He was literally starving in Harrow – the wealthiest Tamil area of London. A recent torture survivor from Sri Lanka, he had lost ten kilos in two months in the UK. When he called us for help, he was crying and huddled under the bedclothes to keep warm wearing the second hand coat we’d given him. The Tamil GP had refused to register him at the local medical practice; later he collapsed and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
He was 16 at the end of the war in Sri Lanka, a child. He escaped forced recruitment by the LTTE because his older cousin volunteered to fight in his place. She was killed. He remembers the ceiling collapsing and sheltering in a church that came under fire. He lost his grandfather in the chaos – never seen since. They dug a bunker by the edge of the lagoon only to hit a decomposing corpse – there was no choice but to put a canvas down and sleep there. His injured aunt died from lack of medical treatment; a second cousin was killed.
These are the survivors of Sri Lanka’s war and the deep state’s “white vans” that were supposed miraculously to stop plying because a new government came to power. The victims are hardly sophisticated people expert in manipulating complex and contradictory immigration systems throughout Europe. Like so many others, this terrified Tamil man still has no idea that he has rights. After his asylum interview he took an overdose and it was pure chance someone checked on him; he very nearly died aged 24. It’s when they’re “safe” in Britain that the suicide attempts start – the overdoses, the cutting, the attempted hangings.
These are the Mullivaikkal survivors you don’t hear about. Men who left pregnant wives and new born babies in Sri Lanka years after the war to flee for their lives, men who just finished laboriously rebuilding homes after the war. Despite being tortured once, they still think they can make it in their own country when they are released the first time. It’s now common to see victims tortured on multiple occasions – astonishingly sometimes abducted more than once in a white van.
One man was “rehabilitated” as a former combatant and then abducted in 2016 just after he’d got married. He was brutally tortured and raped in detention. A few weeks ago he was interviewed by immigration officials in the UK and that night went home and promptly took an overdose because he thought they didn’t believe him. He was unconscious in Intensive Care in hospital for 24 hours. The irony is the Home Office did actually believe his account of torture under the Sirisena Government but nevertheless they now say it’s safe for him to go back to Sri Lanka, citing diplomats and civil society in Colombo who say it’s so much better under the new Government. The inherent contradiction in this position is extraordinary. But it also shows the human cost of the denial.
The overwhelming response in Sri Lanka has been to cast vague doubts at the accounts of the survivors of ongoing abduction and torture without actually engaging with the evidence.
There’s an irrational assumption that victims should go and report their violations to an NGO before fleeing the country. The survivor’s testimony is ignored and instead the focus is on the context they left behind. Most victims we meet cannot name a human rights organisation in the north. Some families do go to the Human Rights Commission and file heartrending complaints to no avail. One went to the police only to be told “that sort of thing doesn’t happen under this government” which rather implied it did under the previous one.
The ethnic dimension of the torture is played down even though the perpetrators are quite clear they are torturing and raping their victims because they are Tamils demanding their political rights – the language of the torture chamber is ethnically derogatory. The torturers laugh and joke in Sinhala while they wreak havoc on people’s bodies. How must the survivors feel to hear the international community and the government talk of “reconciliation” after being laughed at while they were screaming and gasping for air?
Part of the denial involves regarding the war-time and post-war atrocities as isolated incidents, not system crimes. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was very clear in 2015 that Sri Lanka’s security forces had used sexual violence as a matter of policy and that the country’s institutions were not ready to investigate the scale and extent of the crimes. Why would the police and military stop such engrained practices overnight, especially when huge sums of money are paid as ransom? A few polite edicts from the President won’t deter people who have normalised and profited financially from brutality. Prosecutions are required; the fact they haven’t happened sends a signal that impunity is still the name of the game.
Some suggest the recent victims are paying other people to tie them up and burn them with hot metal rods to obtain the scars they need to go to Europe, claim asylum and secure a better life. There is even a scientific sounding euphemism: “self-infliction by proxy”. No matter that doctors say there is no medical proof of this anywhere in the world. Of course, there are some people low enough to lie about being detained and tortured but this doesn’t mean every victim is bogus. In any case being tortured will not secure you asylum in the UK these days – you also have to prove future risk and that’s made more difficult because of the blanket denial.
Most branding victims have multiple burn wounds on their backs and legs when one or two small cigarette burns would be enough to demonstrate torture. They might have up to 30 cigarette burns on their body – often on their genitals or breasts, bra strap area and inner thighs, if they are women. What Tamil woman is going to pay someone to torture her in places that would require her to be completely naked? Many branding victims have also been subjected to falaka – the beating of the soles of the feet – which they say is like electricity running through their body and, while not leaving visible scars, this torture leaves them in pain for life when they walk. They also have rope burns around the wrists and ankles. And if torture were self-inflicted it would not cause so much psychological damage – there would not be so many attempted suicides.
And then there’s the rape – many young men say they didn’t know it was possible for men to rape other men until it happened to them. They struggle to describe unspeakable depravity, risking stigmatisation in their community. They shake, cry and sometimes even vomit when they recount their experiences. It would be very hard to fake the traumatic response to torture and sexual violence.
These are people who have suffered so intensely that most at some point want to end their lives. The deniers should look themselves in the eye for a moment and wonder how disgraceful they would be if wrong. And what an abominable insult their behaviour would be to genuine torture victims still desperately struggling to hold on to life.