed a session and supported others in the group. “I enjoy and feel dignified when CVT counselors visit me at home and I feel I have a family too and warm people who think and care about me. I am happy I came to CVT where staff treat me so well and listen to me without hurrying me. CVT is a warm place, I feel secure here, I enjoy sitting under the trees and the glass of cold water you give me. Since I joined the group, suicidal thoughts have gone and I have learnt from other group members to be hopeful and grateful that I am alive. CVT has brought me back to life because I was like a dead person. I have joined a youth training course because I have to live and to be positive. I wish the groups sessions can continue forever because this is all we need.” I, as a psychotherapist, can foresee a future for him, and I believe he does too.
* The survivor’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.