Freedom from Torture - MLR by Tim

MLR by Tim

Write to Life says:

The ‘Bodies’ musical project also set two pieces about the experience of the Medico Legal Report (MLR) interview, a key part of the evidence in proving torture, but a very traumatic experience to undergo. We turned the process of composition into a film, ‘Words and Music’, which can be found here.

Tim writes:

I think I was inspired to write the MLR piece during one of our workshops at Write to Life group. At the workshop, we had been encouraged to write about our bodies. These workshops were very good at triggering memories. In this occasion, the memory it triggered was of how my body was once examined like a piece of meat, or an object, for a 'MLR' report.

It's been more than seven years since I wrote the MLR piece and a further seven since my body was scrutinised; but I still remember how uncomfortable, and to an extent, how demeaned I felt during the session with the doctor.

But seeing my work, taken up by a composer and transformed, being performed with music, filled me with joy and emotions.

I would also like to mention that I have very fond memories of my time at Write to Life. This group was like a family to me. Through this group, I met very special friends with whom I am still in touch even though Stephanie, whose piece was performed at the same event, was regretfully robbed from us by cancer.

I also believe that being a member of the group had a very positive impact on my ability to successfully pursue undergraduate and masters degrees in a foreign language - English.

MLR by Tim Malmo

I remember it very well – in his report he described me as being like an athlete. I remember his reaction when he saw me for the first time. Obviously I looked thin in my clothes - so when he asked me to undress for the first time he said, ‘Wow! You look like an athlete – do you do sport?’. So then I explained that I used to play football when I was younger.

It wasn’t the normal M.F. office – it was somewhere in Camden I think. The room was quiet, but my heart was beating fast. I didn’t know what to expect. I was just told I had to go there for an examination. I had no idea what it was going to be about. I was very nervous. I had to wait until I was called – about thirty minutes, and I fell totally asleep. In those days sleep was a serious problem, and I had barely slept the night before. So I fell profoundly asleep there, waiting. And then somebody woke me up and said, “It’s time to go in.”

There was an interpreter. The doctor called him in, and explained to me what was going to happen. The Medical Foundation had told me that a doctor would have to assess me, to see if my story held together. That was the first time in my whole life somebody had examined my body, scrutinised it in that way. And a total stranger. The interpreter tried to calm me down, said it was northing to be afraid of. “We are not the Hone Office”, he said, “But we have to ask you some questions that you may not be comfortable with, to do with your ordeal that you described to the immigration people.” The doctor was trying to make me feel better. To me he looked old. In Africa, if somebody is sixty they’re old. Dr Bell, that was his name – I think he was about seventy.

He already knew my story, so he asked a few questions for clarification. After that he pulled the curtains and asked me to undress. I was left just in my underwear. That was when he came and looked and said, “Woo! You have an athletic build! Do you do sport?” I said, “I used to.” It broke the tension – it made me smile and made things a bit more casual.

Then he looked at my body, he saw some scars, and he asked me some questions based on them. That was a time when I was having to talk about this stuff all over the place – to the Home Office, to the lawyers. It was painful, a very difficult experience. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I was forced to. I was avoiding speaking about things, I didn’t wan to take myself back to those days. But it was a bit easier with this doctor, because he was just asking particular questions to which I had to give answers. His focus was very specifically on the marks – how did I get this mark? I had to tell him about the techniques they had used. Were they healing, how big were they? I felt uncomfortable as he measured and wrote down, like I was a piece of meat, being looked over and annotated. I was just hoping it would finish as soon as possible.

I was dreading what would happen if they didn’t get it right, or didn’t believe me. You just don’t know. And by avoiding things, by not wanting to revisit them, could be making it worse.

Looking back there are so many different details – you can get lost in a particular event or detail, and not remember something else that might be important. You can overlook them just because you’re focussed on something else. Or you can be dwelling so deeply on one thing that the emotion of that memory prevents you from mentioning other things. So I was worried about not being able to present my case well.

It all starts with this phrase: “Try to be as brief as possible”. You hear that wherever you go. When you go to court, when you see your solicitor, they always say this. As though they are already bored and tired of people telling them too much.

What does that phrase mean? Because at the same time they want you to provide the crucial information. So somebody might leave stuff out in order to follow the injunction to be brief, and then miss out something vital.

If your case goes well, all well and good but if not, and you try to add something later, you can be in trouble. It’s like being in court: they say: “Only answer the question.” But how do you interpret that? The answer to the question could be very long. So you might answer it too briefly, because you’re worried that you might be doing more than “answering the question” – and then again, you leave out something vital.

There are certain things that need to be explained in order for people to understand the full context. If you make the wrong judgement on that, it can be disastrous. We can easily assume that the person listening understands everything, knows everything. But it’s only since I started writing that I have realise that I don’t always present things clearly, that I leave things out. When I tell a story, and people don’t understand, then I realise I need to add things, to enable them to understand. And what I can leave out, and what I shouldn’t.

For instance, during my immigration case I was asked whether I had contacted my family in the first two months I was here. I said, “No”. So they thought, “How can somebody leave his country and not even try to contact his family, those he has left behind?” And ever since, I ask myself, would it have made a difference if I had responded: “How can I? it’s difficult to make contact, I was staying in a hostel where they gave me nothing but food: no phone, no money. How could I make contact?”

People didn’t have phones in Africa in those days, there are no fixed lines and then nobody had mobiles. But they had said to me, “You have to be brief, just answer the question.” So I didn’t say anything except, “No”.

It comes down to judgement. And how can you make such judgements when you’re in such a state? I didn’t even know what they meant by “brief”. But “No” is brief. So I said “No”. But as I was answering, I expected that if they needed more information, they would ask for it.

I thought it was up to them. And they thought it was up to me.

A lot of people come from cultures where they are not encouraged to speak out, to speak for themselves. To make their cases. Here, they are. But it’s a mentality. You have to understand the mentality of the places people come from. You can’t assume they have the same training or expectations as you. For instance, when I’m really low or down, I want to be alone. I don’t want comfort or understanding or company. I want to be alone. People are different.

As for my own story, now it’s too late. That one answer made the judge think I was dishonest. And now, the more I say, the worse it makes things, because they say I’m contradicting myself. Now, when I know what I should say, or should have said, I can’t say it.

And then the doctor asked me to get dressed again. He said, “We are going to write to you.” And that was that. It was painful but still, it was better than other places. At least I felt that he understood. But there was the fear - what would he write in his report? Would he agree, what would be his recommendations based on what he had seen? It was another test, for sure. Somebody is always passing judgement on you.

I went back to the hostel – that was it.

Read more about Freedom from Torture’s work on Proving Torture here.

All accompanying art for Write to Life’s 20 pieces for Refugee Week is by members of the Open Art Studio group at Freedom from Torture.

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