Out of the many women of courage the world has seen, three stand out for me. If courage is measured in real terms, free of prejudice, they would win hands down.
My women of courage are Issaipriya, Vany Kumar and Ananthi Sasitharan,
They’re icons in our struggle for justice and freedom, but they’re labelled as “terrorists”.
It is about these women of courage that I want to write about.
Take Issaipriya, a young woman who worked as a correspondent and news reader for the Tamil Tiger communications wing, whom the Sri Lankan government claimed was a combatant who died in combat. Now it has come to light that Issaipriya was a non-combatant and did not die in combat, was indeed taken alive by Sri Lankan soldiers, a fact, caught on camera which Channel 4 UK called “chilling new evidence” which would one day serve to convict the psychopaths who stripped her naked, gang raped her, mutilated her private parts, inflicted gashes on her face and head and executed her.
In seeking justice for Issaipriya, I wrote a piece published in the Tamil Mirror. It was also found posted in a Tamil Tiger website. I too have a label pinned on me as a ‘terrorist”.
In my appeal to world leaders for an international investigation drawing attention to “the sheer brutality” inflicted on Tamils, I wrote of Issaipriya, her bloody rape and execution style murder, a war crime for which the dreadful and savage Sri Lankan army must be held accountable. I wrote:
“Evidence of the sheer horror of the brutality inflicted on Tamils providing “definitive proof”, has now emerged. Gruesome and graphic video footage shown by Channel 4 News of the naked body of a woman now identified as Issaipriya, a journalist and anchor woman for the rebel television station, “Oliveechchu” a non combatant, bound and shot to death has shocked the world. “Damning details of the date of her death and the soldiers who killed both listed on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence website, fixing the date of the video more accurately and indicating which troops were active at that time,” is definitive.
It is suspected Issaipriya may have been gang raped before she was shot dead, these suspicions arising from the lewd comments of her killers, heard in the background in the video footage. The appalling way Issaipriya and the other women and men shown in the video have been treated has to be seriously investigated. Their killers who have behaved like psychopaths not soldiers, real beasts not men of valour and their bosses (in accordance with the doctrine of command responsibility if nothing else), have to have their day in court.
Issaipriya an intelligent, multi-talented beauty with an angelic voice, the darling of her television audience, who had a congenital heart ailment, who never carried a gun, was mostly seen with pen, note pad and camera and known for her principled stance in the struggle for freedom, has become an iconic figure in death as she was in life. Isaippriya’s dead body, in a state of undress, with her hands tied behind her back and her blood stained face showing signs of trauma, has generated a profound feeling of outrage in the minds of people who have seen the video, underscoring the need for justice to be served.
Issaipriya was one of many Tamil men and women seen in the video footage which also carried horrific scenes of some men being summarily executed. Jonathan Miller reporting for Channel 4 News said of the gruesome executions: “The distressing execution video footage, screened by Channel 4 News originating in Sri Lanka shows a number of incidents of soldiers in uniform shooting in the head people who appear to be unarmed – described as “cold-blooded killing” by an international expert. The video also shows the bodies of other men and women lying on the ground.”
In the light of such mounting evidence that war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka with some of the perpetrators now known and believed to have acted on “orders coming from the top” the Sri Lankan government and President Mahinda Rajapakse must come clean with the truth of what happened in the war in Sri Lanka and must submit themselves to proper scrutiny by agreeing to an international independent investigation…., “I reiterated.
Issaiprya has now become a symbol representing Sri Lankan army brutality, murder and rape perpetrated against Tamil women that still persists in the occupied and enslaved Tamil country in the island of Sri Lanka, the image that would spur us on to never give up on the call for justice and freedom!
Vany Kumar the next on my list of women of courage, was an eyewitness to genocide -a young woman who dared to tell what she saw, trapped in a ‘no fire zone’ now known as the “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. She was not merely an eyewitness but more than that; she is the woman who made that desperate call for help from the war zone to save innocent people:
“This is really a disaster. I don’t know really how to explain it. At the moment, it is like hell…this is too much to take why is the world not helping”, a young woman by the name of Vany Kumar was on the phone to The Guardian Newspaper UK from a make shift “temporary medical facility” in the so called ‘no fire zone’ declared by the Sri Lankan government, where Tamil civilians were lured – This was the tactic the Sri Lankan government used; they lured and trapped them into these designated areas before bombarding them with shells, killing tens of thousands estimated at 40,000 by the UN Panel of Experts on Accountability, at 70,000 by the UN Internal Review Panel Report and at 146,679 by Bishop Rayappu Joseph based on those who remain unaccounted for after the war.
The full article would give you a sense of her anguish and the living horror she was witnessing, volunteering in a “temporary medical facility” inside the ‘no fire zone’.
The article gave a terrifying account of Vany Kumar’s cry to the world in a bid to save her people:
Yesterday a shell was reported to have hit a temporary hospital in the so-called no-fire zone in north-east Sri Lanka killing 47 people. Vany Kumar, 25, works at the temporary medical facility in Mullaivaikal East primary school, which is caught between government troops and the last remnants of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Here, in a telephone interview with the Guardian, she describes life on the front line.
This is really a disaster. I don’t know really how to explain it. At the moment, it is like hell.
Most of the time we live in the shelter. There is not enough medical equipment, so it is really difficult to treat people. Food is a problem as well. There is no food at all here, there are no vegetables and no rice, they just eat whatever they can find, that’s all. The hospital is located in a primary school so there is only one room. We just try our best to achieve what we can.
I was in the office working [when the shell hit]. It was definitely a shell, there is no doubt about that. I was about 20 metres away, and I was sure that it landed inside the hospital, so I went to the shelter. I got the news from the doctors that there were people injured and dead. There was constant shelling so I couldn’t leave the shelter.
For us, shell bombing is just a normal thing now. It is like an everyday routine. We have reached a point where it’s like death is not a problem at all. No one has any feeling here now, it’s like everyone says, “Whatever happens, it happens.” That’s it, that’s the mentality every single person has here.
The most terrible thing that I have seen was when a mother had a bullet go through her breast and she was dead and the baby was still on the other side of the breast and the baby was drinking her milk, and that really affected me. I was at that place where it happened.
There is just too much to take. Children have lost parents, parents have lost children, it’s just a common thing now.
[The shelling] is definitely coming from the government side, that can be sure, because it is only a small area on the LTTE side and from the sound and from the distance I can surely say it is from the government side.
I don’t care about the government, I don’t care about the LTTE, my concern is the civilians because through all these problems they are the people affected.
The government or the LTTE, they have got to do something, and if not, I can’t imagine what will happen next. Both parties have got to have a ceasefire. I think the international [community] has to either come into the country or get both parties to stop the fighting and start thinking about the civilians living here. Every single person living here asks why the international [community] is not doing anything.
I really want to come to the UK but I don’t know. I’m talking to you now, but maybe tomorrow I’ll be dead.”
This woman of courage, a lone war witness at the critical hour, who made a frantic call to the outside world through The Guardian news paper got the flack for her extraordinary bravery and was branded a terrorist by the Sri Lankan government . It called Vany Kumar, ” a card carrying member of the LTTE (repeated by Lord Naseby at the Lords ), their “propagandist”, a “secret Tiger” in both its documentary “Lies Agreed Upon” and in the book, “Corrupted Journalism” which discredited not only her but also Channel 4 UK which featured her as one of the key witnesses in its documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and the “No Fire Zone” movie.
In a detailed rebuttal titled, “The Uncorrupted Truth” Channel 4 highlights the failure of the anonymous authors of Sri Lanka’s book “Corrupted Journalism” to respond to “serious issues “but only to “discredit the key witnesses” appearing in the Channel 4 films to date that point to allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by both sides showing compelling evidence mainly of the savagery of the Sri Lankan government and its army.
Channel 4 in its rebuttal dealt with the attacks on her credibility, that she was a member of the LTTE:
“…the 2nd chapter deals with Sri Lanka’s accusations against Vany Kumar : we start by looking at their first claim that Vany Kumar the young British Tamil woman whose family emigrated to the UK from Sri Lanka to escape government orchestrated anti-Tamil violence in 1983 is in fact a LTTE member..the authors of, “Corrupted Journalism” present not a single piece of concrete evidence to support their claim. They are in fact simply repeating unsubstantiated claims made by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an interview with an Indian current affairs programme Headlines Today – and in a Sri Lankan government propaganda film called, “Lies Agreed Upon.
In that same interview Gotabaya said, ‘She (Vany) was talking about the rape. How can she talk about the rape when she was so safely… a person so attractive a person …she was not raped she was not killed how can she talk like that?’ This logic was summed up by the Indian anchor at the end of the interview, ‘Gotabaya Rajapaksa there laughing off allegations of war crimes, saying how can a pretty woman level allegations of other women being raped’ he paraphrased Gotabaya’s position as: If my officers were indeed raping women why didn’t they rape her and concluded: ‘that is the most absurd logic ever.”
The authors of “Corrupted Journalism” went to the extent of blaming her for claims she never made and attacking her credibility; that she told Channel 4 that the Doctors in the “medical points” asked ICRC not to pass on the coordinates. In truth this statement attributed to Vany Kumar by the authors was false, it was made by Gordon Weiss, who was then UN official spokesman in Sri Lanka.
Channel 4 further refutes the authors ‘ attempt to discredit Vany Kumar’s testimony, “..that she operates under a series of aliases”. This was proved entirely of no value and a futile exercise intended to cast aspersions on her character ; she was merely referred by names that had slight variations like, “DamilVany Kumar, DamilVany Gnana Kumar also Dr Tamil Vany”.
Vany Kumar’s “observations” was no lie for her accounts of events have been corroborated by several sources:
“It is significant that in a chapter attacking Vany’s credibility very little reference is actually made to her testimony. The one issue they take up is her description of the desperate medical shortages she observed during her time ..these shortages have been corroborated by several sources including the UN. In our films the most senior of the doctors in the NFZ , Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah testifies in video footage from the NFZ about the government’s refusal to supply adequate medicine.
The hospital administrator also describes the desperate shortage of blood and antibiotics, explaining that these are just some of the reasons that in this situation we find death has become normal and in big numbers. Just a few days after the interview is recorded he too is killed in a government shell attack on the hospital. He has continued to work at every stage and in every temporary hospital since they were first evacuated from Kilinochchi.
In the last few weeks of the war anaesthetics ran desperately short, there is ample evidence including photographic evidence of operations performed without general anaesthetics Vany explained, this is in more detail when she described one operation thus: “This 7 year old boy came inside and his left leg was just hanging and arm as well, just hanging into pieces. One side, the left side of him was completely damaged and we were thinking “what are we going to do, what is there for us to do here’, there is no general anaesthetic and at this point and local anaesthetic was very limited.
As a result even local anaesthetics were diluted and used..
Dr. Varatharajah has confirmed the desperate shortage of blood and antibiotics in an interview he recently he gave an Indian TV station: “they could have saved thousands more with proper medicine and general anaesthetics.”
It later transpires the five doctors attending to the dead and the wounded, whom the “Sri Lankan government’s Criminal Investigation Department had held captive for months” after the war, were forced by Gotabaya under threat of “years of jail to retract everything they had said before in the war zone.” Except for Dr. V Shanmugarajah still living in Jaffna who stuck to his story, the others tell a different story now safely out of the country, that is consistent with what they all said when they were trapped inside the war zone about the lack of medicines and surgical supplies including anaesthetics.
To the claim made in Corrupted Journalism that “Vany Kumar’s credibility would be laid bare in a matter of minutes in any British court,” Channel 4 had this to say: “We submit rather the reverse of what might happen, it is the credibility of the unfounded incomplete and misleading claims in Corrupted Journalism which would survive no longer than a few seconds under the scrutiny of a British court.”
If it believes Vany Kumar’s credibility would be an issue in a British court, then why is the SriLankan government not ready to face a credible international investigation I ask?
Vany Kumar’s work is not done yet. Her testimony would be a vital piece of evidence in the quest for justice for those who perished in Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields! If her cry was not heard then, it will be heard one day in court!
Another equally incredible woman of courage is Ananthy Sasitharan, the newly elected councillor of the Northern Provincial Council, wife of Elilan, one time political head of the LTTE for the Trincomalee district, who later moved to Kilinochchi after the Eastern Province was lost.
Ananthi Sasitharan has come a long way from a wife who last saw her husband surrendering to the Sri Lankan military on the 18th of May 2009 and as someone who ended up in Manik Farm with her three children thoroughly distraught of the events that had overtaken her .
Now she is a woman of courage giving strength to other women, those whose loved ones have disappeared – war widows, ex-combatants and victims of sexual violence .
“Expressing mistrust in local mechanisms to address enforced disappearance..” she has written to Navi Pillay “seeking a UN monitored international inquiry into forced disappearances and abductions”.
She holds her ground and speaks without fear or favour and has “defied” Gotabaya’s call to “rehabilitate” her “to prevent her from propagating separatist sentiments”.
She boldly gave evidence at the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission as the wife of an ex – combatant and asked the commission that her husband be found whom she believes is alive and languishing in a secret detention centre under the custody of the Sri Lankan military.
At the Northern Provincial Council elections, placed number one on the candidate list running on the TNA ticket, she won the Jaffna seat with a 2nd highest number of preference votes coming second only to Justice Wigneswaran. She ran proudly as the wife of Elilan, senior leader of the LTTE, never yielding to pressure to hide her connection, an embarrassment to some, yet having to accept blame for cashing in on her Husband’s LTTE past, a criticism she had to take whilst making sure that everyone knows she was not a member of the LTTE, borne out by the fact that throughout her adult life she was a government employee.
She has weathered every storm and the intrigues surrounding the NPC elections; the attempts on her life allegedly instigated by the EPDP and the Sri Lankan military; the objections to her running coming from some members of the TNA; wielding her way through the two factions that emerged at election time one pro-Wigneswaran and the other anti.
Ananthy Sasitharan decided to take her oath of office from Justice Wigneswaran dropping her earlier decision to take her oath at Mullivaikkal and now has been appointed to assist the Chief Minister on the “rehabilitation of war victims”.
She had to contend with the opposition both from her party and civil society members to meet with Navi Pillay during her visit to Jaffna, it seems Ananthi Sasitharan has never allowed people or her “terrorist” label that others have stamped on her to cramp her style, soldiering on, focused on both her human rights and political agenda at home and in the world arena.
Ananthi has spoken out about the draft UNHRC resolution that does not call for an international investigation:
“The draft resolution being circulated in Geneva has failed to satisfy even the minimum expectations. It has totally disregarded the repeated requests from Tamils to the IC to deliver international investigations. Furthermore, it is in complete contrast to the impressions given to the Tamils by the international community in recent times.”
At this time Ananthy Sasitharan is in Geneva attending the 25th session of the UNHRC as part of the TNA delegation. According to CM Wigneswaran , it would seem he had sent her in his place, the expectation being that then she would be chief spokes(man). She has since speaking in a video has said she had been stopped from speaking at a “crucial meeting with the representatives of 18 countries.. where she was instructed to be silent by Mr. Sumanthiran,” because she would be looked upon as a “Puli” (Tamil Tiger) being the “wife of a LTTE leader” and as a “terrorist”.
She also expressed her disagreement with the approach that Mr Sumanthiran took that was contrary to the position taken by the NPC resolution:
“Mr. Sumanthiran is only urging support from the delegates to the resolution to be tabled by the USA. The need for investigating war crimes was mentioned, but he didn’t demand an international investigation, she said adding that there was no mention of genocide despite a resolution was passed in the NPC demanding international investigations on the situation equivalent to genocide.”
The women of courage I have depicted here actually surpass my ideals of “Women of Courage”. Issaipriya, Vany Kumar and Ananthyi Sasitharan are icons in our struggle for justice and freedom, beating the “terrorist labelling” they have dared to go where others have faltered and I salute them.