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Past injustices


Enduring pain of Switzerland’s mistreated children


By Isabelle Eichenberger


Former victims of forced institutionalisation in Switzerland pose with photos from their childhoods (Keystone)

Former victims of forced institutionalisation in Switzerland pose with photos from their childhoods

(Keystone)

Until as recently as 1981, authorities responded to Swiss families who fell on hard times by taking their children into care – with or without parental consent. Now, the victims of these policies are calling for recognition and compensation. These are their stories...

It’s 9am on a cool summer morning. Clement Wieilly waits in front of his house, his collar turned up against the chill. Today’s destination is Valais: “I’ve got four people to meet,” he says as he folds his 190cm frame into the car.

A sporty kind of guy, Wieilly is a founder of the association Act for Dignity and a member of the government’s Round Table, which was established in 2013 to assist and compensate the victims of forced institutionalisation policies. A popular initiative has also been launched, calling for the creation of a CHF500 million ($535 million) compensation fund.  

The drive to Valais will take an hour and a half, time enough – despite the constant interruptions of his ringing telephone – for my passenger to tell the story of his stolen childhood.

“I’m a fighter”

It was in the spring of 2013, when Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga invited the victims of past coercion policies to a ceremony at which she gave a formal apology on behalf of the government, that things changed for Wieilly.

“It’s strange, what happened to me. It’s just one of those things in life. I went to Bern and I decided to act,” he says.

The media became interested in his story and his name got around.

“The media interest in me caught the attention of other victims, and as of today, there have been about 500 who have contacted me. Over ten months, I have travelled 6,000 kilometres to collect their stories and to help them find their histories in the archives,” says Wieilly.

But there are an estimated 10,000 - 20,000 victims alive who need assistance. In August, still waiting for the parliament to create a permanent compensation fund, the Round Table established an emergency fund with the aim of giving victims immediate assistance.

The idea of creating an association came about naturally. Headed by Social Democrat parliamentarian Ursula Schneider Schüttel, it represents the victims in their dealings with the authorities. Wieilly is committed to the cause.  

“Looking back, I am less emotional. I have distanced myself from my own story because I want to give all of my energy to these people,” he says.

It has begun to drizzle when we arrive in Sierre. It’s 11am and the GPS has delivered us to the right address. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with an air of youth that belies her age, 71-year-old Rose-France welcomes us into the apartment decorated with Buddha statues that she shares with her second husband. Her grandchildren’s comic books lie on the table as, in a quivering voice, she tells her story of abandonment, beatings, bed-wetting, stale bread and being scared of the dark. The worst “was the lack of love and that we felt guilty even though we were victims”.

Wieilly invites Rose-France to the association’s next meeting and gives her some papers for collecting signatures for the popular initiative. He also tells her she may be entitled to immediate assistance of between CHF4,000 and CHF12,000 from the Round Table fund that is being distributed via the humanitarian foundation of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), Swiss Solidarity.

“I haven’t asked for anything because I don’t fill the criteria,” says Rose-France. “In any case, it’s not going to change what happened to me.” But if she were to receive something, she’d treat herself to “a bit of sun”, or perhaps buy a second-hand car for her daughter.

Rose-France leaves to have lunch with her husband. At 2pm, we meet Rose-Marie, who walks with a cane, at the train station in Sion.

“I was assaulted two years ago. They stole my bag and left me with a broken hip and teeth. I’ve got heart problems so the doctors didn’t want to operate. I’ve had nothing but misfortunes,” she says.

We move into a cafe to listen to her story, which Rose-Marie tells with extraordinarily precise details, in between moments of tears and self-derisory laughter.  

“It’s done me good to talk about all that,” says Rose-Marie, smiling with a bright and combative sparkle in her eye. “My only wish is to denounce what happened to me. In a rich country like Switzerland, I never received any humanity.”

Rose-Marie has only her statutory old-age pension to live on and is keen to seek compensation, starting with the immediate assistance that is available. Wieilly will help her prepare the papers and take the necessary steps.

“I wonder why I’m on earth”

It’s 5pm when we arrive at the hospital in Sion where Gilbert, 82, has been spending more and more time over the last four months. His story is briefer than the others’, but the words are the same: divorce, guardianship, whippings, hell... He turns his head into the pillow. His story is broken by long pauses as well as moments of humour.

“It’s good that something is starting to happen. At the time, they never came to see what was happening, they couldn’t give a shit. It’s that which hit me the hardest, the behaviour of people. I wonder why I am on earth; I was ill-treated the whole time,” he says.

Gilbert was a railway worker. He is widowed, the father of three children and a grandfather. He lives in a camp ground but does not want any financial assistance.

“I’ve got a caravan, two cats, and that’s fine,” he says. His grandchildren have asked him to tell them his story, but that’s all the interest they show.

“I understand that people are ashamed to speak of it because all of it is ... very difficult. It’s good to receive a bit of recognition, but if they want to give me money, I’ll give it to the Salvation Army. I’ve never asked for help, that’s just the way I am and I always taught my children to be straight up,” says Gilbert.

The sun is shining when we leave the hospital. But just a few days before publication of his story, we hear the sad news that Gilbert has finally succumbed to his long illness. Wieilly is devastated and angry.

“Gilbert did not have the time to ask the authorities for help. Things are moving too slowly for the victims, because they are old and too often poor and in bad health. People need to understand that it’s a race against the clock,” he says. 

Coercion policies

Children institutionalised by force: minors from poor families, orphans or children of unmarried mothers were placed by force if necessary in institutions or with families, often farmers.

Administrative care: Under the ‘administrative care’ legal provision, young people, including many pregnant girls, could be deprived of their freedom without trial or any means of appeal. A recommendation from the guardianship authorities was often enough to seal their fate. On the grounds of “depraved lifestyle”, “licentiousness” or “alcoholism”, victims were often placed in prisons alongside genuine criminal offenders. Others ended up in residential institutions.

Forced sterilisation: until the 1970s, abortions and forced sterilisations were carried out on individuals deemed unsuitable for parenthood for social or genetic reasons.

A long road

1981: following the ratification in 1974 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Switzerland stopped all practices that allowed for internment (institutional or penal), infringement on the right to procreate (castrations or forced abortions) as well as forced adoption or family placements.

April 2013: the government formally apologised to the victims of forced institutionalisation and coercion policies, and proposed assistance.

June 2013: the Round Table was created, bringing together all parties implicated in the practices of the past, including representatives of the churches and the Swiss Farmer’s Union.

March 2014: a popular initiative “Pour la Reparation” (For the reparation) is launched calling for the creation of a compensation fund of CHF500 million ($535 million). As of early September, 60,000 of the 100,000 signatures required had been collected.

July 2014: the Round Table delivered its report and a list of compensation measures, most notably the allowance of an immediate one-off payment to victims of CHF4,000 – 12,000 to be paid for through a CHF7 million fund paid into by the cantons, cities and communes. The payments started flowing via the mechanism of Swiss Solidarity (the humanitarian foundation of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation). The number of requests for assistance is estimated to be around 1,000 by June 2015.

August 2014: the federal law for the rehabilitation of people institutionalised as a result of administrative decisions is enacted. It recognises the injustices that were done, creates the Synergia research project and guarantees the archiving and opening of victims’ files.

Compensation: The Round Table gives Parliament a mandate to pass a law to allow for lump sum payments to victims as a supplement to the AVS pension and taking into account individual circumstances. This legal framework could be established as soon as 2017, an unusually fast pace for Switzerland.    


Translated from French by Sophie Douez, swissinfo.ch

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