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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Creating a haven from hostility
By Emma Griffiths
BBC News Online, London

The garden inside the centre
The garden offers a place to reflect before going back into London
At the heart of a busy part of north London, thousands of victims of war-torn countries and political and religious upheaval are trying to find some peace.

Rad Baan, a Kuwaiti national living in north London, is busy planning his imminent move to Australia with his wife-of-three-months Michelle.

His new life is a long way from the five-and-a-half years he spent in Iraqi prisons after Kuwait was invaded in 1990.

Tortured as a suspected spy for eight months, he was held in a cell with 40 inmates and endured electric shocks, beatings and lived under sentence of death.

"The torture was in the beginning, but all this time it was a form of torture mentally and physically," he said.

"After eight months of torture or beating they knew I had done nothing, but I stayed in a room where they hanged people."

By the time he got out and fled to the UK he was drinking and in need of help.

"I couldn't walk, I couldn't eat, I was sleepy in the daytime but I couldn't sleep at night because of the nightmares. I was upside down," he said.

He is one of 3,000 people each year treated at The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a charity which has moved into new premises in Finsbury Park.

The lilac building sits between tower blocks and terraced homes, just off the busy Seven Sisters Road.

Rad Baan
Mr Baan survived five-and-a-half years in Iraqi prisons
Buses and lorries thunder past its walls, but its interior has been designed as a haven for those fleeing war-torn countries and persecution.

Men, women and children come here to talk to specialists about their memories of beatings, electric shocks, rape and massacres.

Corridors curve and rooms are unusual shapes to avoid an "institutional" feel while light streams in through a glass wall in the main reception area.

Water features, mosaic walls and a garden aim to offer them a quiet place to reflect after counselling sessions, before heading back into London.

The new 5.8m centre is the latest incarnation of a project which began life in two rooms in a disused hospital in Camden, north London, nearly 20 years ago.

It quickly outgrew them and its second premises in Kentish Town, where "small and cell-like" rooms brought back painful memories for some survivors.

While the centre has treated British POWs held by the Japanese in Burma and ex-pats held in a Saudi prison, most of its clients are asylum seekers.

Since 1986, people fleeing the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Iranian Revolution, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda have sought medical treatment, psychological support and practical assistance at its door.

It's really meant to convey a sense of coming into the light and being open and welcoming
Malcolm Smart, foundation director
Director Malcolm Smart hopes the building will offer them some respite from hostility faced outside its walls.

"They face disbelief, authorities who find it difficult to acknowledge what they have been through and are looking to find discrepancies in their accounts," he said.

"It's really meant to convey a sense of coming into the light and being open and welcoming.

"As far as I know it is the only building in the world designed with the therapeutic needs of torture survivors in mind."

Once inside, torture victims, mostly referred by government agencies, refugee support groups or GPs, will be assessed by staff like senior physician Gill Hinshelwood.

In one day she might see an Iraqi exile, an Ethiopian student demonstrator, female soldiers from Eritrea and a political activist from Azerbaijan.

The centre as seen from the outside
The centre's lilac and limestone walls are designed to be calming
"We don't spend all our time talking about thumbscrews - people hardly ever use them, brute force is more likely," said Dr Hinshelwood.

"I think torture is meant to break people into fragments, so the task of the rehabilitation is to make connections again.

"Many people feel the minute they have left their countries, everything will be all right and don't realise why their symptoms are coming back."

Treatment can be one-to-one counselling, group and art therapy and the centre has allotments which those from an agrarian background in particular can find calming.

Some people will only be seen once or twice, others will attend sessions for years, but even after treatment ends, victims' experiences can easily resurface.

In the past year, news reports from Iraq and Abu Ghraib have brought back painful memories for some Iraqi exiles, many of whom have been back to talk things through.

Mr Raad had regular counselling at the foundation for two years, but still goes back and says without help, he would have ended up a homeless alcoholic.

"I still have nightmares and very bad days. Sometimes I have a flash, it doesn't kill me but it really bothers me."

But he added: "I'm still laughing, I still have my fun, because I say: 'Thank God they didn't break me'."

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