The U.S. Torture Convention, a report written in 1994, defines torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” According to report, at least 35% of refugees and asylum seekers have been tortured in their countries by government or military forces.
Because torture is a covert practice, and also because it’s frequently inflicted by those in power over those in less powerful circumstances, victims frequently don’t report this crime. For this reason, statistics are not comprehensive about the extent to which refugees and others have experienced torture.
The Buffalo non-profit organization Jewish Family Services runs the Western New York Center for Survivors of Torture, a program that works with survivors of torture and their families to heal and bring hope for their future. Leonce Byimana is the program’s manager.
“We help torture survivors navigate available programs which contribute to making their past not affect their everyday life and their future,” said Byimana. “The physical and psychological wounds caused by torture are so deep. Together with our partners, we provide them with health and social-based rehabilitation.”
Aung Moe is a survivor of torture. Moe, 45, was born and raised in Yangon City in Burma (Myanmar). His frightening journey to come to Buffalo took a long time.
As an outspoken college student in the 1990s, he was arrested by the government for his political opinions. During that time, human rights abuses and crime became critical in Burma. Civilians were tied up, beaten, suffocated with plastic bags, and other torture techniques.
“Around 11 one morning, I was sleeping, and heard people asking my dad where I was. They came and told me that they want to ask me some questions,” said Moe. A large group of men with their faces covered took him to jail, and began roughly interrogating him, slapping and punching him.
“It was terrifying,” he said. For about four days he was kept in a small dark room, continually beaten, hungry and bleeding. After few days he appeared in a military court, where he was accused of creating a student movement.
“I plead ‘not guilty’ and the judge sentenced me to 10 years,” he said. He ended up jailed in four different prisons, and suffered additional torture through the years.
“All days were very bad in jail. I was under pressure and went through life terrified. They tortured us, giving us horribly over-salted food, beatings, tied chains on our legs, bags over our faces so we couldn’t breathe; at night we only slept on concrete. I saw very bad things, some prisoners were beaten to death,” said Moe.
He was released from Myingyan Prison in 2005 and crossed the border from Burma to Thailand. He stayed in a border town called Mae Sot. From there, he went to the U.N. refugee camp at Nu Poe. He met his future wife there; they married in 2007, and came to the U.S. in 2009.
Affected by torture in prison, Moe still has consequences from this abuse. “My wife always tells me that I scream a lot at night when I’m sleeping,” he said. “My back always hurts and my eyes are affected because of being in darkness for long time.”
Sums up Byimana, “WNYCST is ready to help people like Aung Moe and their families. In the last two years, we have rehabilitated more than 170 individuals.”
To reach the Western New York Center for Survivors of Torture, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 716-883-1914 ext. 314. K