By Charles Sarvan –
A Still Unfinished War: Sri Lanka’s Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence, 2009 – 2015. International Truth & Justice Project, London, July 2015.
The above (hereafter, Report) is “dedicated to the survivors who trusted us enough to tell us about their darkest days in the hope of saving others from the same fate”. It also recognises the many strangers in foreign lands “who have helped individual witnesses in different ways – fed them, looked after their children, interpreted for them, visited them in detention, offered help finding doctors or lawyers, supplied warm clothes, or who have just been a voice at the end of the phone to calm them when they panic” (p. 8). The ‘Report’ is similar to We Will Teach You a Lesson: Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces’, Human Rights Watch publication, 2013. ISBN: 1-56432-993-3. (See Sarvan Colombo Telegraph: 3 April 2015.) I thank Mr. Chinnathamby Nadarajah Suseenthiran for giving me a copy of the Report.
A problem in reading case after case is what can be described as a morphological similarity: arrest, torture, horrible sexual abuse, ransom. However, the Report argues the similarity indicates that the practises of the security forces were systematic and institutionalised, the intention being to sow terror among those Tamils “remaining behind” (p. 16). A further problem is that distaste and disgust set in; an emotional fatigue. I must confess that, perhaps exacerbated by my near-octogenarian age, I found it very difficult to read, and so to encounter, these cases. But then I asked myself: If I find it difficult and distressing merely to read, how must it be for those who go through the ordeal, who live the experience? They are forced to endure the unendurable. To protect witnesses and their relations back in “the Paradise Isle”, identifying detail is omitted (often, witnesses, having been blindfolded, do not know where they were taken) with the result that the Report is both specific and necessarily vague.
The Report is based on 180 cases of post-war torture and / or sexual violence, and is the result of “painstaking research and cross-referencing” (p. 6). Evidence, the Report states, was taken by experienced international war-crime and sexual abuse investigators (p. 23). Witnesses were either interviewed by experts or supplied medical legal reports of examining international doctors and psychiatrists who are experts in assessing allegations of torture (p. 12). The most recent case included is dated July 2015. Rape of this kind is extremely painful (“a pipe was forced into his anus with a piece of barbed wire inside it. Then the pipe was removed, leaving the barbed wire inside.” “This witness has a medical legal report from an expert in assessing torture victims that corroborates” his evidence (p.32). They forced a piece of wire “up my penis… I was screaming in pain” (p. 98). Enduring such indescribable pain utterly degrades the victims: soldiers and others laughed and made fun of me as I walked back with my head down in shame. “As I made that long and painful walk back to the hall, I could only manage to button the top of two buttons of my blouse… My entire lower skirt was soaked in blood” (p. 31). We must bear in mind that such experiences are never in the past. Psychiatrists and social-workers testify that the victims never recover fully: the harm is life-long.
Why is rape by the security forces accompanied by gross and vulgar humiliation of the victims? The degradation extends even beyond death. Words from Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1, come to mind: “wrath in death and [malice] after”. “They were kicking and stepping on the dead bodies […] One girl had a stick sticking into the air from her vagina. One of the soldiers yanked it out and rammed it into her vagina again” (p. 49). “I saw them mutilate the bodies with small sticks and stones being forced into their vaginas along with small knives” (p. 50). In my review of The Cage by Gordon Weiss, published in the Sunday Leader, 12 June 2011, I suggest an explanation, turning to the words of Nazi Franz Stangl, commander of the Treblinka extermination camp. Stangl explained (see Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness) that humiliation is essential. “Otherwise, those who carried out state policy and committed barbaric acts would have found it difficult to commit such grossly inhumane acts” (Sarvan). One cannot mete out such savage treatment unless one denies and erases the humanity of the other. Degradation removes all sense of a common, shared, human identity and makes cruelty permissible, even laudable. Before one lives with others, one must live with oneself, with one’s self-image. And so the individual must justify to himself or herself rightness of conduct; vindicate the cruelty unleashed. The effect (or result) of degradation – here, pitiful, helpless, frightened and screaming individuals with all human dignity seemingly cancelled out – is used to justify the cause (that is, the treatment meted). It is a terrible cycle of effect justifying cause, and cause creating effect. The bestiality can also have other, political, calculation: “Go and tell your people how you have been tortured so that they will never be an LTTE, it should not even be in anyone’s dream” (p. 84). The same victim was warned not to tell foreigners: “She said the only ones I should tell were other Tamil women so that they would never rise up again” (ibid).
Much of this extreme evil is attributed by the Report, rightly or wrongly, to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary when his brother was President. He is alleged to have encouraged torture and rape, assuring immunity to the perpetrators. “None of the perpetrators made any attempt to hide their own identities from their victims” (p. 40). “We were never masked. We were not afraid of being identified or later tried in a court for what we did” (p. 63).
Only security personnel can brazenly torture and rape but apart from the sexual and the political, the Report claims, there is a monetary motive. Members of the army, navy, police and others from the Terrorism Investigation Division, the Report states, act in collusion with human-traffickers to get victims out of the Island, relations having paid a substantial bribe: see, page 40. In “Power is a means to an end” it is sometimes taken to mean the realization of some good but, if what the Report alleges has foundation, then power here is both means and end: It is power for the sake of power; the power to bully, humiliate and torture; the power to rape and to exploit financially.
The failure to subject the conclusion of the war to impartial, international, examination means, the Report suggests, that human-rights violations continue in (so-called) peace time. Immunity for wartime violations has encouraged security forces “to continue to commit crimes against humanity” (p. 9). President Maithripala Sirisena was elected on 8 January 2015 but tragically “systematic and widespread crimes against humanity have not ceased (ibid). Torture and sexual violence have continued unabated. The immunity permitted by the state is seen by the security forces as approval of their behaviour. There is no enthusiasm in the “South” for justice since it would see senior political and military figures being investigated (p. 11). “Despite the findings expressed in our March 2014 Report, the findings of other international independent persons […] neither the Rajapakse government nor the Sirisena government has taken any effective steps to investigate, prevent, punish, or explicitly prohibit widespread and systematic torture and sexual violence targeting Tamils” (p. 22). It “amounts to state-sponsored organised crime, persecutory kidnapping, torture and ransoming by the security forces” (p. 25).
The last relative remaining in Sri Lanka of a Tamil who gave a number of media interviews abroad, his father, was “beaten by the security forces and died as a result of his injuries” (p. 23). A global web of silence ensures that crimes remain hidden and immunity preserved which, in turn, licenses further torture, rape and extortion. “This sort of persecution is an extremely effective way of securing a global web of silence of victims, which ensures the crimes committed remain hidden, so that the long-standing culture of impunity in Sri Lanka continues unabated” (p. 26).
The dictum of Lord Acton, 1834 – 1902, that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (totally) is usually read as referring to those who have, and wield, power. Going by the present Report, we see this in the treatment of Tamil victims, women and men, over whom the security forces, having absolute power, have lost all decency and humanity. They are a shame to themselves and to the people, religion and culture to whom / which they claim to belong and for whom / which they act. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that if in a situation of oppression we remain silent then we have, in effect, sided with the oppressor. So it is too with corruption. At the least, those who remain indifferent or silent about corruption have to a degree become corrupted. In a corrupt situation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to remain uncontaminated. Survival, not to mention success and advancement, dictates that one to some degree participates in corruption. Tamils in the occupied areas, helpless and ‘hope-less’ are also in danger of becoming corrupted in various ways. For example: “an extensive network of Tamils [work] as informers for the security forces” (p. 48). “One such informer is the Jaffna Sports organiser of the LTTE” (p. 106). I see it as “a big betrayal especially after he convinced so many young people to join who then gave their lives for freedom and then for money he works with the security forces, those that harmed us” (ibid). It is very difficult for a demoralised (from, ‘de – moralised’) people to retain traditional morality. Absolute power; power beyond law and justice; power without decency and humanity; corrupts absolutely. Total power corrupts both the “power-full” and the “power-less”.
In conclusion, I quote from Page 44 of the Report: “Witnesses are still fleeing abroad from Sri Lanka six years after the end of the fighting. They have endured not only starvation, bombardment, displacement, injury, bereavement of close family members, loss of worldly possessions and unimaginable trauma in the final phase of the conflict in 2009, but also years of arbitrary detention after the war, with phases of extremely brutal torture and sexual violence and threats or attacks on family members. Their prolonged suffering is hard to imagine and their bravery in testifying is all the more admirable, especially when many are not safe themselves and fear for their close families back home”. The Report’s title is STOP which I read both as “Stop arbitrary arrest, torture and rape” and an appeal to humanity’s conscience to stop and pay attention. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lamentations, 1:12).