Double Life: The public face and private pain of torture victims in Minnesota

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Like many other torture victims, Iftu has a dual identity: In public, she’s a happy and hard-working immigrant whose gregarious outlook doesn’t give a hint of the horrors she suffered in her native Ethiopia. In private, she’s a rape victim and a patient at a local psychological treatment center.

“It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with my two identities,” said Iftu, who didn’t want to give her last name.

She’s one of an estimated half million torture victims in the United States. Minnesota has an estimated 30,000. That number is too high for the state because of higher immigration rate per capita, said Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi, a senior consulting clinician with The Center for Victims of Torture, or CVT. The Minneapolis-based center is a national leader in the field.

Speaking at an immigrant roundtable Friday, Garcia-Peltoniemi said “the stigma associated with torture is a barrier to treatment,” but is common.
Abdi Aynte :: Double Life: The Public Face and Private Pain of Torture Victims in Minnesota

Iftu could attest to that. More than five years after she sought an asylum in the United States, she said she continued to resist coming to terms with the fact that she was repeatedly raped by Ethiopian soldiers who accused her of collaborating with the Oromo rebel groups.

Oromo is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but they have always been dominated by minority ethnic groups. A close ally of the United States in the war on terror, Ethiopia is often marked for its severe human rights violations.

Iftu’s husband, also an Oromo, was abducted by government soldiers 10 years ago. He was never seen again. A top officer in the region she grew up kidnapped her to work at his farm, “but I also became a sex object for him,” she said. “He raped me probably hundreds of times over the course of two years.”

More than 80 percent of the victims who registered with the CVT last year were separated from their spouses, according to Garcia-Peltoniemi. Majority of them were Africans and 60 percent were asylum seekers.

In recent months, Iftu was inspired by other torture victims who used their stories to influence public policy against repressive governments like Ethiopia.

“Think about a gay person coming out of the closet: It’s slow, painful and it causes hesitancy,” said Iftu, 31 who lives in Minneapolis. “In few years, I’m hoping to gain the confidence to share my story with the world.”

Still, she’s hesitant for a good reason: “In my culture, if you’re raped, you’re doomed. No future. Nothing!”

Help from the government

In addition to granting an asylum to people like Iftu, the government is encouraging victims to report anyone here or abroad who may have helped commit the crime. In most cases, victims are tortured by a person acting in an official capacity.

During the fiscal year 2006, the local investigative office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, received 202 contacts from victims or witnesses who spotted potential perpetrators, according to Thomas Boyle, a criminal investigator with the agency.

“We’re investigating each and every one of these cases,” said Boyle, who added that his office is investigating wide spectrum of issues, including human trafficking, child pornography and human rights violations.

In 2005, USCIS successfully deported Enos Kagaba, a Rwandan who was caught at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport destroying his fake documents. After four years of investigation and trial, Kagaba was found to have helped kill 5,000 people in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He’s serving life sentence in Rwanda.

In most cases, Iftu, the Oromo victim, said torture is directly committed by low-level officers who are unlikely to travel to the United States. “The commanders who sanction such atrocities regularly come to Washington unchecked,” she said.

Torture “is a low-tech enterprise: 43 percent of CVT victims were beaten. Some 23 percent were sexually assaulted, and 78 percent of the survivors suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PSTD,” said Gracia-Peltoniemi. “From a clinical perspective, the question is whether [survivors] will ever fully recover.”

Iftu said she plans to write a book about her ordeal.

“That and a restored justice in my country will heal my wounds—I hope,” she said.