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Out of the Ashes

Helping torture survivors heal is becoming a public health specialty, with the U.S. moving to subsidize programs in L.A. and elsewhere.


His memory is as blurry and golden as a dreamscape. He is a boy of 9 in his house on the river in Africa, playing hide-and-seek. His mother hums on the sun-warmed veranda.

Christopher de Victorino has clung to this warm memory ever since paramilitary men came to take his life away. It wrestles for his attention with other recollections that are the stuff of nightmares: The sight of his father, bound and bloodied. The sound of his mother being raped on the bathroom floor. The cold kiss of raindrops spilling over Christopher's broken body after he was tortured and left for dead in a jungle.

If these warring images of his past have brought his present to a standstill, it's not evident as the baby-faced former philosophy student, now 25 and a political refugee, holds court with a laughing group of friends at a picnic in Santa Monica. It's a sunny day, and billowing clouds rise from the ocean like mountains. It's hard to imagine that any of these people suffer from the paralyzing bouts of depression, insomnia and anxiety that are typical for survivors of torture.

"This is my first social group I've bonded with since coming here," said De Victorino. "It's easy to talk to them. I know it's safe with them. It makes me feel at home. It gives me inner peace to know someone else suffered this. I know I'm not the only one."

The group is known as the Healing Club, a Los Angeles support group for torture victims and their families. The club is an arm of the pioneering Los Angeles Program for Torture Victims, one of two dozen torture rehabilitation programs in the U.S.

The grisly public health specialty is in growing demand as immigrants flow in from countries where torture is a byproduct of political turmoil--or a systematic tool against democracy and dissent.

Torture victims suffer from what experts call a "silent epidemic"--psychic wounds that few of their new acquaintances know about and even fewer could imagine. Anyone haunted by a wounding loss--the death of a child, the suicide of a loved one, a messy divorce--can understand the crippling force of painful memories. For most such losses, there are universal grieving rituals.

Healing from torture, experts say, is far more complicated. And in Los Angeles and other big cities, it can be particularly difficult because many victims are exposed to violence once again in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods where, due to economic necessity, they now make their homes.

Helping torture survivors has evolved from a crusade by volunteer health professionals into a medical movement. The U.S. Torture Victims Relief Act is disbursing $7.2 million to American rehabilitation programs--including $500,000 for the Los Angeles one. The bill's sponsors estimate that tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of torture victims now make their homes in the United States.

Caregivers say successful therapy can mean the difference between leading a full, productive life and retreating into an aloof existence that can keep even a victim's spouse and children at a distance. In the process, therapists are learning important new lessons about trauma, recovery and human resilience that could help people suffering from experiences as varied as discrimination and incest.

"We can't make them forget. But we can help them live with the memories. And we can help them remember things differently," said Dr. Jose Quiroga, a paternal, soft-spoken physician for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the volunteer medical director of the Los Angeles program.

Using borrowed space at the Venice Family Clinic and the Clinica Monsenor 'Oscar A. Romero, Quiroga in the Pico-Union neighborhood conducts physical examinations of torture victims and oversees their physical rehabilitation. His partner, Ana Deutsch, a therapist at Community Counseling Services/Amanecer near downtown Los Angeles, leads a team of volunteer mental health professionals. And on the last Saturday of every month, she convenes a small group for the Healing Club.

The 2-decades-old nonprofit organization is one of 220 established worldwide to treat and care for torture victims. Others in California are based in San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose.

The shoestring nature of the program is about to change with the new federal funding this month. The money will allow staffers, including a case manager, to receive some compensation for their time. The program has been assisting 60 patients a year but now plans to double in size, Deutsch says.

A Heartbreaking New Counseling Field

When the Los Angeles program began, few guidelines existed for treating torture survivors. Deutsch and Quiroga developed their own approach to healing scarred hearts and broken bodies, beginning with efforts to get patients to tell their stories and receive thorough medical examinations. Many victims have badly healed bones. Broken teeth are common.

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