Iraqi Refugees Suffer Long-Term Effects of Torture

Nibras Naseer fled Iraq more than a year ago

Nibras Naseer fled Iraq more than a year ago, he says, after spending 10 days in a hospital for injuries that resulted from severe beatings at the hands of kidnappers. Nezar Hussein for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nezar Hussein for NPR

One of the grim legacies of the war in Iraq is the vast number of torture victims. One in five Iraqi refugees has been tortured or has suffered from other violence, according to data collected by United Nations in Syria.

Allegations of torture have surfaced since the war began — reportedly committed by Iraqi security forces, militia groups, insurgents and U.S. guards at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib.

Victims can heal from the physical wounds, but the long-term psychological damage can be profound.

Naseer's Story

Nibras Naseer is a rail-thin 18-year-old. He fled Iraq more than a year ago, he says, after spending 10 days in a hospital for injuries that resulted from severe beatings.

He now lives in a fifth-floor walk-up in Damascus, a spare space he shares with his uncle's family. The only decoration is a picture of Jesus on the wall. The apartment building fills up with the laughter of children when school lets out, but even when his nephew bounds into the apartment, Naseer does not smile.

What happened to Naseer has happened to many Iraqis, but very few are willing to talk about it.

"I am just trying to forget what happened to me," Naseer says. "I can't say that I can sleep. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't. I am trying my best to forget what happened to me."

In 2006, Naseer was kidnapped from his Baghdad neighborhood, shoved into the trunk of a car and subjected, he says, to weeks of so-called investigation, along with six other Iraqi men and an 11-year-old boy.

His kidnappers identified themselves as members of al-Qaida in Iraq, Naseer says; they made it clear that for any of the captives who worked for the U.S. military or the Iraqi government, the punishment would be beheading.

Constant Fear of Execution

After more than a week of repeated interrogations and beatings, three of the Iraqis were executed, Naseer says.

"I told you we were together when they took the three guys away from us. They forced us to watch the whole procedure," Naseer says. "For me, I couldn't watch the whole thing. I started to cry; maybe I prefer to die at that moment."

Naseer spent the nights talking to his fellow prisoners, Iraqis who shared their life stories and their terror. A few days later, the jailers condemned three more prisoners — men he had come to know — to the same gruesome death.

"I remember the names: Hammed, Ali, Omar," Naseer says. "When I watched the second time, I was thinking, 'I'm the next,' and I didn't have any hope in life — like even less than 1 percent."

Few Were Spared

U.S. soldiers have dismantled a number of torture houses in Iraq. In places like these, few were spared, Naseer says, including the 11-year-old boy. The kidnappers accused the boy of spotting for U.S. soldiers — pointing out explosive devices hidden in his neighborhood — and they forced him to admit that he had helped the Americans.

"They took him out, and they killed him the same way, and I went crazy. I lost my mind," Naseer says.

As Naseer tells his story, his shoulders hunch slightly. The only outward flicker of emotion comes when he recounts his unexpected release after his family paid a $30,000 ransom. He has no idea why he is alive, or if he will ever get over what happened to him.

Counseling for Refugees

Naseer's case is far from unique. U.N. officials say more than 20,000 Iraqis have defined themselves as torture victims when signing up for refugee status. A more recent study of the refugee community in Syria reveals that the overall number of torture victims is likely to include many thousands more. That means Iraqi refugees will need more than the basics of food and housing, U.N. officials say.

Suzanne Jabbour is the chief psychologist at a clinic in Lebanon that opened in December. The U.N. pays for the mental health professionals from a nonprofit organization called Re-Start. Jabbour says more than 50 patients are already in the new program; the majority are Iraqi refugees.

But only refugees in Lebanon are treated, Jabbour says. Because of tight border restrictions, she cannot take on cases from Syria, where the need is much greater.

"There is no way that a person who has been through whatever these people have been through can survive, unless they have treatment. And even after that, they need people to help them to make a life and establish themselves. Unless that person can find that amount of help, he will reach a stage where his life will become meaningless, and he might become suicidal," Jabbour says.

'The Worst Is Yet to Come'

Jabbour says the people being treated in Lebanon have a chance of recovery. But she is not optimistic about the refugees in Syria, who have little or no access to mental health services now.

"The worst is yet to come for these people in Damascus," Jabbour says.

And that may be the fate of Nibras Naseer. In the small apartment in Damascus, Naseer ignores his cell phone when it rings. He struggles alone with his nightmares.

There are thousands more like him — refugees who often cut themselves off from the rest of the community.

"All the time I am sitting at home," Naseer says. "I don't work, I don't do anything. Well, I can't trust anybody ... and I don't know what will happen."

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