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Stolen childhoods


Victims' champion wins over Swiss establishment


By Isabelle Eichenberger


Guido Fluri's business operates out of canton Zug (swissinfo.ch)

Guido Fluri's business operates out of canton Zug

(swissinfo.ch)

Guido Fluri, former boys home resident turned multimillionaire, is mustering all his energy and influence to ensure the voices of the victims of forced institutionalisation policies are heard.

In record time Fluri and his committee managed to gather 110,000 signatures supporting a proposal to establish a compensation fund. The issue will now be put to a national vote, a prospect that pushed the government into proposing its own compensation terms earlier this year. 

“It’s extraordinary. Our initiative had only just been registered with the Federal Chancellery and already the government has a counter proposal!” Fluri told swissinfo.ch.

Himself a victim of forced administration policies, 48-year-old Fluri from Solothurn is the driving force behind the popular initiative “for reparations”. The initiative is the result of an intense lobbying effort of decision-makers from across the spectrum, including Rotary members, and heavyweights in government, political, business, religious, and agricultural circles.

The initiative committee and its support group are made up of an impressive array of personalities, including the likes of writer Lukas Hartmann, husband of justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga. Fluri even wrote to the Pope, who invited him to a general audience in the Vatican on March 25.

As he welcomes us into his luxurious office in an historic house in Cham, canton Zug, the casually elegant businessman offers a firm handshake, exuding energy, efficiency and sensitivity.

“I am the ‘classic’ illegitimate child, if I can say that,” he says. “My mother was 17 when I was born and was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly afterwards. I never knew my father, he was married. In a village of 1,000 people (Matzendorf, in canton Solothurn) it was a scandal, and immense shame. Moreover, the word ‘illegitimate’ is still profoundly engrained in my mother’s psyche.”

The early years were “more difficult than not”, before his mother was interned and Fluri was placed with a family for a short period before being moved to a boys home in Mümsliswil.

“Certain things were not right”

“I was locked up and suffered punishments, but I wasn’t as systematically mistreated as other children, physically and psychologically,” Fluri says, adding that “certain things were not right at Mümsliswil”.

Fluri does not think of himself as a victim of institutional mistreatment. Perhaps that’s why he talks of his childhood with an evasive modesty. Or perhaps because for him, the worst in life was still to come. At the age of six, his grandparents gave him a home only for his grandfather to die of cancer two years later. When he was ten, his grandmother’s house was destroyed by fire following which his uncle, his “father figure”, was killed in a car accident when he was 12.

“These losses were very difficult, I went through some very traumatic periods. My life was dominated by a fear of dying the next day. I simply didn’t have any solid ground under my feet. For a long time I felt this existential threat, this huge insecurity,” recalls Fluri.

Gifted with an analytical mind and enormous discipline, Fluri overcame his old fears and created his first business when he was 20 years old. With the savings from his apprenticeship at a petrol station, he purchased some land and obtained a bank loan to build a house.

“It was important for me … Having a roof over my head gave me a certain stability,” says Fluri.

Material success led to empathy rather than anger.

“Very young, before I was 30, I felt the need to think about the meaning of life, our presence on earth and to engage in social issues. I am not religious, but I’m a believer. I was looking for signs,” he says.

Empathy at work

In 2010, Fluri created his own foundation with the aim of assisting research into schizophrenia and brain cancer (Fluri has an ear tumour), and of combatting violence against children. Thirty percent of his business profits are directed to the foundation. In 2011, Fluri purchased his former boys home of Mümsliswil and transformed it into the first national memorial for mistreated children, which is now regularly visited by school groups from across the country.

Previously, he had already begun research into finding former victims of forced administration policies.

“It was very difficult to get these people to speak. They were often severely traumatised and cut off from life, living in poverty,” explains Fluri. “I decided to defend their interests and I started lobbying. But I ended up feeling powerless when I realised that the political players whom I was dealing with often had no idea what I was talking about, about what these people had been through, and that I hadn’t managed to break down their indifference.”

In November 2013, the businessman decided to up the ante: “I realised that I had to apply major pressure at every level to unite people and find a solution together. One night, I had the idea of an initiative and I swore to myself I would get a majority to pass it.”

In April 2014, the committee for the initiative was created and collecting signatures began. It took “dozens of hours of haggling” to unite representatives from religious, political, agricultural, business and intellectual communities and find agreement on the creation of a CHF500 million ($496.4 million) compensation fund. The 110,000 signatures were registered with the federal chancellery in December, and in January the government announced its acceptance of the principle of compensation and an indirect counter-project which will be finalised this summer.

However, in its proposal, the government has revised down the total compensation fund to CHF250 – 300 million because according to its calculations, there are just 12,000 surviving victims of forced administrative policies compared with the 15,000 estimated by the initiative committee.

As the consultation process begins with key stakeholders, Fluri will continue his tireless lobbying work, especially with the parties on the right who remain particularly cautious.

“When it involves money, it hurts, that’s true,” he says. “It’s complicated to come up with an amount, but we have to be realistic. We can’t ask too much, but nothing can be done without money either. We cannot apply liberalism [limited government and laissez-faire policies in the Swiss context] to people who die in poverty in a country that defends human rights around the world.” 

A long road

1981: following the 1974 ratification 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.

1999: parliamentary initiative for compensation for victims of forced sterilisation.

2009: parliamentary initiative for redress for moral wrongs to minors placed in educational institutions.

2009-2013: the travelling exhibition “Stolen Children” presents 300 witness accounts and photos across Switzerland.

2011: parliamentary inquiry into the rehabilitation of people placed under administration; another calls for an examination of the historical conscience and the excuses of the authorities.

March 2014: parliament adopts the rehabilitation law, launches a research project and guarantees victims access to their files.

July 2014: The Round Table establishes a fund for immediate aid to victims. To date, 650 requests for assistance have been received, including 450 which have been examined and 400 which have received funds totalling CHF3 million, around CHF8,000 per victim.

December 2014: registration of the popular initiative for compensation calling for the creation of a CHF500 million compensation fund, signed by 110,000 people.

January 2015: the government recognises the principle of compensation and announces a counter-project to be delivered by summer.

 

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.


Translated from French by Sophie Douez, swissinfo.ch

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