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Friday, September 26, 2014

Obituary for Helen Bamber - anti torture advocate

It's sad when a person's obituary tells us all we know about a person. When I read the obituary of Helen Bamber (1925-2014), I became sad because of her death, but I had never heard of her, until after reading her obituary.

Helen Bamber 1925–2014:  The campaigner who cared for torture victims

In 1945, Helen Bamber, then 19, volunteered to help survivors of the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp. She distributed food and clothing to the few thousand remaining survivors, many of whom were emaciated and close to death. “People wanted to tell their story,” she recalled. “They would hold me and dig their fingers in and rasp this story out.” At first she didn’t know how to react, but she realized that all she could do was listen and assure them: “Your story will be told; I will be your witness.” It proved a formative experience. Over the next seven decades, Bamber became a leading campaigner for victims of human rights atrocities, helping more than 50,000 people in 90 countries. After Bergen-Belsen, she said, “I just couldn’t remain a bystander.”

Born to Jewish parents in London, Bamber grew up “in a home where the Nazi threat was drummed into her relentlessly,” said The Washington Post. “At bedtime, her father read her passages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” After the war, she spent two years at Bergen-Belsen before returning to Britain to work with children who survived the Holocaust. In 1961, Bamber joined Amnesty International, where she “became an expert in identifying torture used for political motives in Latin America and South Africa,” said The Times(U.K.). In 1985, when British doctors said they didn’t have time to deal with the complexities of torture victims, she decided to fill the void herself, setting up the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Launched in “two disused hospital rooms with a typewriter and assistant,” the charity now helps thousands of torture victims from around the world.

“Relentless and tireless even at 80,” Bamber set up the Helen Bamber Foundation in 2005, said The Guardian (U.K). “The culmination of her life’s work,” the charity cares for torture victims as well as those who have been “brutalized by criminal gangs, trafficked for labor or sexual exploitation, or kept as slaves.” Though proud of her achievements, Bamber was always saddened by the continued need for her work. 

“If we look at the world today,” she said in 1995, “humanity seems to have learnt very little.”

Helen Bamber New York Times obituary:

Helen Bamber, whose volunteering to comfort broken survivors of a Nazi concentration camp when she was 19 inspired her to devote her next seven decades to helping more than 50,000 victims of torture in 90 countries, died on Aug. 21 in London. She was 89.

Her death was announced by the Helen Bamber Foundation, a British charity.

Started in 2005, the organization grew out of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which Ms. Bamber started in 1985. The foundation emerged from the Medical Group of the British Section of Amnesty International, which she and a small group of colleagues began in the early 1970s. The actress Emma Thompson is the current president of the Bamber foundation.

Together, through a “holistic” combination of medicine and psychological, social and physical therapies, the organizations have helped torture victims recover a sense of identity and purpose after being subjected to often unspeakable horrors: electrical shocks to genitals, beatings on the bottom of feet, nonlethal hangings.

Ms. Bamber recalled listening to a 10-year-old Bosnian girl describe seeing Serb soldiers cut off her brother’s testicles. A mother recounted the beheading of her son.

Ms. Bamber said the worst toll of torture was psychic — “the act of killing a man without dying,” a survivor once told her. Torture, she wrote in an autobiography for her foundation, constitutes “a total perversion of all that is good in human relationships.”

“It is designed to destroy not only the physical and psychological integrity of one individual, but with every blow, with every electrode, his or her family and the next generation,” she continued. “The body betrays and is often discarded, a body to be hated for its scars and injuries, a body which is a constant reminder even if there are no scars or remaining injuries.”

Her approach was to treat the whole person, often in group therapy, which she saw as giving alienated victims a sense of community. She recruited dozens of professionals to treat more than 2,000 victims a year, and worked with many patients herself as a psychotherapist — which she became through experience, she said, rather than an academic degree.

Her method involved revisiting victims’ worst horrors and letting them “vomit” them out.

“You have to move into the torture chamber with them,” she told the British newspaper The Observer in 1999. “You almost have to be tortured with them.”

The next step, she told The Irish Times in 1995, is to work with the “noble and good” qualities that can enable a victim to survive. It was enough, she said, to take a victim’s story, hold it and say, “Yes, I believe you.”

Dear Helen Bamber, I regret learning about you from your obituary. I wish you were still alive and with us as people are challenged by terrible human rights violations in human sex trafficking and the humanitarian refugee crises in Syria, Turkey and Jordan, to name a few horrific situations. 

When Saint Mother Theresa died, the world lost a compassionate humanitarian. Now, with your death, we'll live in a world without the dignity and respect you demonstrated for all who are victims of torture and human rights indignities.  

May you rest in peace.  

Meanwhile, we must find a way to prevent torture and human indignities, spread by evil religious extremists intent on claiming power through their barbaric intentions and actions.

When Helen Bamber interviewed victims of Bergen-Belsen, it's likely she thought the world would never see another genocide.
Sadly, unbelievable barbarism and genocides continue in spite of all efforts to pray for world peace and teach understanding.

Helen Bamber died in London on August 21, 2014.
Only a month since she died and the world is already missing her 
I'm sorry I never had the chance to meet her.

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