(IPS) – Mental health professionals in Argentina have accumulated such a wealth of experience in treating victims of state terrorism that they are now sharing it with colleagues across the country’s borders.
Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, which like Argentina were under the yoke of military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, now have access to the experience of mental health professionals here by means of a growing body of written material on how to provide assistance for survivors of torture and relatives of victims of state repression.
Psychologist Fabiana Rousseaux is director of the “Dr Fernando Ulloa” Centre for the Assistance of Victims of Human Rights Violations, which has been operating since 2010 within the sphere of the government’s Human Rights Secretariat.
“The Centre offers psychological assistance and medical advice to victims who survived state terrorism, family members and other people affected by the breakdown of the family or other effects of that period of history,” she told IPS.
Rousseaux was referring to the tragic consequences of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, which “disappeared” around 11,000 people, according to the official list of cases recorded so far by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, although human rights groups and independent experts put the number at 30,000.
The political prisoners held in the secret concentration camps and jails set up by the de facto regime in the most populous areas of the country suffered a broad range of abuses including torture and rape, and many were killed outright or dumped, drugged but alive, from planes into the sea on the so-called “death flights”.
In addition, hundreds of babies born to political prisoners in captivity were stolen and raised by military families under false identities.
Rousseaux explained that the survivors of the repression are now testifying as witnesses in the trials against human rights violators “and are reliving extremely traumatic situations, through their testimony.
“It’s shocking to see how much these past events affect the day-to-day lives of the people who suffered them. And to talk about them is to relive them,” she added.
Some 4,500 witnesses are testifying in the trials that got underway again after the amnesty laws were struck down in 2005.
With respect to the family members of victims, she said “a recurring issue is the idea that they can’t complete their mourning for a victim of forced disappearance because the remains have not been found.”
But she said experience has shown that “this is not always the case.”
“Each person does what they can to deal with and survive what happened to them. And you can work to find other ways that make it possible for people to complete their mourning process even if there is no body,” she said. “Of course, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” she added.
Besides providing assistance at the Ulloa Centre, the mental health professionals there train their colleagues from public hospitals in the provinces.
“We have 45 professionals in Buenos Aires and a network around the country, which is constantly incorporating new specialists,” she said.
The experts at the Ulloa Centre also help train the doctors who sit on the boards that evaluate the damages suffered by victims of state terrorism, in order to assess and authorise the compensation to which they are entitled under a law passed in the late 1990s.
Rousseaux said the health professionals should “assume” that anyone who was detained under the dictatorship suffered physical and psychological damages, without the need of subjecting them to an interrogation or of requiring them to provide “proof”.
The Centre supports the victims who serve as witnesses in court trials, and has provided advice to members of the judicial system since the trials got underway again, after they were halted by the two amnesty laws passed in the late 1980s and the pardons for the members of the military junta issued by former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).
Guidelines for the work carried out with judges, prosecutors and plaintiffs are outlined in a “protocol on the treatment of victims-witnesses in judicial proceedings” published in September 2011.
The purpose of this protocol is to avoid the revictimisation or retraumatisation of the victims-witnesses during the process of administration of justice, the document states.
The protocol, which is also being used in neighbouring countries, points out that the victim’s testimony must form part of the state’s task of providing reparations, and clarifies that the individual “is not an object of proof” but “a subject of rights.”
The booklet offers guidelines on minimising the harm caused to victims of human rights abuses who are now serving as witnesses, and who waited for decades for the state to summon them to testify about their appalling experiences.
The professionals at the Ulloa Centre recommend that members of the judicial system receive training in the protection and promotion of human rights or ask for support from other government institutions.
They also offer a broad range of practical advice. For example, as far as possible, the victim-witness should meet and be dealt with at all times by the same member of the judicial staff. And notification by mail should be avoided; the witness should be contacted directly by telephone, to reduce risks.
The protocol also recommends that the reason the witness is being cited should be clearly explained, and that members of the security forces should not be involved in transporting them. In addition, the witnesses should be provided with transportation and travelling expenses, should not be made to wait, and should never be exposed to contact with the accused.
Besides the protocol, the Ulloa Centre has produced other booklets to help train mental health professionals, such as one on “current consequences of state terrorism on mental health”.
This document states that many victims or victims’ relatives have not sought out assistance for physical or psychological problems because even years later, they still freeze up in the face of the terror they continue to suffer as a result of the crushing experiences they have gone through.
“Supporting witnesses in trials against state terrorism” is another of the booklets produced by the Ulloa Centre, which reports certain cases and experiences that can be useful for mental health professionals in other countries where victims of dictatorships are testifying in court.
Rousseaux said that more recently, the Ulloa Centre has been accepting cases of people who have suffered abuses at the hands of the security forces, or who have been the victims of people trafficking – human rights violations committed since democracy was restored in 1983.
But the experience accumulated in dealing with victims of state terrorism is the Centre’s greatest contribution to society, she said, because it started out with no manuals, “working on the basis of improvisation more than experience,” when it began to assist victims of a state that terrorised its citizens rather than protecting them.