Interview with Camelia Doru

foto_cameliadoruIn 1990 Camelia Doru chose the side of the hunger strikers protesting against the power coup by Ceausescu’s old comrades after the revolution. She went to their assistance as a physician. The hunger strike received international attention and a lot of internal blame from post-communist politicians. Doru was invited to Denmark for a training within a transcultural study about deliberate violence.

There, among other specializations, she was trained to recognize and treat the consequences of torture. As nobody tortures the Danes, they can only see its consequences among refugees. “In Romania there were no refugees, twenty years ago. But we did have people who were suffering because of the torture they had endured in the Romanian labour camps and prisons, under the communist rule. For them I could put the knowledge I received in Denmark to immediate use.’

In 1990, around one hundred thousand Romanians had survived the labour camps as political prisoners.  Between 1945 and 1964 was the most repressive period. Many of them were severely tortured. It was not always possible to diagnose the mental and physical suffering they carried as direct consequences of trauma. After the revolution, we had to treat the victims while those responsible for their torture were still in power. They had changed their name, they called themselves democrats now, but you can’t change your mentality overnight. We had to be careful not to attract attention to our activity, and certainly should not ask money from the authorities. We managed quite well to do our work keeping a low profile. We were just physicians, we did our medical job.’ Doru initially worked as a doctor at a hospital and treated these patients in her free time. Somebody else took care of medical supplies. After a while she dedicated her entire time to this activity. An unobtrusive small network came into being. To spread the knowledge about post-traumatic consequences of torture and their treatment around the country, an independent organization had to be founded. ‘We had to formulate good projects to ask for financing by international donors”. The foundation ‘ICAR’ was set up, and in 1992 received financial support from the EU for the first time. ‘Twenty thousand Ecu’ Doru remembers. ‘I felt the responsibility for this amount heavily upon my shoulders. We had to open an office, rent an accommodation. It went to my heart to spend a big part of the EU money on rent, I resisted it. Danish colleagues convinced me to do it. “You just have to start” they said. We had to learn it by doing, how to run a Non Governmental Organization.’

‘ICAR’ now has centres in Bucharest, Iasi and Craiova and exists since eighteen years. ‘That’s amazing for a NGO giving medical help’ says Doru. ‘In other countries, in Russia for example, such organizations could not survive because they had the label “psychiatric”. Psychiatry was stigmatized by its history of abuse by communist regimes. Dissidents, especially after 1964 were locked up as mentally ill. The label “psychiatric” drove away the clients from the rehabilitation centres. “We had our political conviction, we were against the regime, is that a reason to be considered mentally ill?” they would say - a very understandable line of reasoning. The survivors also had somatic problems. A lot of those, even. We could integrate the treatment of mental problems in the general care without mentioning it. This turned out to be a good policy.’

She cannot give an exact answer to the question how many people ‘ICAR’ has treated for traumas caused by the labour camps. ‘We have provided hundreds of thousands of consultations with all kinds of medical specialists: Cardiologists, dentists, physiotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, you name them. After thirty, forty years it is difficult to establish with accuracy which symptoms are caused by the earlier trauma and which by the victims ageing. We treat them as whole persons. During the years it became clear what the sting in their frequent illnesses was: the imprisonment and the torture. They found a place to come to, they trusted us. The trust was not there from the very start, it came gradually. We did not wear white coats; we tried to keep as far away as possible from the type of questioning they went through in prison. Little by little they told us their stories.’

Most of the former political prisoners are over seventy years of age now. ‘Some of them are over ninety. It was the strongest who survived, those who were physically – and mentally - less strong died in the camps. In Geneva it was accepted that victims of torture should be treated as long as needed because they will suffer from it during the rest of their lives. On first impression you usually don’t notice this with these old people, but it ěs there.’ Doru describes an 85 year old man who regularly visits ‘ICAR’ with new evidence, new files about the abuses of the past. ‘He walks sprightly, never takes the bus. It is pleasant to talk with him, he is in good shape and we have a lot of things to share. But he has no family and has never been able to work as an engineer, the profession he studied for. The years when others build a life he has spent in prison. His fighting spirit is amazing, people like him are the motor that keeps us doing this job.’


The struggle for recognition of the injustice and damage the authorities caused the political prisoners has not been fought to the end yet. ‘In the beginning of the nineties a law was accepted to consider the years in a labour camp as working years. Thus people received a pension, a small one at first, but it enabled them to live. But this recognition is not enough, it covers only one dimension of the damage. They have lost their health, their job, their property, their chances in life, their families. It has had an enormous impact on their lives. We fight for rehabilitation for these people.’

‘ICAR’ has compiled statistics from the data about 2000 political prisoners available to the organization in mid 90ties. ‘On average it turned out they had spent over six years in the camps. The extremes differ from one and a half to twenty years. But in one and a half year someone can be damaged for life by torture.’ In answer to an ‘ICAR’ initiative, in December 2006 the Romanian President has admitted that the erstwhile regime had committed a crime against the political prisoners. ‘Now, three years later, we have a law which gives these very old people the right to go to court to claim rehabilitation. But not a single person has been taken to court as responsible for the crimes. We have today around 20.000 victims surviving   and nobody is guilty. It is almost twenty years after the revolution and we do not succeed to throw light internally on this issue. The time is limited because the people are old. Justice should be done here, in Romania where these people were persecuted, not in Strasbourg at European Court for Human Rights.’

Romanians are relieved that the EU has accepted their country, that NATO now protects them. ‘Torture as a political instrument has stopped in one way or another. The media played a role, as soon as cases came into the open they led to discussions. The people who used torture probably stopped for the simple reason they were afraid to lose their jobs. There has been monitoring before Romania was allowed to enter the EU and the conclusion was clear, torture is not used as a political weapon any more. But the legal situation is still not okay. We are traumatized, as a country. A long period of abuse and trauma has affected society deeply. The process of recovery to heal the wounds is far from complete yet. People in Romania are not aware of this, they say: “Forget the past.” But that is not the way to resolve social scars.’

The irony of fate, in Romania, in recent years Camelia Doru started to treat, apart from the old victims of communism in her own country, the group for which she received her training in Denmark: refugees and asylum seekers. Romania was one of the transit countries for refugees entering Europe, mainly those from Africa and Middle East,  but more and more are settling  here . The UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, made in 2005 an agreement with the Romanian government to provide shelter for a big group of Uzbek refugees in a centre in Timisoara, where they could wait for a final, third country destination. ‘The centre served as a filter’ says Doru. ‘Refugees were investigated and evaluated there. We provided to those severely traumatised refugees specialised psychosocial interventions.  There clearly are similarities between our political prisoners and refugees when it comes to effects of torture. ‘ICAR’ is now training relevant people to recognize and treat these traumatized refugees.’



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