Tortured for being a teacher

13th December 2013 at 00:00
Some men and women pay a very high price for wanting to give young people a better future. Adi Bloom talks to three Africans who had to flee their countries to survive

John wasn't asking for a lot. All he wanted was for his students to be able to come to school without being kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers.

For three years, John was a primary school teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "There were times when, all of a sudden, we would see groups of rebels, soldiers," he says. The rebels would descend on the school in a flash raid and kidnap as many as half the children in a class.

"You're just enjoying the class and, all of a sudden, you hear some noise, and everyone's told to sit down and not say anything," he says. "I just felt really incapable. I couldn't do anything. They would come into school and take children. Give them guns or do whatever they wanted to them.

"I don't like to say they became child soldiers. They weren't trained. They weren't asked to become soldiers. They were brainwashed. They were just given guns and told that if they washed themselves in water from the river, they would become invisible.

"I used to ask children what they wanted to be when they grew up. They wanted to become doctors, footballers, all sorts of things. Then the next thing you know, they've been taken away from their families."

John (not his real name: all the teachers quoted in this article asked to use pseudonyms, to protect family and friends back home) is a survivor of torture. He is one of hundreds - if not thousands - of teachers forced to seek asylum every year after being imprisoned and tortured in their home countries, often for little more than their belief in education and equal opportunities for all.

"Teachers have a real commitment to education and the opportunities that education brings us," says Jude Boyles, a psychological therapist for charity Freedom from Torture, which offers physical and emotional support to people such as John. "Often what's driven them into teaching reflects a wider commitment to human rights. They understand education gives people opportunities to make their mark in life."

It is not difficult to find examples across the world of teachers at the forefront of radical political movements, campaigning to overthrow autocratic regimes. In Zimbabwe over the past decade, members of the profession have often been the most vocal part of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Noel worked as a teacher in Cte d'Ivoire; he was also studying for a philosophy degree. "I'm proud - proud - to transmit knowledge to another person, a young person," he says. "Somebody who doesn't know anything. you can teach him to be a person in life, with a future."

As part of his philosophical studies, he read various political texts. "For me, you can't learn philosophy without being political," he says. And so he joined a student political organisation. "But in Africa, when you're in the political activities, you have to be careful. People come directly to your home to kill you or arrest you. You can say nothing against them."

Tata, too, combined teaching with political activism. He taught history at a secondary school in Cameroon, as well as at an evening school for adults; he was also studying for a law degree. "One blessed day, I was driving home," he says. "It was raining, and in Cameroon, when it's raining, it's torrential rain. A woman was by the road, carrying a bag on her head, with a sick child."

Tata drove the woman and her daughter to hospital. Then, realising that the woman was too poor to afford the hospital fees, he paid for the girl's treatment and medicine. That was his moment of political awakening. "If that child was my child, she would have been given treatment," he says. "Because this woman had no voice, no access, she couldn't have anything for her child. That was it."

He joined two political parties, distributing leaflets in the hope of creating a more just society. Then, in 2007, after three years of political activism, he was arrested. "I knew going into politics was dangerous," Tata says. "I knew it could lead to anything. But I didn't expect that level of brutality: the mental, physical and all forms of torture that they could give me. I didn't know how much they could do to destroy me."

`Someone had died'

The first time they came for Noel was in 1996. Then again in 1997. And again in 1998. "Prison in Africa - oh, I can't describe the torture inside," he says. He was held in a tiny cell, along with 10 or 15 other people, with no toilet or sanitation. "Every time I woke up, near to me someone had died. Five, 10 people had died. It's very, very horrible. Very horrible. I don't have words to explain. It's a very difficult life."

Dressed only in underwear, the prisoners were sent to work on a farm each day, labouring in the tropical heat. They were given only one meal, and the noise and crowded conditions meant they were often unable to sleep at night. "Sometimes we were starving, or we were not rested, then the guards put you in the sun and beat you," Noel says. "It's very, very hot. You sweat, you sweat, you sweat, but can't take a bath.

"Sometimes, when you were not dressed, they put you on the floor and you have to look at the sun for a long time, without covering your eyes. They beat you. I can't describe this situation. It's very, very painful."

Prisoners often turned on other prisoners, and violence and murder in cells was not uncommon. "You see everything but you can't say anything," Noel says. "You pray for your life, to be alive later."

"It's those horrendous conditions - sharing a tiny cell and having to urinate or defecate in a corner - that we often forget," Boyles says. "We talk about people being whipped or having their fingernails pulled out - the dramas. But, for many of my clients, just being in a toilet and the smell of urine brings immediate flashbacks of being in a cell."

John's story is slightly different. The 35-year-old was not political: he believed that his work as a primary school French teacher would help to transform his country. "In Congo, you have so many dialects - about 500," he says. "It's very important for children to speak French, so that they can communicate with other children who don't speak their dialects."

Nonetheless, he decided to approach an international radio station, so that he could tell a wider audience about the kidnappings taking place. "I didn't want to become a politician, or to have a position in government," he says. "I just wanted to raise awareness of things happening to our little ones."

He did this twice. After his second interview, he was arrested and taken to prison. "They felt that I was wanting to become a politician and take over the whole place," he says. "Which I didn't want to do."

John was in prison for two weeks. Then some friends from his church paid bribes to ensure his release. He was taken from his cell in the middle of the night and told to leave town immediately.

Painful memories

Noel's friends, too, initially negotiated his release from prison, only to find that he was rearrested. His eventual reprieve came from an unexpected source: the army stormed the prison, wresting control of it from the government. "One day, we heard a big, big noise," he says. "They broke all the doors and they told us, `Everybody's free now. Everybody out!'

"I was scared. I was scared that the government would send policemen for us. But the soldiers said, `If somebody stays here, we will kill him,' so everybody escaped."

A week later, there was a military coup d'tat. Noel left his family home and went to live in another, smaller town. There, he rejoined his political group. But they were constantly under threat and moved from town to town, occasionally retreating to the bush for cover.

Tata, too, was imprisoned on a number of occasions. "The final detention, there was no hope," he says. "They told me that was the end of the road - that I won't leave this place. I'm so grateful that I'm here now. I didn't know that I would ever have a life again."

His maternal uncle - "Bless him," Tata says - sacrificed his life's savings to secure his release. "The guards came and called for me," he says. "They said the person in charge wanted to see me.

"They take people like that and you never see them again. So I said, `Get out of my face. Just take my life right here.'"

Finally, the prison governor walked into Tata's cell and told him to come with him. Then he told him that he was letting him go. "I thought he was joking," Tata says. "I thought maybe there was another group of people waiting for me. Until I entered a car and it was driving, I was still not sure I had left."

He was dumped outside, where his uncle came to meet him. "He thinks I'm stupid for going into politics," Tata says. "He was not impressed. He told me I was a disappointment to my family." He pauses. "We don't talk now. We don't talk at all."

A condition of Tata's release was that he should leave the country immediately. Initially, he thought this was a joke. Dazed and traumatised, he was unable to register what it meant. "I didn't know the country I was going to. At the airport, they told me I was going to the UK. My head was blank. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know what I was going to do.

"I didn't know what had happened. I was lost, psychologically and physically. I was going left and right. I wasn't thinking. I was just living. Just existing."

"Often, when there's extreme trauma, that trauma is retained in the memory in a very different way from ordinary memories," Boyles says. "It's very raw; it feels current. Your heart will race, you'll have pins and needles in your fingers. It feels like it's still happening to you.

"Or the body will be overwhelmed, and the memory will be so disturbing and so difficult to process that it hasn't been retained. So there will be huge gaps. Often, people will remember the feel of the cell on their back, the coldness of the floor, certain voices, but will not remember the actual abusive acts."

"The flashbacks still happen, when I see things that remind me of the past," John says. His church friends paid for his flight to England, where he sought asylum in 2005. "It's usually when I see people wearing red bands on their heads: it reminds me of the soldiers' uniforms.

"I used to stay inside a lot. By staying inside, I can close myself to the world and I'm safer that way."

All three men have worked with Freedom from Torture therapists to try to cope with the physical and emotional after-effects of their experiences. "I'm not the same as I was before I was detained," says Tata, now 34. "I don't think I ever will be. It makes me doubt people. You become so scared."

"Often, our clients talk about feeling worthless," Boyles says. "They've been stripped of their professional identity. Nobody recognises who they were. It's having your identity and your past stripped away. Our job is to help people to rebuild their lives and to think about what's possible.

Tata's asylum claim was granted this year, and he now lives in Newcastle- upon-Tyne. His nine-year-old son is still in Cameroon. "If I can have a teaching job, I would be grateful," he says. "I love teaching. It's my ambition to teach. One day, I hope to teach again. If I don't die soon."

During the coup d'tat, Noel asked a friend to arrange an aeroplane ticket to the UK for him. Today, after 11 years living in East London, the 42- year-old is still waiting for his asylum claim to be approved.

John, meanwhile, tried to find work in a school in the North of England, where he now lives. But his English was not good enough, so he took a job as a support worker for the elderly and for people with learning disabilities.

"I definitely miss school," he says. "Because I learned a lot when I was a teacher. It was really good to see the changes in the kids. To see them making the most of what you told them. That was my best experience, really."

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