The following account is based on interviews to Together Against Genocide (TAG). Personal details of Nirmala (not her real name), place names and dates have been changed to protect her identity.
As a young woman in her mid-twenties Nirmala worked as an aid worker with various organisations, both local and international in the North and East of Sri Lanka. In her work she travelled across the various areas in which displaced Tamils were placed, helping them settle, find jobs and get on with their lives. Her work was varied and rewarding and she drew strength from the interactions she had with members of the Tamil community.
Unfortunately, she was also subject to a different sort of interaction, with a different section of the population, also stationed in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Her contact with this second group of people, namely the Sri Lankan Army and CID, would leave her scarred and bruised, both mentally and physically. This is the story of how someone, engaged in the pursuit of helping the dispossessed, would become dispossessed herself.
The first time Nirmala was taken in for questioning by the CID, she and her family were living in a camp for displaced people. Nirmala had been volunteering with a domestic NGO at this time, as well as with a student organization sympathetic to the LTTE. She was picked up along with several other girls. She was subjected to an intimate body search and interrogated about her work and possible involvement with the LTTE. Her answers did not meet with the CID’s approval and she was beaten before being returned to the camp. “I felt disgusted and unclean after the incident” she says, although this did not stop her from carrying on with her important work in the camp.
The second time Nirmala was questioned, a similar procedure followed. She was identified by a police informer, taken in along with several other people, and asked repeatedly whether she was involved with the LTTE. She has always believed the police informer had mistaken her identity. Some of the interrogators spoke good Tamil, others did not. She was lucky on this occasion - she managed to leave the CID station without any new bruises. Some of the others with her were not so lucky: they didn’t make it back at all.
Ultimately Nirmala completed her education, left the IDP camp, and began working for a local NGO. Her work kept her within the radar of the Army and the CID. During the ceasefire, while the Norwegian facilitated peace-talks were in progress, her NGO began work in Mullaitivu and she often crossed the army checkpoints that separated the LTTE’s de-facto state from the rest of Sri Lanka. Each time, she was interrogated intensively by soldiers.
In early 2006, while peace talks were still ongoing, Nirmala was stopped by a man who stepped out of a white van parked near her office. In good Tamil he asked her to come with him as he had some questions to ask her. Nirmala tried to talk her way out of the situation but she was powerless to stop him taking her away. She noticed that the white van had a Sinhala number plate; she did not have her mobile with her and was unable to let anyone know what was happening to her. She was only 100m away from her office, it was 10.30 in the morning, but in broad daylight, Nirmala was forcibly taken from the street to another now notorious army camp. There she was questioned again about her work - about who she was in contact with, about her family. All questions were bent on obtaining ‘proof’ that she was involved with the LTTE. And no matter what Nirmala’s answers were, she was powerless to prevent what happened to her at this army camp.
Nirmala was kept at the camp for weeks in a room, in darkness so complete she was unable to see a single thing. She felt that there were other captives around her, but had no way of knowing this for certain. Here Nirmala was abused and tortured. She was repeatedly beaten and stomped on as she lay on the floor with her hands tied behind her back. She was burned with cigarette stubs and subjected to petrol asphyxiation. This ordeal lasted for about 7 days, although Nirmala has no recollection of what was done to her on two of those days. Eventually, when she was fatigued and weak, she was brought some papers in Sinhala and made to sign them. Her mother had negotiated her release, and as she left the camp, she was threatened with death if she ever revealed what had happened to her there.
Terrified, she returned home with her mother, her body and mind broken. She bled for a month after her release. Her mother took her to a gynecologist in Colombo where she was told that she had been subjected to a vicious sexual attack. From being a normal woman, doing humanitarian relief work, Nirmala had been changed to a survivor of rape and torture. Her life would not be same after those weeks in the army camp.
Nirmala returned to the North and tried to carry on with her life. She became severely depressed, not only as result of the trauma she had suffered, but also due to the stigma of sexual abuse, a heavy burden to bear in Tamil society. The fact of having been detained also impacted her relationships and working conditions within the NGO.
Unable to face the increasingly hostile work environment, Nirmala resigned from her job and joined an international aid organization. By the end of the war in 2009, she was working for yet another aid organisation, based around Menik Farm.
At Menik Farm, she came under the surveillance of the CID again. She was taken in for questioning a few times, although was never abused or tortured again. Importantly, Nirmala became a witness to the abuses carried out by the security forces stationed at Menik Farm. She describes the CID interrogation room at the entrance of the camp where one section was partitioned by a screen. It was common knowledge that serious violations were carried out behind this screen. At night, moans and screams could be heard coming from the interrogation room. Nirmala also bears witness to the sexual terrorization of young Tamil women by the Sri Lankan Army. The CID kept tabs on women who lived alone - their husbands were either being held in detention, or had died in the last months of the war. Nirmala recounts how most of these women were made to provide sexual services for the Army and the CID. They would be taken away at night and returned in the morning as those with power preyed on the defenseless and the vulnerable. There was no escape for these women either mentally or physically: each new day brought its terrors of uncertainty and danger and each night its menaces and the trampling of hopes and lives.
Life was precarious at Menik Farm. The hospital was staffed by Sinhala doctors and nurses who would not speak Tamil. Nirmala states that from the seriously injured to the seriously ill only one course of treatment was offered - Panadol. Dressings were not applied properly and many people died, especially the very young and the very old. Nirmala believes that this was a deliberate policy by the staff of the hospital, whose manner she found careless and callous. Furthermore, when people died, their bodies were often not returned to families. This was especially the case with the seriously injured who after being taken to hospital were not seen again. When family members began enquiries, they were told that no such person had been admitted, and hospital records were shown as ‘proof’. Nirmala was aware of many cases of young girls where this was the case.
Over the post-war years Nirmala continued to work at Menik Farm with courage and endurance. Her story is that of many Tamil aid workers who live and persevere in helping their community, amidst the ruins of their homeland.
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