Author Burhan Sonmez on how Holloway charity Freedom from Torture saved his life

PUBLISHED: 16:02 13 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:02 13 November 2018

Burhan Sonmez. Picture: Luay Albasha

Burhan Sonmez. Picture: Luay Albasha


Burhan Sonmez had survived an attempted murder by police in Turkey before he was exiled in Britain and supported by an Islington charity.

Now he’s an award-winning author, and will this week be reading from his latest novel Labyrinth at Savoy Place in central London, alongside existing clients of Freedom from Torture.

The Holloway charity, which offers specialist rehabilitation to torture survivors, is hosting its biennial literary fundraiser and as a former client, Burhan is returning the favour by offering his support.

Burhan was born in Turkey and worked as a human rights lawyer in Istanbul. During the height of the Kurdish civil war police tried to kill him and he was detained and tortured.

He eventually escaped to Britain, where he had family and friends.

“I was wounded severely,” he told the Gazette. “But fractured skull, broken nose, or medical operations were not my main complaint. That was the effect of brain trauma: chronic insomnia, headaches and losing the managing power of my brain.

“I mean I couldn’t think properly or keep on my daily life properly any more.”

On arrival in London Burhan was helped by his friends as well as the experts at Freedom from Torture, which is now in Isledon Road.

But psychologically it would take him years to get used to life in exile, which would last for a decade.

“It is impossible to adapt to,” he continued. “As soon as I got the opportunity, after about ten years, I returned to Turkey.”

While he was here, however, he was able to develop his interest in writing, which had begun while he was detained.

“Having written tens of pages of stories, I had an idea of writing a novel,” he explained. “Or maybe it was the only thing I could do abroad. I used to be a barrister but my certificate did not work in Britain and at the time I couldn’t speak English.”

He is now the author of four novels, and recipient of the 2017 Vaclav Havel Award. He splits his time between Istanbul and Cambridge. And he credits Freedom from Torture with saving his life.

“Without their support I don’t think that I would have gathered my strength to survive,” he said. “When I left home that was my journey towards death. I said farewell for good to everyone including my parents.

“People of Freedom from Torture made me believe I could beat this problem and recover and keep on living.

“I would like to name the late doctor John Rundle. His friendly, sincere and humorous approach was great. I am sure he rests in peace now because he was the friend of the poor and the oppressed.”

The charity auction is still open ahead of the event. People can bid to have characters named after them in new works by Margaret Atwood, Lee Child and Marian Keyes, or to have their portrait drawn by Quentin Blake. Click here to bid.

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