09/08/2011 01:34 EDT | Updated 11/08/2011 05:12 EST

Feed the Body and the Soul in Dadaab

Beyond the urgency of filling empty stomachs is the legacy of torture and trauma that so many of these refugees have endured. The soul can become just as empty.

Hunger can be dealt with. Horror, not so easily.

Throughout Dadaab's massive compound, amidst rows and rows of tents, the refugees do talk of famine, but mostly they talk of war, violence and fear.

Beyond the urgency of filling empty stomachs is the legacy of torture and trauma that so many of these refugees have endured. The soul can become just as empty.

Before dawn one morning in 1995, nine-year-old Aden Abdi was startled awake by a noise outside. From his second floor window, he saw his mother and all six of his siblings lying in their own blood. Gang members turned on the boy, who frantically explained he didn't know where his parents kept their money. They stabbed him in the neck and left him for dead.

Opening his checked shirt, Abdi reveals the scars. He recalls his thoughts in the moments before the gang stormed his house.

"Even if no one harms me, I know I am dead."

Drought has turned the eyes of the world onto Dadaab. Craig arrived to find tens of thousands of people waiting to register, in a line that stretched along the dusty road. But they are hardly the first. The camp has been here for 20 years, and long before the rain stopped, war refugees from across Africa fled failed states, terrorist attacks and torture.

Two decades later, the population isn't just plagued by hunger. One group estimates that half of the camp's 400,000 refugees suffer from war or torture trauma, an emotional death, like Abdi's. He's been at the camp since 2008.

Shirley Gillan is a psychotherapist at the Center for Victims of Torture in Dadaab. For 16 years Gillan has counselled refugees in Nepal, Jordan and South Africa. She arrived in Dadaab last October.

The Dadaab office is just one branch of the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minnesota-based organization with posts across Africa and the Middle East. Since 1985, the Center has treated 20,000 torture and war trauma victims with counselling and psychotherapy. Sessions are ten weeks of intensive one-on-one talks, group psychotherapy, or both, depending on the nature and severity of the case. Psychotherapists also train local refugees to become counsellors -- once they've healed themselves, they learn how to help heal others.

Gillan calls her sessions with survivors "harrowing, but also inspiring." Watching victims relive multiple traumas, "you wonder how they are even still standing."

Throughout the camps, there are so many who inexplicably stand upright.

Achan Ngwaigigoch, a young Ethiopian woman, watched a genocidal militia kill her husband in 2003 before they turned on her. She was slashed repeatedly with a machete, but didn't die. For five days she walked with open wounds before finding a ride to Dadaab. She breaks down, and doesn't mention whether or not she's received counselling.

Gillan says what strikes her most about the survivors is their resilience.

She told of one refugee who had his leg sawed off in an act of torture. Without revealing any more detail about the man or his captors, fearing for his safety, Gillan described it simply as "traumatic amputation." He was hiding behind a tree, too scared to be seen, when Gillan first met him. She went to his home to provide one-on-one counselling. Her persistence, and his courage, triumphed over terror. One day she arrived to find the man wasn't there. He'd gone to the market.

It's not unusual for refugees to hide their psychological damage instead of seeking help.

As in so many countries, mental illness carries a stigma in Somalia, where services are scant and education surrounding mental health is practically non-existent. Trauma victims suffering severe psychotic episodes are often mocked or written off as "crazy." The victims are usually unaware that their myriad debilitating symptoms -- chronic muscle pain, nightmares, uncontrollable memories, suicidal thoughts, guilt, self-hatred, despair, paranoia -- are a result of the atrocities they've endured.

The Center for Torture Victims is the only agency offering trauma counselling in Dadaab, and it is healing emotional wounds, even with strained resources.

It's difficult to attract donors to help heal an illness of the mind when so many basic physical necessities, like food and shelter, are lacking, Alieu Sannoh, Kenya's country director for the centre, explained.

What's more, attaining permits is a bureaucratic nightmare. It's illegal for the centre to offer counselling without permission from the Kenyan government. Sannoh received permission in February of this year, five months after he and Gillan arrived in Dadaab. Because of the delay just 104 of the 300 survivors he had promised to treat have so far received counselling.

But Sannoh and Gillan remain hopeful. Gillan continues to train refugees as counsellors, and their team is growing. Those who've made peace with their past can help others through their trauma, help heal the walking wounded -- help feed their souls.