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Helen Bamber: A Profile

TUESDAY 25th June 2002
She calls herself "a witness to the vulnerability of humanity". From her home in north London, a pint-sized divorcee has emerged as one of the world's most prominent campaigners against the very worst type of personal suffering, that of deliberate and coldly calculated torture.

For more than half a century, Helen Bamber has devoted her life to the care of survivors of horror and violence. In 1985 she created the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Its very name, says Bamber's biographer Neil Belton, tells us "more than most of us wish to hear". She and her colleagues have provided therapy to more than 17,000 people, from more than 80 countries.

The "Good Listener"

Bamber has never had any formal training, but believes the most important part of her work is to "listen to clients for as long as they wish or can bear to talk". The title of Belton's book about her is The Good Listener, a neat summary of her life and work.

Bamber believes the world is divided into two types, bystanders who see only what they want, and proper witnesses who observe and record the truth. She joined the latter group in 1947, when she volunteered to go into the concentration camp of Belsen to help with the physical and psychological recovery of Holocaust survivors.

As a 19-year-old girl, Bamber found herself on the receiving end of some of the worst human horror stories imaginable. She has described the survivors there who "would dig their fingers into your arms and hold on to you to get to you the horror of what had happened."

Moving on from Amnesty

This tenacious teenager returned to London to work with children who had survived the camps, and soon joined Amnesty International, where she worked to expose torture regimes in such countries as Chile and Argentina.

It became increasingly apparent that the AI brief to expose these regimes and look after its victims was too wide, and Bamber saw a greater need for individual care. She was moved to create her own foundation, where the role of therapist is "to receive, not to recoil" and often "simply sit rocking somebody while they tell their story".

Never moved to tears by these tales, Bamber remains strangely affected by the sound of survivors singing together. It reminds her of "what capacity people have for creativity and what's denied them".

Bamber sits on human rights committees from Belfast to Gaza. Former hostage John McCarthy is impressed by her energy and power, her combination of compassion and determination.

Unusual childhood reading

He believes her work must require a certain anger. Bamber admits to this fuel for her gruelling schedule, and the source of it may be found in her childhood. Born to Jewish parents of Polish descent, young Helen grew up in a house where the Nazi threat was overpowering.

Her father read her sections of Mein Kampf to remind her of the evil in the world, and she has described a sense of constant foreboding. Her trip to Belsen was about overcoming her own fears.

Bamber has since dedicated her life to helping others do the same, and describes a sense of satisfaction in helping people learn to live again. And as to what really drives her on, she explains that even in the midst of such evil and suffering, or perhaps especially in such places, "there's something very good to be retrieved from people".