School of Thought: Cruel mind games – Inside the World of a cult

At 1am on a freezing January night two carloads of people are speeding south down the M1. It is dark. At such an hour you might expect a sleepy silence to reign. But no – a mood of relief and gaiety has gripped the passengers, all foreign, mostly young. It is as if a coiled spring of tension has just snapped, leaving them talking and laughing with relief. It is as though Lars, Annelie, Gita, Simone and Uwe have escaped.

Lars, who is Swedish, is driving the car behind. He rings the lead car on his mobile phone. “What is the speed limit here? I’m doing 90. There’s a police car behind me with a blue light.” For some reason this provokes hilarity. But Lars is not stopped and the journey to London continues.

The place the five are so eager to get away from is a grim, red-brick private college in the windswept flatlands of East Yorkshire, eight miles east of Hull, just outside the village of Winestead. To locals it is Winestead Hall, once a hospital, now some sort of international school. To students who might pick up its brochures in a university common room, read its newspaper ads or surf the Internet, it is the College for International Co-operation and Development (CICD).

The college “educates and prepares people for development work in the Third World” in Angola, Mozambique and Malawi. Students come from Britain, Ireland, China, Poland and New Zealand. Usually they are in their teens and twenties, looking for the opportunity to do some travel and voluntary work abroad before settling down to a university course or job.

Annelie Karlqvist, 20, who lives near Stockholm, saw an ad for CICD in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheder. She went to a meeting in Stockholm and decided to enrol, working as a receptionist and saving for four months to meet the £2,000 CICD asked her to pay in advance. She arrived in England in November and went to Hull, where she found the college a touch spartan and with a disappointingly small staff – one head teacher and a teacher – and no more than a dozen students. But she settled into a routine of classes, household rotas, evening singsongs, class meetings and sports activities, and wrote frequent letters home. It was the letters that gave it away. Her father, Lars, says: “Her mother [Marianne] knew something odd was going on. Annelie described a lifestyle that was not normal for such a college. An older person can see it right away but she is young and thinks it usual.

“It seemed she was never left alone and had almost no time for herself. It was ‘you have to join in’. The work seemed so hard, but it was about the upkeep of the school, not learning about Africa. And she had to spend so much time raising money in the streets and handing out leaflets.”

Two friends in Sweden, Olof and Jessica, were also alarmed by what they read. On the telephone Annelie seemed “burnt out” and to be spending all her waking hours on tasks such as repainting the school walls, working in the kitchen and fundraising. The friends contacted FRI, the Swedish cult information group, which put them in touch with a Dane, Bent Johanessen.

Johanessen confirmed that CICD was connected to the Danish (now worldwide) organisation Tvind. The day before Christmas Eve, Lars and Marianne rang Johanessen in Stockholm. “The sooner you get Annelie home, the better. Don’t let her go back to England,” he said. Over the Christmas holidays Marianne and Lars made phone calls, searched the Internet and filled a binder with papers. One day in Stockholm they sat down with Annelie and her two friends and gave her the dossier, saying: “There are a few things you need to know.” Annelie resolved to return to the school in January, with her father, to collect her belongings and confront the staff.

Meanwhile, other students were growing suspicious. Gita, a New Zealander – who enrolled after seeing an ad in a free newspaper – was the first. So keen a sleuth was she, surfing the Internet and asking questions under the noses of the teachers, that students in the know called her Miss Marple. Gita found they had a lot to learn about the college and its links with other organisations in Scandinavia and the US. CICD acknowledged that it operated “in co-operation with the International Humana People-to-People movement.”

“I was determined to find out who I would be working for, who the managers or top guys of Humana were,” says Gita.

Other students visited from Denmark, where there are several colleges similar to CICD known as “Travelling Folk High Schools”. She asked several about Humana; they all had a stock answer: “We don’t really know Humana. As long as we are going to be doing good work in Africa, we don’t see the need to find out who they are.”

Gita says: “I wondered why no one questioned anything about this mystery organisation that was supposed to send us to Africa to do volunteer work.” But she persisted. One niggle was that CICD always seemed short of money, even though most students had paid thousands of pounds upfront and were constantly sent to collect more money on the streets of Hull, Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, the college appeared so poor that it was falling apart, and students were told to carry out repairs. Yet when Gita met senior staff from Denmark they seemed to represent a wealthy organisation.

Surfing the Internet, Gita began to uncover Winestead Hall’s history. The students had not known, for example, about Winestead Hall School, which occupied the same premises until two years ago. One of CICD’s two teachers, Rolf, had taught there, an expensive residential boarding school for emotionally disturbed teenagers, whose fees were met by English local authorities. The school, run through a charity called Small School at Red House, had been forced to close in January 1998 after investigations by the Charity Commission, education and social services inspectors, and a firm of chartered accountants.

Gita established that the organisation that owned and ran the school was running the college, operating as CICD, Humana People-to-People, Development Aid from People-to-People, UFF, and Planet Aid. She also found the name of Winestead Hall School’s last headmaster: Steen Thomsen, a Dane.

Thomsen, now living in Denmark, revealed some interesting facts. “When I mentioned his name to Karen Barsoe, CICD’s Principal, she looked shocked,” says Gita. Miss Marple had found her mark.

Gita and other students compared notes: “One then found some information about Humana/Tvind and it was not favourable; newspapers had written articles mentioning money misused. All sorts of things ran through our minds, we discussed several possibilities, then decided to confront CICD’s staff.”

Most students were not impressed with the answers they got. “It was upsetting,” says Clare Brogan, from Ireland. “We weren’t told all there was to know. I am so angry at them for making something very bad out of something that could have been so good. It’s a disgrace.” Clare went back to Ireland, Annelie to Sweden, Gita to New Zealand and Simone returned with Uwe, her brother, to Cologne. In all, nine students left CICD after Gita’s discoveries. Karen Barsoe refused to speak to The Times.

Hull-based CICD is Tvind’s main British outpost. Nobody knows what to make of the organisation – it is part “schools co-operation”, part “clothes-recycling project”, part “Third World volunteer organisation”, part instrument of world revolution, part multinational business concern. Some people devote their lives to it, but many believe it is exploiting naive young people.

One person who knows as much as anyone is Thomsen, 51. In 1971, as a university student in Denmark, he saw a notice headed “Do you want to go to India?”. It was an invitation to enrol at a teacher-training college being built in a field outside Ulfborg in western Denmark, on a farm called Tvind. The school was called the Necessary Teacher Training College (DNS).

The man behind DNS was a fellow Dane, Mogens Amdi Petersen, then a 31-year-old schoolteacher and left-wing activist. Unsuccessful in the state system, he had decided to found a school system of his own, apparently with a view to creating paradise on Earth. Within a few years the organisation had 40 schools in Denmark, Norway, England and the US, and a variety of money-raising schemes, all wearing the badge of right-on respectability: clothes-recycling for the Third World, charity flea markets, collections for Africa and volunteer work in Central America.

But it was not paradise on Earth. Thomsen, who remained loyal for 26 years, says Petersen’s baby grew into a monster, a cult in which political correctness, loyalty and obedience to Petersen were the most important things.

Opponents say the same values still apply: loyal followers may be invited to join a select inner circle, the Teachers Group, where they are expected to pool all their resources, income and assets. Loyalty to the cause is everything. Tvind’s hold over its adherents is such that it has spawned a countergroup in Scandinavia, the Movement Against Tvind, dedicated to warning young people about its true nature.

Loyalty to Petersen was at the top of Thomsen’s agenda when he was the Head at Winestead Hall School; now he is a whistleblower. He admitted to The Times that education and social work inspectors had not been told the whole truth about the school. “We gave the impression it was well run; it was not. There were not enough staff to look after the children; we worked all day and half the night. We never admitted that to the inspectors. We were also told to deny any involvement with Tvind.”

He alleges that the school was a “money machine” for Tvind; much of the fees the school got from local authorities to pay for the children’s education were not spent on Winestead at all but were spirited to Denmark via a leasing arrangement with an offshore Channel Islands company that Tvind also happens to run. The link between the school and the offshore company was never disclosed to the Charity Commission in annual accounts.

The commission said it had in 1996 appointed a receiver and manager to run the charity through which Tvind ran the school because of concerns about its financial controls and administration. “The report to the commission from the receiver and manager indicated that substantial sums of charitable money had been unwisely spent on leases taken out on the school premises and on three yachts. It was estimated that hundreds of thousands of pounds had been lost to the charity.” As a result the trustees were suspended and removed by the Charity Commissioners in July 1997.

New trustees were appointed, some of them experienced in education, but later that year the new trustees approached the Charity Commission with serious concerns about the welfare and safety of the children after two inspections by HMI and the placing authorities, Norfolk and East Riding. The receiver and manager was reappointed and said there was no alternative but to close the schools immediately on the ground that the “health, safety and welfare of the children could not be guaranteed.”

The revelations did not surprise Robert Lake, the director of Humberside Social Services with responsibility for the school in the early 1990s. He instructed staff not to send children there and asked officials if it could be closed. When told there were no grounds to do so he wrote to all social services departments advising them not to send children. “It is a matter of public record that in the early 1990s I was very concerned about the care offered to children at Winestead Hall. If the same organisation were to reopen the premises, working in the same way, it would reawaken my concern,” he says.

It is astonishing that, though a connection between Tvind and the schools had long been suspected, Winestead Hall and Red House Schools had avoided detailed scrutiny for so long, for Tvind is very controversial in its native Denmark. Its ability to claim millions of krone from the State in funding for its schools has led to attempts to change the Constitution. Most Danes are aware – and concerned – that Tvind has become a multinational business concern as well as, according to its own lights, an educational and aid charity. Apparently funded by its own members, volunteers, public donations and official grants, Tvind has reportedly invested in property, fruit plantations, old-clothes trading in Central America, Africa and the Pacific – though these commercial ventures are rarely disclosed to young volunteers.

In several countries leading members of the Teachers Group are known to enjoy a second role as directors of commercial concerns linked to Tvind. Last month a Danish Sunday newspaper linked it with a recently opened computer business and a factory making furniture in China. Yet another Tvind subsidiary, Planet Aid, has begun siting clothes-recycling bins and coin-collection boxes in stores and petrol stations across the US, sometimes to the despair of competing local charities.

Though few Danes deem Tvind a cult – it is more often seen as a fringe political movement – it shares many characteristics described by the Cult Information Centre (CIC): a centralised organisation with a powerful leader, dedicated to its own survival and recruiting new members. In France the Chamber of Deputies two years ago cited Humana-Tvind as “une secte” and it has also been listed as a cult by a Belgian parliamentary inquiry. The experience of several longstanding members supports this.

Thomsen, who was close to the core leadership and received regular phone calls from Petersen, describes an organisation riddled with paranoia, misinformation and topsy-turvy values. Britta Rasmussen, a Dane who worked for Tvind for seven years, realised the gravity of her situation when she was refused permission to fly home from her post in America to visit her mother, who had terminal cancer. Rasmussen stole her passport from an office at 4am, climbed out of a window and hitch-hiked to New York. Others who have left have similar stories, and many are traumatised. Anne Ellingsen, a Norwegian former volunteer, told a conference on cults in 1993: “The sect is dangerous and should be watched with attention by authorities and private persons wherever it operates.”

Tvind’s supporters say 40,000 young people have benefited from the schools and contact with the Third World. So what is so dangerous about Tvind? Quite apart from the flow of allegations about psychological pressure from those who have been most closely involved, a stream of young people who have spent only a few months as volunteer solidarity workers have come forward with alarming stories. They say workers often become blinkered to commonsense rules about safety because of the ideological pre-eminence of the cause to which they have become committed.

Tvind students of both sexes are often expected to hitch-hike, seek accommodation with strangers and walk the streets of foreign cities alone. In 1983 eight young members of the Teachers Group died when their ship, the Activ, sank in a gale in the English channel. It later emerged that the ship was not seaworthy and its crew had no experience; but they had been summoned to a meeting in Denmark. Else Waale, some of whose friends died, says: “It was unthinkable not to go, there was no excuse for staying away. So they died for it.”

Despite setbacks, Tvind continues to find Britain a fertile ground for recruitment. CICD and its sister colleges in Scandinavia advertise in Britain for young people to train as solidarity workers, sending volunteers to distribute leaflets in university common rooms, placing ads in regional and national newspapers, and magazines likely to be read by young people.

In Britain the leading educational charities offering advice on cults, the CIC and FAIR (Family, Action, Information and Resource), have received complaints about Tvind and its organisations and say they have received requests for help. “I’d be very concerned for the welfare of anyone associated with Tvind or any of its associated companies,” says Ian Haworth of the CIC.

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Dr Elizabeth Tilden, a consultant psychiatrist with an interest in mind control, has studied other “potential” cults and has met cases of people damaged by contact with such cults. They refused to accept any criticism of the cause they had joined, even if presented with evidence of financial or moral wrongdoing. “You believe what you are being asked to do is for the good of humanity and are persuaded that the way you are acting is the right way. Often there is an extreme degree of privation. You become a martyr, your self is no longer important, you glorify the cause and nothing else matters,” she said.

“Cults like this usually are careful to select highly intelligent people with a good background, and it is important that they be people with strong moral fibre, or who have had a religious upbringing. The cult gets them by breaking that down and substituting its own values. It becomes a belief system, and can be so thorough that you can become isolated from everything, particularly from parents, friends and loved ones. It is your new job.”

Or, as one anonymous informant wrote in an e-mail: “Be careful, look out for yourself and don’t give them any money.” Another wrote: “Tvind and all the enthusiastic people working at its organisations know the answers of everything. Join them, and you will never have to worry about thinking for yourself.”

If there is one person we would like to ask all about this, it is Mogens Amdi Petersen, now 61, healthy and, close informants say, still very much in charge of the organisation he created. But don’t let us get too hopeful – Petersen went “underground” more than 20 years ago. He has not been seen in public, held a photo opportunity or given a press conference in all that time. Only a handful of people know his whereabouts at any one time; insiders say he is living in Florida or Zimbabwe.

One person who would like to find him is Annelie – and so would her parents. Lars, who flew over from Sweden especially to bring his daughter home, aimed to confront the teachers at CICD. But, when cornered, the two Tvind teachers at Winestead simply turned on the charm, denied that anything was amiss and seemed not to understand why all the young people couldn’t think like them – that’s the Tvind way.

“I’m so relieved to be out of there,” says Annelie. “Another two months and who knows how I might have ended up?”

Case history 1 – Bob Nelson

Bob Nelson, 23, a former pig farmer from Huntly, near Aberdeen, enrolled with Tvind after seeing an ad headed “Africa needs you”. He rang the number and was invited to Denmark for an “information weekend”, which he described as exciting. He was promised training, then work on an aid project in Africa.

Unable to afford the ?2,000 advance fee, he agreed to work as a volunteer for three months at a clothes-sorting centre in Norway to defray the costs. Once there, he says he was expected to work up to 16 hours a day in return for living expenses of ?30 a week. When he demurred his boss was unsympathetic. “He was a workaholic and wouldn’t accept criticism. The place was in chaos. We were given more work than we could cope with but there was no reasoning with him.”

In February 1999 he went to the Travelling Folk High School in Denmark, where he expected to learn practical skills. But he says: “There was no proper training. The teachers had no respect for the students and the students held the staff in contempt.”

After eight weeks he was sent out to raise money on the streets of Copenhagen, selling college newspapers to passers-by. Students had a target of ?100 a day and were told that if they did not achieve it, they could not go to Africa. But Nelson grew suspicious when people on the street told him he was raising money on false pretences. “Everyone in Denmark knows about Tvind and most people despise it,” he says. “They would tell me to ask the teachers about Mogens Amdi Petersen, and about where the money was going. When I did the teachers got defensive and hostile and wouldn’t talk about it.”

Nelson hoped his time in Mozambique would prove better. But when he arrived in Maputo with one other solidarity worker there was no one to meet him; he had to find his own way to the ADPP compound. He handed over his passport and had to travel without proper documents for the next five months. At Tvind’s teacher training college in Nacala, where he was supposed to train young Africans, the administration was chaotic. “There was no leadership, we felt lost. It was six or seven weeks before there was a proper meeting and we were told what to do. The school was tense. The Danish project leaders had tunnel vision. The Africans hated the Danes, called them neo-colonialists.”

Eventually, Nelson left the project a month early, retrieved his passport and made his way home through Zimbabwe and South Africa. “These people use the prospect of going to Africa as bait; once you are hooked they get what they want from you,” he says. “It’s all about money and getting people to join. They make you work veryhard and undermine your independence. They get you to do things over and over without questioning anything. After a while you stop thinking for yourself; if you are weak, you end up becoming one of them.

“They don’t care for anyone but themselves. I met lots of genuine, lovely people who were being used and abused in the same way.”

Case history 2 – Nick Moss

As a 21-year-old graduate Nick Moss thought he would be helping Africa’s poor when he enrolled at Travelling Folk High School in Juelsminde, western Denmark. But after six disastrous months in Angola he concluded Tvind was more interested in its own status and power than alleviating world poverty, and has since publicly campaigned against the organisation.

Within a week of arriving at Juelsminde Moss, from Hull, became suspicious of the teaching methods. Older teachers employed classic manipulative techniques to pressurise young students and make them conform to their own ideology, he says. “There was a tendency among the members of the Teachers Group to control the intellectual and social interaction of students. Intimidation, shouting people down and the manipulation of group dynamics in a way I can only describe as Stalinistic were common techniques.” Moss himself was “berated” for “not participating enough” in a debate and subjected to ridicule before other students, apparently because of his university education. “My teacher was offensive and threatening. I put up with it because I thought it would all work out when I got to Africa.”

Moss spent weeks raising funds, selling postcards on the streets in Germany, before arriving in Angola in February 1996. There things were even worse. Volunteers had to share a house in isolated Mosquito Valley, with poor security and no electricity, though Danish project leaders lived in better conditions in the local town, Benguela. The team’s radio rarely worked. “Bullets regularly flew over the roof as armed guards defended the surrounding banana plantations from theft. We had not been prepared for any of this.”

Within a week of arriving he contracted malaria but claims that a project leader did not take him to a clinic for five days. During four bouts of malaria his temperature hit 41C, but he saw only a local doctor and on one occasion was told he would have to send a fax to Denmark before other treatment could be authorised. “Young people who go to Africa with Tvind are placed at unnecessary risk,” he says.

An old idea recycled

Five years ago Humana UK was one of Britain’s main clothes-recycling charities. It was a big outpost of Tvind’s empire, ostensibly channelling thousands of pounds to African aid projects.

Last year the Charity Commission in effect closed Humana because of concerns that the money might not be used for its intended purpose. But Tvind has reappeared, as Planet Aid UK. Its publicity director, Danish-born Birgit Soe, says it has a mission to “see the country filled” with clothes collection boxes. But Planet Aid UK is a commercial venture, not a charity.

In Kettering, Planet Aid boxes have appeared outside post offices and pubs. A council officer says a man with a foreign accent rang on behalf of Planet Aid UK and assured them it was a registered charity. In fact, Planet Aid UK applied to the Charity Commission for charity status but then withdrew the application. The address given, in Goldsmith Avenue, London W3, was used in the past by Humana.

The commission began investigating Humana after newspaper reports in 1993 suggested that only 8 per cent of its income was being used for charity, with the rest spent on “administration.”

Humana UK was put in receivership and the commission used new powers to appoint additional, non-Tvind, trustees to the charity’s board. But last year, with new and old trustees unable to work together, the commission dismissed all the Scandinavian ones and put the charity under new management; 900 Humana clothes collection boxes around Britain and its seven shops are the responsibility of Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development, which is rebranding them. The money Traid raises is being passed to charities such as Oxfam and Care International.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 2, 2000.
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