A Voice For the Voiceless
The Advocacy Project seeks to help community-based advocates produce, disseminate and use information, and so become more effective advocates for human rights and social justice
TAKE ACTION FOR ADVOCACY
The Advocacy Project Blogs
Madeline England and the Home for Human Rights
This is a little cliche, but for my last post, I would just like to express my gratitude to 53 of the most incredible people I have ever met.
Well ok, I didn’t meet all of them, but I did meet most.
I am speaking of course of the HHR staff. They have been working for 30 years to protect the human rights of all Sri Lankan people – locally, nationally, and internationally. They work tirelessly and selflessly certainly not for the money or prestige but just because it is the right thing to do. They have heard the stories of suffering and refuse to stand back and let it happen.
When you hear stories about local human rights advocates who risk their lives for their work, they are speaking about HHR. The threats and the people are very real.
They work in the field with the people. They listen to their stories and then do whatever they can to help through local and national courts, international human rights bodies, legal aid, women's issues, medical rehabilitation programs for torture survivors, human rights education, the list goes on.
And I am most grateful that they allowed me to spend three months learning from their experience. Not only did I learn, they also welcomed me into their lives and trusted me with their stories. They call themselves Home for Human Rights, and to be totally cliché, it really is just that.
I am a better person just for having known them. Learning more about what I will do when I finish school and how to do field work in a conflict zone is just an added bonus.
As I was leaving the office today, the executive director of HHR, Mr. Xavier, said to make sure I tell the world what is happening to the people of Sri Lanka. From Sri Lanka, we whisper. From the States, I can scream. I will do as Mr. Xavier asks because he is my hero, but I don't know how long I will last before returning to HHR. In my mind is the great debate between the value of a graduate degree and the need to do something now. A big part of me just wants to forget my second year of graduate school to continue working there. At the very least, I know this is not goodbye.
The past couple of weeks have kept me busy, visiting HHR’s field offices in Batticaloa, a town in the Eastern province, and Mannar, an island in the northwest. After my visit, it seemed most appropriate to discuss the direct economic consequences for the people.
I heard recently that the government is spending $2 million a day on the conflict. The LTTE is obviously spending their share as well, but I don’t know the amount. This doesn’t exactly compare to the $200 million a day the U.S. is spending in Iraq, but in a country where there is so much need, this amount seems so tragic and misplaced.
Traveling to the sites that have seen the most conflict is so different from traveling in the rest of the country. Admittedly I never made it to Jaffna; I hear it is like another world.
As we head east, the condition of the roads gradually deteriorates. The glassy windows and tall buildings that are hallmarks of Colombo and the South disappear. The disparity is so obvious I wonder how people can question it.
We jumped at the chance to visit when the two sides announced a 10 day ceasefire to honor the Madhu Church festivities. There is a road that branches off the Mannar road to go to Madhu Church. Unfortunately the church is in LTTE territory. Normally this road is closed, blocked by government soldiers on one side and, after a 2km no man’s land monitored by the ICRC, LTTE checkpoints on the other. The two sides agreed to open their respective checkpoints to allow people to visit the church for the holiday. ICRC inspected the no man’s land that separates the government territory from LTTE territory and announced it cleared of landmines.
Of course you aren’t allowed to take just anything or bring anyone. Not petrol obviously. No one would be taking petrol simply to run their cars, to avoid paying for the smuggled $5 per liter ($20 a gallon) petrol on the other side. No, no, of course she would be taking that to the LTTE. So the woman had to beg people coming from the other direction to return it to her village. I wasn’t allowed to cross. I didn’t have the proper paperwork. As Mr. Xavier said, maybe they didn’t want me to see what was on the other side.
Regardless, the road to Mannar was illuminating enough. This part of the Northwest has seen quite a bit of fighting lately. For now, the government controls the road, and the LTTE controls everything else. A road. The two sides are fighting over a road.
There is nothing particularly interesting about this road. In fact all it seems to accomplish is controlling access to Mannar Island, not a particularly interesting or strategic island, and blocking the LTTE from moving further south. Yet barracks are placed every 50 meters for approximately 30 kilometers to guard the road.
That’s a lot of barracks.
After the first couple dozen, I started to wonder exactly what or who they think they are protecting and why either side cares to possess this road. The people certainly don’t seem to be their highest priority. With the exception of a few scattered villages, many of the shops and people on the road were long ago displaced. The buildings are abandoned and a bombed bus carcass lies on the side of the road, a reminder that even sticking to the road isn’t always safe.
By the time we reached 50 barracks, I began to imagine the Orwellian chants that most be drilled into the soldiers’ heads, i.e. “Once we control THE ROAD, we control ALL!!”
Anyone who wants to enter has to face ID checks. Anyone who wants to leave must be physically searched along with their bags and vehicles. All buses must be searched. Cars are lifted so that the soldiers can look underneath for bombs.
This isn’t just a time-consuming nuisance. It impedes the flow of goods and services, slows the economy. All trucks carrying goods must be completely unloaded. If there is a line, this can take days. It holds up businesses and prevents people from receiving food and other essentials. Fruits and vegetables can rot.
Due to designated High Security Zones, fishermen are not allowed to fish in certain areas, and farmers are not allowed to farm. How do they survive?
This is where immigration comes in. If a son or daughter working abroad can earn enough to send even $50 or $100 a month to their families, it can be life-saving.
One of my friends called Jaffna an “open prison” because it is so cut off from the rest of the country. After seeing even only the outer edge, I would have to agree.
In response to a couple of recent comments on this blog regarding my supposed bias in favor of Tamils or seduction by LTTE propoganda, I would like to emphatically state that I take absolutely no position on the conflict. I am neutral when it comes to government or LTTE, and I am wholeheartedly in support of all of the people of Sri Lanka. I just want peace.
I am an outsider not looking at the conflict from a Sinhalese or Tamil point of view; I am only looking at human rights. Yes, my work does lead me to talk more about human rights abuses committed against Tamils. I know both the LTTE and the government have committed human rights violations against all ethnic communities, and they both have an obligation to respect Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions regarding the protection of civilians.
However, this blog is a forum for me to discuss my experiences here in Sri Lanka, not an academic paper on the conflict. Since I haven't been able to travel to LTTE-controlled territory (not for lack of trying; security at the government checkpoint would not let me through), I haven't seen for myself the situation there and therefore don't feel comfortable discussing it in detail. Furthermore, I don't agree that discussing human rights abuse of Tamils and advocating their protection means that I am taking a political stand on the LTTE or somehow against the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population.
As for LTTE propopaganda, I don't read or listen to it. Most of my information for blogging posts comes from listening to the people who have been the targets of abuse. See my previous post.
Of all of the things I have done over the past eight weeks, my favorite activity has been listening:
Listening to the HHR staff and their stories of growing up in Jaffna, Batticaloa, or the Hill Country.
Listening to Sri Lankans for their opinions on the conflict, human rights, and politics.
Listening to the HHR staff educate me on the conflict in Sri Lanka. In reality the situation is far more complicated than the commonly portrayed duality of “Government v. LTTE” or “Government v. Rebels” or “Sinhalese majority v. Tamil minority.” I am only just beginning to understand all of the factions and political parties that play a role in prolonging the conflict.
But my favorite activity of all is listening to the survivors.
I met one of them today. She has a gorgeous smile. She is so petite. I can’t imagine anyone hurting her, nor can I imagine the inner strength she must possess.
I have read dozens of reports of destruction, death, torture, killings, and other human rights abuse. Yet I haven’t even scratched the surface.
I know that many people do not see an end to the conflict. People think it is a cycle and it will go on for years to come. One of the HHR staff told me sometimes he wants to scream from frustration.
I have seen people come into the office who want nothing more than to leave this country, and understandably so. So many people want, and need, to seek asylum and escape Sri Lanka. People have family members who have been killed and now they fear for their own lives or the lives of family members.
When it all seems insurmountable, listening to someone who overcame the unimaginable is amazing and inspiring.
I know news reports from Sri Lanka tell stories of suffering, all of them true. The latest one from Reuters talks about how people “have had to adapt to a two-decade war.” The image portrayed is that people are cowering in corners, dashing from building to building, afraid to be out in the open.
That is only half of the story. Sri Lankans are also survivors, and the girl I met today is a brilliant example.
I wonder if she knows how amazing and remarkable she is. I wonder if she considers how few people could have even survived, let alone conquered, as she did. I am not sure that she does, and I didn’t know how to tell her. I asked her about her day and said I was glad to meet her.
Then I just listened. I didn’t understand a word of her conversation in Tamil with one of the HHR girls. And I didn’t care.
Ten days ago, I went to Polonnaruwa, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. Pretty harmless, right? Yes, I thought so too – a little hiking, cycling, appreciation of nature and 12th century Buddha statues.
Oh, if life were so simple in this country.
I just got around to posting the photos from Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla, which is why I am only now telling this story.
On Saturday morning my friend Sarah and I rented bicycles and set off with our archeological spirits in high gear, trying our best to dodge the hundreds of monkeys that scamper over the ruins. I first thought they were adorable when they came right up to us; then I discovered they do this all the time. In fact, they kept trying to steal my camera. It actually got kind of annoying after awhile.
Sarah and I became separated as we started exploring the huge expanse of the ruins. Cycling around, I discovered a path “less traveled” so to speak, and naturally started speeding along the dirt road. After about one kilometer, the path started uphill, so I left the bike in the shade and kept walking a bit further until a temple emerged.
An elderly man was selling chopped mangoes and a tangy new fruit called wood apples for 20 cents, and I needed a break.
Ten minutes into my conversation with the mango/wood apple man (which consisted mostly of hand gestures due to a language barrier), two police officers rode up on a motorcycle.
“Passport, please.” I handed my passport over to the first policeman, the leader of the duo, and he started flipping through it. “You are British?”
Um, ok...was this a test? “No, American,” I said.
“What are you doing in Polonnaruwa?”
Another test? “I came to see the ruins.”
“Is that your bike back there? Why did you leave it?”
“The path is uphill, so I thought I would walk.”
“Where are you staying?” I gave the name of my guesthouse in town.
By this point, the policeman had sauntered over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. What started as a routine police Q & A had now really pissed me off. No one, seriously I mean no one, puts a hand on my shoulder unless I say it’s ok.
“Are you alone? This is a dangerous area.”
Not the least bit intimidated or scared, I wondered how best to extricate myself from this situation. He obviously just wanted a bribe, and there was no way I was giving him one.
This man, his hand on my shoulder, and his tone of voice bothered me a lot more than the miniscule chance that 1 of 12,000 LTTE fighters in a country of 20 million people had chosen this weekend in the 30 years of conflict to start targeting tourists and was now waiting to attack me in the 1km stretch between the temple and the main path. But saying that and spitting in his face definitely wouldn’t help me very much.
I glanced at my mango/wood apple friend, but he was cleaning up his stall and had no idea what was going on.
So I blithely said, “Well I would have come with my husband, but he works at the US Embassy and had important meetings with a couple of MPs this weekend.” The wife of an Embassy staff member would not be staying at my budget guesthouse, but I was counting on the fact that these guys had clearly not been the brightest cadets at the police academy.
Sure enough, his hand dropped away immediately and he stepped back. He muttered something to his friend in Sinhalese; I heard the word “Embassy.”
Ha, take that! I had to turn away and start walking towards the temple to hide my smile. Score 1 for the girl who thinks on her feet, 0 for the power-tripping losers who don’t think at all.
But my smile quickly faded when I considered all of the people that wouldn’t be able to fall back on the protection of an American identity in that situation.
I hung out in the temple with the security guard for an hour. He probably thought I was a little odd. One can only take so many pictures of a faded mural after all. Since camera flashes weren’t allowed, my 20 odd photos were all blurry anyway. Finally a family came in, and I left with them to make it to the main path. The police officers were still there, eating the poor man’s mangoes.
I briefly berated myself for getting off the beaten path as I tend to do. It usually leads to an interesting discovery, but it can also get me in trouble.
Then I realized that if I don’t get off the beaten path, I only see what the other tourists see. The conflict here is not in one’s face. As a tourist, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s easy to hear and see only the beautiful peaceful parts of Sri Lanka. It’s like a recipe really: read only the English newspapers, travel only to the southern beaches and Kandy, have faith in the men in uniform.
If I want to understand what Sri Lankan civilians must endure, I have to venture outside my comfort zone. And my little Q & A does not even merit comparison to the suspicion a Tamil man would have faced in the same situation.
Sri Lanka has very interesting dietary habits. I don't mean the food itself, which is always various curry dishes with rice, noodles, or pancakes. Rather I am referring to people's attitudes towards food. For example:
Everyone always asks me where I eat. At the office in the morning, the first questions are "How are you? Where did you eat last night? Where are you buying your lunch?" No one ever seems curious as to what I eat, only where I got it. I can only assume that certain restaurants provide haute cuisine while others induce food poisoning, and hopefully someone will clue me in soon as to which restaurants are which.
All of the fruit is labelled according to country of origin in large bold font, as though the country is a brand name and of crucial importance in a shopper's produce decisions. At the supermarket, I don't just buy grapes. No, no, no. I buy only the best South African grapes. Pomegranates from Pakistan, strawberries from Chile, oranges from Australia -- I travel around the world during my lunch break. It even forces me to make political decisions: should I buy the apples from the US or China? US patriotism or Chinese domination in the world economy?
I know some people who are very particular about what they eat -- no funny sauces, strange organs or animal body parts, or unusual animals. I am not one of them. But it turns out I do like to know from which country my produce originates. Who knew?
You can bet I will be starting a petition to the USDA as soon as I return to the States.
Sometimes I hear so much about conflict and human rights violations, I forget to think about the extraordinary kindness of humanity. Of course I know it’s there. I work with and know some pretty incredible people. But I spend so much of my time reading, studying, exposing, and focusing on the atrocities.
Therefore when an unexpected random act of kindness occurs, it can serve as a much needed reminder that HHR’s work and my summer fellowship here can really make a difference, perhaps even has already made a difference, that this blog or our work has touched someone.
So to the person who decided to sponsor me as an AP Peace Fellow, thank you.
I received an enormous gift and affirmation, but I don’t know to whom or where I can express my gratitude. I will receive more information later and perhaps one day can thank you in person, but my first instinct is acknowledgement. This blog seemed as good a place as any.
As I was leaving the office yesterday, one of the HHR staff came and told me news that he had just received from our Batticaloa office in the Eastern province.
A girl, 22 years old, was abducted from a safe house where she was living with 19 other girls. She was raped and stabbed to death.
Last semester one of my professors talked about how to construct a human rights “argument.” In other words, how do we present our case so that it captures the world's attention as a human rights violation?
Amnesty International, for example, is known for highlighting the experiences of particular individuals to make the abuse more personal and real. Human Rights Watch relies on its reputation for unbiased statistics and thorough research.
At this moment, sitting here in HHR's Colombo office, I am a little stunned. I came into the office early this morning, wanting to see the overnight news reported on this incident. Instead I found…nothing. No news. No one has told, so no one has heard.
Oh, there are several stories about Sri Lanka. The national cricket team is in a tournament that I won’t even pretend to understand. Also, did you know the government has pushed the LTTE out of the East and regained control of the province for the first time in 14 years? Everyone is talking about that.
But as usual, the innocent victims get lost in the shuffle. The world hears about the conflict, the two opposing violent voices, and nothing about the innocent victims. One more rape, one more death, one more number.
So it is our duty, the HHR staff and myself, as human rights advocates to tell the world. It is our responsibility to make the argument. I understand it needs to be done. I understand the world needs to be told. I understand that if I tell you everything I heard yesterday, you might understand how dangerous this conflict is for Sri Lankan civilians living in these areas.
But part of me balks. There are certain things that I cannot say in this blog, for the safety of the HHR staff and the victims. But right now there is something that I just do not want to say.
Shouldn’t it be enough to know she was raped and murdered? Shouldn’t it be enough that she is not the first and will not be the last?
Do I really need to describe the excruciatingly brutal crime in detail for the world to care that gang rape and murder have been institutionalized here?
I could. I heard enough yesterday. But I don’t want to. I think her privacy, like the women before her, has been violated far too much already. I think it should be enough to say that this rape happened, that such rapes are not unknown here, and that the government is doing nothing to stop them or investigate.
Perhaps my unwillingness to expose the brutality in this case or the other rape cases makes me a bad human rights advocate. I can’t “construct the argument” as my professor would say. I don’t know.
But really, you don’t want me to tell you. Because then you won’t be able to sleep at night either.
The following letter is from one of HHR’s clients. I changed names and specific details and added paragraphs to make it easier to read. Otherwise I copied the English translation exactly since I don’t know if the errors are from the translation or the original letter.
I can’t tell you much about this man, except that he was the sole provider for his family when he was arrested. I do not believe for a moment that he committed the crime for which he was convicted. There is so much more I want to say about him and what he has been through. There is so much more to his story, more suffering than most people are capable of comprehending. But I can't tell you those things (one of the more frustrating parts of my work), so I will leave you with his words.
I wish I could tell you that this is the only letter of its kind HHR has ever received. Unfortunately it is one of many.
Sir I am writing this letter to know the status of my case processing, sir I have no way to speak with you. So far you have done many helps to me I will be thankful to you forever.
In my hometown the present situation is very worse. The Sri Lanka military forces are continuously shelling in those areas. Therefore the people from these places have started to move towards Batticaloa town. Now my mother is also displaced in the present situation and now she is living in Batticaloa town. My mother is expecting my release and she is waiting for me, I told her that I will be released soon she believes me sir so I cannot lie to her always it’s better to die. Now I am detained for more than ten years and now I am mentally upset. I was thinking that I will be released soon but now I am doubting it. So sir now I am under depression of my situation. I don’t have any things for my use. I am suffering to stay here.
Sara who lives in Colombo comes to see me, she gives me clothes, sugar, milk, but I don’t like to trouble her because her husband Mike is also in the prison with me here. Sir when you come to see me, please if you can meet him also, his prison number is 123. Will I be released before my birthday? I am believing you sir. This is Sara’s number 555 1234. If you can please call and speak with her and fix an appointment, she will come to meet you at your office. Sir if you can give some money to her for my expenditure don’t misunderstand me if it’s difficult for you it’s ok.
Please sir I like to hear good news about my case soon from you. Take care sir. Convey my regards to your family. Sir I wrote this letter to you, if there is any mistake please apologies me. Sir please if you can reply me.
Sri Lanka is really beautiful. I have heard similar claims from people about other places, so let me emphasize: Sri Lanka is really truly jaw-droppingly stupendously amazingly awe-inspiringly beautiful (from now on rtjsaa beautiful).
It is not so much that Sri Lanka is more rtjsaa beautiful than other rtjsaa beautiful places I have seen, such as Victoria Falls or the Bijagos Archipelago. It is more to the point that Sri Lanka is so consistently rtjsaa beautiful.
Throughout the country, from the beaches to the hill country, I don’t think there is a bad view in the entire country. I have to force myself to stop looking when riding a bus because I start getting dizzy. It is easy to understand why Marco Polo claimed Sri Lanka to be the “finest island of its size” or that several people have told me the island is synonymous with Shangri La.
But you don’t have to take my word for it since I finally posted some photos.
There is so much diversity in every aspect of life, so many different kinds of everything:
Ethinicities (Tamil, Sinhalese, Berger, and others)
Religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam)
Greenery, trees, flowers (too many to name even if I knew the names)
Wildlife (elephants, monkeys, funny lizards, chipmunks, geckos, obviously hundreds of others, mosquitos)
Fruits (Already talked about this)
Curries and spices (Every meal is a feast of the senses)
Sometimes when I stop looking to recover from my dizziness, I wonder: how can an island this truly jaw-droppingly stupendously amazingly awe-inspiringly beautiful, this wonderfully diverse, and filled with so many kind people, how can a place like that be so troubled? How can paradise have problems? I know the academic answer, but it just doesn't seem congruous with my surroundings.
Does ethnic tension create the conflict? Or does the conflict create ethnic tension?
A number of events clearly demonstrate that some sort of ethnic tension did exist prior to the First Eelam War in 1983, including:
-The disenfranchisement of Tamil tea plantation workers in 1949.
-Anti-Tamil riots of 1956, 1958, and 1977.
-Changing the country’s name to Ceyland and emphasizing Buddhism as the religion, antagonizing the Tamil (mostly Hindu) minority in 1972.
A new report from Minority Rights Group International has addressed the issue that conflicts such as the one in Sri Lanka that “could have been prevented flare up, as warning signs provided by minority rights violations go unheeded."
Could have, would have, should have. The conflict has exacerbated this tension beyond words.
A girl from my office says she does not like to wear her pottu (the mark between a girl’s eyebrows indicative of Tamil ethnicity) when she leaves Tamil neighborhoods since she knows the police will hassle her. A British expat told me a story where he went out with a couple of friends one night, one of them being a Tamil female. When they were stopped by police to check IDs, the police accused her of being a prostitute for being out so late at night. The police used her cell phone to call her parents and tell them that their daughter is a prostitute.
Hatred is something learned. When people are only hearing one point of view, it is natural to think that news is the correct version.
Sinhalese people, rarely literate in Tamil, only read or hear the Sinhalese and occasionally English versions of the news. Tamil people, rarely literate in Sinhalese, only read or hear the Tamil and occasionally English versions of the news. All of these papers take an angle on the conflict, so few people receive fair and unbiased reporting.
When the government expels Tamils from Colombo and (allegedly) bans TamilNet in Sri Lanka, it starts to highlight the different ethnicities even more. As Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch said, “Nothing could be more inflammatory in Sri Lanka’s polarized climate than identifying people by ethnicity and kicking them out of the capital.”
I fear what will happen if the LTTE and government become more desperate, take more steps to highlight the differences, if minority rights are not addressed now.
As recent events in the Gaza Strip have shown, things can always get worse.
The woman who owns my guesthouse, in addition to being a wonderfully kind person, serves the most delicious feast of a breakfast every morning.
I head down around 8am and receive scrambled eggs with spinach, tomato, cheese, and onions. Tea (made with real ceylon tea leaves naturally) soon follows along with bread fresh from the bakery and homemade jams. There is always fresh fruit of some variety.
But the highlight of my morning, perhaps of my day, is Mrs. Nanayakkara’s fresh juice. I never know what it will be, and I wait with anticipation as the housekeeper emerges with an enormous glass of juice, each morning a different but brilliant color.
To give you an idea of which juices and fruits have graced my palate over the past couple of weeks:
Banana (a dozen different types in Sri Lanka!)
And several others for which I didn’t understand the name of the fruit.
I will be sorely disappointed to return to New York where I only grab an apple on my way to school.
I like to think I am tough. Practical. I am not a crier. (I should add "usually" for those of you who know the exceptions.)
I started reading human rights literature when I was 17, the result of wandering around Dublin into an Amnesty International bookshop. I have read about many of the major human rights atrocities in the 20th century. I lived in one of the poorest countries in the world (Mauritania) for two years, travelled around West Africa, visited Zimbabwe. I have seen poverty.
So when the Advocacy Project invited me to spend the summer in Sri Lanka, I thought great. I will be able to help. I can go into the worst situations. I can hear the worst stories, and because I am tough, I will not fall apart.
Imagine my surprise when a month into my fellowship, I find myself overcome with emotion at random moments, having nightmares, needing a few minutes alone to regain my composure. I thought all of the books I have read would prepare me for what I would see and hear. But the reality is far worse.
I never would have thought it would be this stressful, this hard to simply listen.
A few days ago a boy came into the office and told his story of being abducted and tortured for several days. He spoke of being beaten and thrown from a moving vehicle, and his wounds are still visible.
Last week I read a letter from one of HHR’s clients to his lawyer. The man is starting his 15th year in prison for a crime he did not commit. I can’t print the letter here, but I assure you reading someone’s description of his mental anguish in such a situation is almost unbearable.
The unspeakable cruelty and humiliation that one human being can cause another is now imprinted on my mind and stays with me 24 hours a day. I feel guilty for taking a lunch break, for checking my e-mail, for leaving the office at 5pm when these men will never escape their living nightmares.
I spent last weekend in a town called Unawatuna, one of the more popular beach destinations in Sri Lanka. It was also one of the towns hit hard by the tsunami on December 26, 2004. 30,000 lives were lost that day in Sri Lanka alone. Life is measured not according to 9/11, as in the States, but according to the tsunami: My son was 9 months when the tsunami struck. Where were you that morning? Before the tsunami, after the tsunami. And so on.
Not having known anyone personally affected by that day, I asked the owner of the guesthouse I where I stayed about his experience. "The first wave was . . . very powerful. . ." Damika's voice trailed off as if he was lost in a memory.
"Within seconds, our house was gone. My father was in there." He touched the wall of the building next to us. "My uncle and brother were over there. Gone in seconds. We had to start our lives over. The government gave us 250,000 rupees ($2,500)-- barely enough to bury my family. We rebuilt with some donations from friends in the States and Europe. 2005 was ok. But when the conflict started again last year, everyone left. You are the only guest right now."
You can read a personal account of the tsunami here, as written by Damika's friend for the New York Times.
My first thought was to offer to patronize his guesthouse every weekend for the rest of the summer. Then he adds, "It's like that for everyone around here." I think of the couple dozen guesthouses. I think of the men desperately selling coconuts on the nearly empty beach. I could buy a coconut from each of them, but then I would have a dozen coconuts. I don't even like coconuts.
I think of the entire Sri Lankan coastline and the many other countries affected by the tsunami. 250,000 people killed in all, millions displaced or homeless. Then I come back to the man sitting across from me.
"I'm so sorry" is all I can say. A pathetically inadequate offering.
I thought of where I was when the tsunami struck -- my Mauritanian village, Aioun. Aioun is not exactly a mecca for international news, so I didn't hear about the tsunami until three days later while on vacation with friends in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. We were eating breakfast at a pastry shop when we saw a television. We were shocked and upset of course. We checked the news a few more times and read the papers, but we were on vacation, after all, and returned to having fun as we hiked through Dogon country.
All of that as Damika was burying three family members, and one of his guests buried an 8 week old baby.
I am still doing the work I came here to do but now with a sense of humility, for I am not nearly as tough as I thought. Accompanying that knowledge is the nagging self-doubt that what I am doing will never be enough.
As I am leaving the guesthouse to return to Colombo, I see Damika's son. Nine months old when the tsunami struck, now 3 years, the kid is truly adorable. He laughs and waves goodbye. Quite the survivor.
Back at the HHR office on Monday morning, I feel ready to start another week. As always when confronting a threat larger than oneself, it feels better to work as a team.
"We have to defend ourselves. You can't risk the country...," Rajapaksa said. "I'm talking about terrorists. Anything is fair.
"When the U.S. does operations, they say covert operations. When something is (done) in Sri Lanka, they call it abductions," he added. "This is playing with the words."
--Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President's brother and Defense Ministry Secretary, on justifying last week's expulsions of Tamils from Colombo
Read the entire article here. . .
As an American and a human rights advocate, I find this quote both disgusting and terrifying.
For those unaware, the government spontaneously decided, in the interest of “national security,” to forcibly expel anyone without a “valid” reason from the capital city on June 7. Naturally that validity was determined by government officials and included those who:
--wished to return but did not have the funds to do so.
--had no rationale for remaining in Colombo.
--said they were remaining in Colombo out of fear. (If there could be a Most Absurd Reason to Force People Back to a Conflict Zone Award, I think this should win.)
Starting at 4am, the government raided budget guesthouses in Tamil neighborhoods and forced 376 people onto buses. The people were not told where they were being taken, nor were they given food or water. If that sounds like a minor detail, you have obviously never spent a summer in south Asia. The people were taken to Vavuniya and Trincomalee, towns in the Northern and Eastern provinces, both of which are enveloped in the conflict.
What disgusts me as an American is the idea that my government’s actions are being used to justify the forced expulsions that involved such obvious ethnic discrimination and human rights violations.
What terrifies me as a human rights advocate is that I understand the connection Rajapaksa is making. The national security rationale superficially aligns itself with Bush’s preventive war doctrine. And we need only remember the “shipping containers” to think that perhaps the methods Bush used to target Arab people and send them to Guantanamo Bay are even worse.
Some part of me instinctively wants to deny the connection, and I actually do think the situations differ. But the fact that the connection was ever made in the first place demonstrates how dangerous Bush’s policies have become and the international precedent they set.
But they are different. Notwithstanding my disgust for the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and anything else relating to Gitmo, Rajapaksa was incorrect when he stated that the difference between two situations is merely wordplay.
In a nutshell, the US claiming to be in the midst of an international armed conflict while Sri Lanka claims to be in an internal armed conflict makes a huge difference.
An armed conflict can be internal or international according to international law. An internal conflict invokes only certain aspects of international humanitarian law, namely those which call for the protection of civilians. However, an international armed conflict between states invokes all of international humanitarian law, including all of the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war and treatment of POWs.
According to Bush, fighting Al-Qaeda is no different than fighting any nation-state in a war. Al-Qaeda operatives are “enemy combatants” rather than traditional soldiers, and the US is employing a lawful use of force by responding to terrorist attacks in self-defense. Therefore the detentions are justified for the same reason we would detain POWs during a war under the Geneva Conventions of international humanitarian law. Yes, this is a huge grey area with many legal questions. But these are discussed by people far more knowledgeable than I.
My point is: Bush claims his war on terror to be an international conflict; thus the international humanitarian law doctrine applies.
The government of Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has never claimed the conflict with the LTTE is international. To do otherwise would give the LTTE exactly what they want: recognition of an independent state of Tamil Eelam. Even if the government did not recognize a separate state fighting for independence, they would at minimum be acknowledging that the LTTE has moved beyond an insurgency or rebel group.
So according to the Sri Lankan government, there are no soldiers/POWs/enemy combatants because the LTTE is not a legitimate military force in the conflict. The LTTE is a non-state party in an internal conflict.
In other words, if Rajapaksa wants to equate Sri Lankan abductions with US covert operations, he must first declare his own conflict international - therein giving the LTTE exactly what they want. He must 'cut off his nose to spite his face' so to speak.
What the Sri Lankan government did last Thursday is unequivocally wrong. They violated a number of fundamental human rights (freedom of movement, equality, freedom from ethnic discrimination, forced to return to areas of conflict) without being able to make any argument, however weak Bush's own argument may be, that these people are enemy combatants.
It is very difficult to imagine anyone successfully arguing that the people in the picture below (from Reuters) could be enemy combatants anyway.
Actually it is very difficult to imagine them being anything other than the innocent civilians that they are.
1,941 names. 51 pages. Single-spaced. It breaks my heart.
I know we have all heard more shocking numbers before. 800,000 in Rwanda. 2 million in Cambodia. 6 million during the Holocaust. But those are numbers; it seems truly impossible to imagine that many bodies. As I flip through the pages of HHR’s newest quarterly journal, which includes each victim’s name, age, site of disappearance, and date his body was found, each number becomes a real person. Although some are listed as missing, there is little question that many of those have also died but the bodies just haven't been found. My eyes skim the ages: 11, 85, 22, 15, 67, 37, 8. No one is safe.
And that is only 2006. An estimated 70,000 victims have been killed over the past 30 years of the Sri Lankan conflict. Thousands more have been displaced. HHR's Documentation Unit has been taking note and and tracking statistics.
This weekend I am moving to another guesthouse closer to the HHR office. Although I will miss the very nice people at my current guesthouse, I will not be sad to say goodbye to the policemen who station themselves at the corner everyday. Many tourists might feel comforted by their presence, but they have not been reading the same reports that I have over the past couple of days.
The victims who participate in HHR’s Torture Rehabilitation Program have harrowing stories. Common methods of police torture include:
Placing plastic bags filled with chili powder and petrol over people’s heads to suffocate them
Hanging people upside down or by their thumbs for hours
Beating with clubs, metal poles, etc.
Pouring boiling water down people’s throats
Burning with lit cigarettes
Rubbing chili powder in wounds from the beatings
The Torture Rehabilitation Program provides the victims with medical assistance, psychological counseling, and financial assistance to restart their lives. In one notable case, HHR went to court on behalf of a female gang-raped by 12 police officers at a police station, and she won a 250,000 Sri Lankan rupee compensation award (about $2,500, which might not seem revolutionary by American liability standards, but believe me it’s really good for a human rights case here).
Last weekend I went to Hatton in the central Hill Country of Sri Lanka with several girls from HHR. The girls, many of them my age, led a two day workshop teaching women’s and children’s rights to 22 people. Most of the participants were university age, but there were also several school principals. And there were equal numbers of men and women.
After Mehela and Selva’s intense simulation of a human rights debate during which the participants had to defend their positions in various case studies, we know that the participants really do have a basic understanding of women’s and children’s rights.
Then at lunch on our second day, a story came on the news that two aid workers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), the national organization of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), had been abducted and murdered over the weekend. The two workers were Tamil men who had been in the capital from the North for a workshop at the ICRC headquarters. Men claiming to be police took them from the Colombo train station as they were waiting to go back to their town, Batticaloa. Other SLRCS workers at the station protested the abduction, telling the abductors that the two men did not speak Sinhalese well and that one of them should accompany to translate.
But the abductors said that wasn’t necessary. Just like that. No, a translator won’t be necessary. As though they already knew what they were going to do. As though the two men never had a chance.
There was a silence while we were all transfixed by the screen and people quietly finished their lunch. It goes without saying that if Red Cross aid workers, who maintain careful neutrality so as to work with both sides of a conflict, are targeted, then these are precarious times for anyone involved in human rights work.
Then, as they do with all of HHR’s programs, in spite of what they heard, in spite of any fear, the girls went upstairs to finish the workshop.
Two nights ago, I had a nightmare. A team of police officers would be waiting outside the HHR office for me on my first day of work. They knew about my visa application, knew I would be working at HHR, and were there to arrest me for contravening the country’s new work visa policy. I woke up at 2 a.m. unable to go back to sleep, although admittedly this was due as much to jet lag as my nightmare.
At breakfast a few hours later, I started talking to the man staying across the hall from me. He launched into a monologue on his work (studying Buddhist artifacts), his recent discovery (a Buddhist footprint), and the controversy it has caused (every Ivy League university is plagiarizing him or refuting the discovery).
I started to wonder if I am similarly submerged in my own existence. (I say this with all due respect to Dr. Sailer, as it is very possible that his discovery is the Buddhist equivalent of finding the Holy Grail and I simply don't understand.) Are my concerns about my visa valid or do I have grandiose notions of my own importance? After all that HHR has accomplished over the past decades, does the government particularly care about my three month contribution? Probably not. Don't they have better things to do? Probably. Don't I? Definitely.
My first day turned out to be like many first days. I arrived at the office, a beautiful, open, airy building with an archway (I love archways) and a charming hut outside where we all eat lunch. At least it seemed that way to me because everyone was so welcoming. Needless to say, no police officers were in sight. I read HHR’s annual reports and quarterly journal to familiarize myself with their work. I spoke with my boss, Mr. Francis Xavier, by telephone as he is in Canada at the moment.
HHR's quarterly journal introduced me to the story of Mr. Nallaratnam Singarasa. Arrested when he was 19 and convicted a year later of planning attacks against the government, Mr. Singarasa is now in his twelfth year of a 35 year sentence. He is 32. His conviction has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka even though he retracted his confession, the sole basis of his conviction, and no other evidence has been provided. It has been upheld even though Mr. Singarasa confessed in Tamil, and no independent interpreter was present to translate to Sinhalese. It has been upheld even though a police officer typed the confession in Sinhalese, a language which Mr. Singarasa does not speak, read, or write, and forced Mr. Singarasa to sign with his thumbprint. It has been upheld even though Mr. Singarasa has testified that the confession was only provided after hours of torture. It has been upheld even though the officer pulled a piece of paper from a file cabinet and typed the confession while looking at that paper.
The reason for such a decision is based on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979, which shifts the burden of proof to the defendent. Imagine living in a country where you are guilty until you prove your own innocence.
To say I felt small after reading that article and thinking back to my nervous insomnia is, quite obviously, an understatement.
Yesterday I read an interview with Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, in which he said that he didn’t know what to expect when he returned to Afghanistan after 27 years in the United States.* Although I am not Sri Lankan and have never been there, I now have some understanding of that sentiment. I have read so much about the Sri Lankan conflict, and in a few days I will see if the violence is as bad as described in recent news reports or worse.
In times of conflict, the international media tends to focus the major parties involved, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lankan government and military, in this case. Unfortunately the people most affected by the violence are the innocent civilians caught in the middle. I have tried not to form opinions from what I read in the media and expect to do that from my own experiences and observations. But six frustrating weeks of visa applications have led me to two initial opinions: (a) one should always deal with consular affairs through the Washington, DC Embassy rather than a regional Consulate and (b) the Sri Lankan government has something to hide.
Several people have asked if I am scared since the conflict has escalated in recent months. I have never thought that fear should stop me from doing anything that I really want to do. Furthermore, the recent escalation makes the need for the world to see the conflict’s impact on the Sri Lankan people that much more important. This is a critical time to be there and helping local advocates raise awareness domestically and internationally. I ask each of you to help me by forwarding the link to this blog to friends and contacts. It is amazing what we will be able to accomplish in three months if we work together.
I am very grateful to the Advocacy Project (AP) for this opportunity to spend the summer working with its partner organization Home for Human Rights (HHR) in Colombo. I agree with the AP’s mission 100%, and I think that local advocates are effective because they understand the historical and cultural context of human rights better than anyone. The people of HHR live with the conflict every day and see its effects on every victim that comes to their office. By expanding HHR’s network in Colombo and raising awareness in the United States, I hope to supplement their efforts to advocate human rights for victims of torture particularly with the United Nations Human Rights Council.
I am leaving tonight from New York City. The next time you hear from me will be from Colombo.
Madeline England, 27, is currently pursuing a master's of international affairs with a concentration in human rights at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Madeline is an AP Peace Fellow this summer, working with the Home for Human Rights (HHR), an AP partner organization in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her goals include working with the HHR staff to advocate for victims of torture, raise awareness on national and international levels of ongoing human rights violations, and promote accountability for the perpetrators of those violations.
After receiving a BA in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 2002, Madeline worked as a legal assistant for a London law firm and as an outreach coordinator for the Women’s Anti-Violence Education program in Philadelphia.
From 2004 to 2006, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania, West Africa, where she worked in small business development with female entrepreneurs helping to coordinate marketing campaigns and business plans. She also managed a mentoring center to encourage girls’ education for a local high school.
Madeline’s graduate studies focus on the link between human rights violations and conflict. Since human rights abuse often instigates or exacerbates violence, she hopes that documenting human rights abuse, raising public awareness, advocating justice and promoting community reconciliation efforts will advance the resolution of conflict.
Any donations to support Madeline’s work are appreciated.
- AP Fellow Photo Blog
- Willow Heske
- Shweta Dewan
- Shubha Bala
- Rianne Van Doeveren
- Raka Banerjee
- Paul Colombini
- Ola Duru
- Nicole Slezak
- Nicole Farkouh
- Ned Meerdink
- Mackenzie Berg
- Lucas Wolf
- Libby Abbott
- Larissa Hotra
- Krystal Sirman
- Kristina Rosinsky
- Juliet Hutchings
- Jes Therkelsen
- Jennifer Tucker
- Jennifer Scott
- Janet Rabin
- James Dasinger
- Heidi McKinnon
- Heather Gilberds
- Hannah Wright
- Hannah McKeeth
- Danita Topcagic
- Colby Pacheco
- Chi Vu
- Ash Kosiewicz
- Antigona Kukaj
- Annelieke van de Wiel
- Amy Offner
- Adam Nord
- Zach Scott
- Wilhelmina Tsang
- Tatsiana Hulko
- Tassos Coulaloglou
- Stephanie Gilbert
- Sara Zampierin
- Saba Haq
- Nicole Farkouh
- Michelle Lanspa
- Mark R Koenig
- Mariko Scavone
- Madeline England
- Leslie Ibeanusi
- Katie Wroblewski
- Julia Zoo
- Jonathan Homer
- Jessica Boccardo
- Jennifer Hollinger
- Jeff Yarborough
- Gail Morgado
- Erin Wroblewski
- Eliza Bates
- Devin Greenleaf
- Caitlin Burnett
- Audrey Roberts
- Audrey Desiderato
- Amali Tower
- Alison Morse
- Abby Weil
- Aaron "Ted" Samuel
- Yvette Barnes
- Stacey Spivey
- Sarah Sachs
- Nicole Cordeau
- Melissa Muscio
- Lynne Engelman
- Lori Tomoe Mizuno
- Laura Cardinal
- Kristi Severance
- Jessica Sewall
- Greg Holyfield
- Erica Isaac
- Donna Laverdiere
- Charles Wright
- Barbra Bearden
- Autumn Graham
- Anya Gorovets
- Alison Long
- Stephanie Salazar
- Shirin Sahani
- Sarosh Syed
- Sabri Ben-Achour
- Nitzan Goldberger
- Margaret Swink
- Malia (Lia) Mayson
- MacKenzie Frady
- Karen Adler
- Jessica Smedstad
- Ewa Sobczynska
- Eun Ha Kim
- Chiara Zerunian
- Carrie Hasselback
- Anne Finnan
- Alex Goldmark
- Stacy Kosko
- Sarah Schores
- Pia Schneider
- Michael Keller
- Melinda Willis
- Ginny Barahona
- Christina Fetterhoff
- Carmen Morcos
- Bushra Mukbil
- Marta Schaaf
- Kimberly Birdsall
- Kate Kuo
- Julie Lee
- Erica Williams
- Courtney Radsch
- Claudia Zambra
- Caitlin Williams