Jamil signed up for a charity. Now it's being called a cult

The shooting of Syma Jamil has thrown the spotlight on an organisation which she defends, but others say is a cult.

The Scotsman, Edinburgh/January 31, 2000
By Michael Durham

Syma Jamil was exactly where she wanted to be at the start of the new century - in a dangerous but beautiful part of Africa, trying to make a difference as an aid worker. But as she drove a mini-bus of fellow volunteers through deep bush in Namibia, they were ambushed by militiamen. Jamil, 25, from Glasgow, heard cracking sounds, saw sparks flying and her right leg seemed to explode. "My friends yelled at me "Drive! Drive! Drive!" There were ten men with guns racing towards us from behind. There was lots of pain, and lots of blood. I shouted that I couldn't move my leg so the guy in the passenger seat dived over and pushed down the accelerator with his hand. We had to get out of there. It was life and death."

Three French children weren't so lucky - they were murdered at the same spot minutes after Jamil steered the charity team to safety. She returned to Scotland nine days ago to recover from her terrifying ordeal, much to the relief of her family, who know all about her sense of adventure. "Syma wants to contribute and do something useful," her sister, Shakila, said.

Jamil is typical of young people enlisted by charities from universities with the promise of seeing the world and helping others. And Development Aid from People to People (DAPP), for whom she is a volunteer, seems typical. It recruits heavily in Scotland, through newspapers and advertisements pinned to campus noticeboards as well as on the internet.

But there is a lot more to the Danish-based DAPP than its idealistic young volunteers really know. If recruits ring the telephone number in Denmark, they may make an appointment to come to an introductory meeting in Glasgow or Edinburgh. There they will learn that for a price - usually around £2,000 - they will have the opportunity to train as a DAPP volunteer at a college in England, Denmark or Norway.

So far, so good. But, while the young volunteers set about raising the cash and applying for a passport, there is a great deal they will not be told about the mysterious organisation behind DAPP - and if they have any questions, they may not get the answers they seek. Nick Moss, for example, a 21-year-old from Hull, joined up as a DAPP volunteer in 1994. He paid his money, enrolled at a college in Denmark - curiously named the Travelling Folk High School - and eventually arrived in Angola, where he was supposed to work building latrines in a remote rural area.

But from the start he became suspicious of the real motives and methods of the teachers, project leaders and support staff he met. He discovered that most of the senior staff belonged to a mysterious organisation, known as the Teachers' Group. Far from simply setting volunteers to work on aid projects, Moss says they wanted to control his thoughts.

Now 26, Moss says: "Right from the beginning, I found there was a tendency on the part of members of the Teachers' Group, particularly the older, more senior members, to control as far as possible the intellectual and social interaction of all students. It is difficult to explain exactly how they attempt to make people conform to their own mode of thinking, but intimidation, shouting people down, and the manipulation of group dynamics in a way I can only describe as Stalinistic are common techniques." Moss describes meetings in Denmark and Angola which lasted for hours and would not finish until everybody in the room thought the same way. And he is far from alone in his experiences. Dozens of people have come forward with their own personal accounts of ideological browbeating, bullying and psychological manipulation at the hands of members of the Teachers' Group - many now posted on the internet.

When they volunteer, young recruits to DAPP often do not realise they will be expected to work unreasonably long hours, or that they will be allowed almost no time for private leisure and reflection. Nor are they always told that they will be expected to "fund-raise" on the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oslo or Stockholm. Steen Thomsen, who worked for DAPP in England for seven years, last year left the organisation and, in his own words, decided to "blow the whistle." The organisation, he said, had used him. Thomsen was head teacher of the one of its schools in England, Winestead Hall School near Hull, until he resigned in 1998.

Thomsen now lives in a cottage in western Jutland, where he has spent much of the past year giving interviews to Danish newspapers and television. He left, he said, because of a "total lack of personal freedom," the lack of a private life or friends outside the organisation, a ban on personal possessions, and the feeling he was just part of "a money machine." As a member of the Teachers' Group, Thomsen disclosed he had signed an undertaking to make over all his income, private property, time and energy to the shadowy organisation behind DAPP. He burned his family papers and photograph albums, stopped seeing his parents, and handed over to the Teachers' Group a farm worth £70,000 which he had inherited from an uncle. In all he reckons he gave DAPP £300,000 over 26 years.

Two years ago, the Charity Commission and English local authorities closed down both of DAPP's schools, including Winestead Hall, and all its seven charity shops because of concerns over what they described as "serious financial irregularities" and worries over the welfare of pupils. Britta Rasmussen, another Dane, spent eight years inside the Teachers' Group. In 1984, working for DAPP in America, she was refused permission to fly home to see her mother who was dying of cancer. She stole her passport from the office safe, fled to New York, and flew home.

Moss, Thomsen and Rasmussen have no hesitation in calling it a cult. The truth, as it has come out in personal testimony over 20 years, is that DAPP is part of a much bigger organisation with global ambitions. At the top is the leader, Mogens Amdi Petersen, a 61-year-old Danish teacher. According to insiders, he is the charismatic guru who issues all the orders and makes policy, yet for more than 20 years he has been "underground," never appearing in public.

Beneath him is a small group of fanatically loyal followers who are the only ones who know where he is and what he does. Then there are the several hundred members of the Teachers' Group. But the secret of DAPP - known as "Tvind" in Scandinavia - is beginning to leak out.

In France, it is officially recognised as a cult by the Chamber of Deputies, and questions have been asked in the Danish and Belgian parliaments. The European Union stopped funding it ages ago, Unicef will have no truck with it, and the United Nations is said to have a large and disturbing file on it.

Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre says: "This is an organisation we know about and are very concerned about. We would advise young people to have nothing to do with Tvind."

Even as Jamil was fighting for her life in Windhoek Medi-Clinic on the evening of 5 January, another group of young people 5,000 miles away had reached their own conclusions about DAPP. Simone Pickhan, 23, from Germany, her brother Uwe and two car-loads of friends were driving up the M1 in England from Gatwick Airport to Hull, where the organisation has its English recruitment centre and training college.

The young people from several countries had already spent several weeks at the International College of Development, having each paid £2,000 in advance each for the course. Over the Christmas holidays they pooled information gleaned from the internet, friends, newspaper articles and books. What they found disturbed them.

Seven teenagers decided to leave. Annalie, from Sweden, who was collected by her father Lars and taken home to Stockholm, said: "I am so relieved to be home. I'm sure that if I would have stayed two more months before going home, it would be very difficult to get myself out of there. And then it could have been dangerous."

Contacted by The Scotsman on her return last week, Syma Jamil refused to believe she could have been close to anything so sinister. "At no time did I experience any cultish activities. In fact, I had an extremely good nine months out there. OK, it was tough at the training school in Norway, but there are stages in your life that are like that."

"So the French government has issued a report? Well, governments say a lot of things that aren't right." Nonetheless, Syma will not be returning to work for DAPP. She will look for another aid organisation to work for. Whether she chooses to believe the evidence or not, her wounded leg might turn out to have been the luckiest escape she has ever had.

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