The place has been difficult to find and I am late.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
And then I hand her the bunch of flowers bought on impulse. It is an unremarkable day in February. The sun does not shine and the damp air threatens rain. I have travelled up to London for this interview but at the station I hesitated, then bought some hyacinths.
The girl I am about to talk to, Rani, is twenty-six, and because I too am Sri Lankan I am interested in her story. But still, I must admit, I have been dreading this meeting. For I am neither journalist nor councillor, lawyer or doctor and I have no experience of interviewing someone who has endured what she has. So, as an uncertain gift, a token of respect, I have brought her flowers, blue as a tropical sky, scented like the air of her lost childhood. I hold them out and instantly see, even before she says a word, a desolation in her face. She is detached from her surroundings, muffled, in some way. The interview room is small. A low bed, an empty desk, a blank computer screen. No plants, no pictures on the walls, nothing personal. When I came in I noticed a row of grey socks drying on a radiator. A faint trace of incense hovers suggesting prayers. I am aware of listeners behind closed doors.
‘Tell me,’ I say, dismissing all thoughts of where I might be, ‘start at the beginning.’
But she cannot. Like all memories hers arrives in fragments, in vivid shards, hesitant flashbacks relived again and again in the retelling.
‘They killed them,’ she says, and I wait.
Once they had been six. Now Rani is just one. Alone; the emblematic story of the destruction of Tamil families.
‘On the ninth day of the seventh month last year,’ she tells me, closing her eyes, arms wrapped around herself, ‘my aunt rang me. She told me they had set my home on fire. She told me my mother and sister had been burnt alive. When I went back all that was left was their skeletons.’
The statement lies between us in a shock of silence. She has started with the thing upmost in her mind. Outside on the busy north London road a siren rises and falls, then fades into nothing.
Rani’s story is medieval in its savage retribution. It is a story of innocence, idealism, and betrayal in a time of civil war. One that is repeated again and again in Sri Lanka. To its shame the country has collectively mastered the art of camouflaging its horrendous crimes, bussing in western tourists to its golden beaches and fronting a campaign of faux-peace. So that the world with its limited attention span, its short supply of pity, turns a blind eye. In the glossy brochures and magazines of the west Sri Lanka is called the ‘Number One Holiday In Paradise.’
Tamil harassment and persecution had been taking place as far back as 1958. Slowly, over time the Tamils were denied education and employment. Those who could, seeing the writing on the wall, like my own Tamil father (my mother was Singhalese) left the country. As the intimidation worsened, abductions and disappearances became common and no Tamil was safe.
Rani’s story began in 2004 when she was seventeen. She was an ordinary girl whose simple religious belief made her hope to become a school teacher to help Tamil children to a better future. Her father worked for a telecommunication company, her mother, a housewife taking in sewing and keeping chickens. Rani was the eldest of four children, all of whom, throughout their young lives had seen local violence between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an armed separatist movement). All of them had witnessed the frequent round-ups in which the Sri Lankan authorities made the villagers assemble for questioning. Rani clearly remembers as a young child seeing older children interrogated and arrested, never to be seen again. She had grown up with the palpable feeling of injustice metered out by the Singhalese armed majority to the people in the villages in the North East. But in 2004 she was still a dreamer, an ordinary girl, who hoped for a better future. An ordinary girl for whom the time was out of joint.
And when on that fateful evening in 2004, a man, known simply to the family as ‘Uncle’ came to her house, walking up the steps to sit out on the verandah, requesting help for the LTTE cause, it was Rani, the passionately idealist who stepped from the shadows to offer that help. It was just another evening when the Nerium bloomed. Rani’s younger sister was fourteen, her two small brothers somewhat younger. How could she know then what she now knows? That her life and all the lives of her family would soon be changed forever?
Soon she was recruited into the Tamil resistance movement and used as some sort of spy but really she didn’t understand the significance of what she was doing. The LTTE arranged for her to work for a non-governmental organization. Her work involved visiting war-ravaged areas to teach basic health and hygiene. She assisted doctors in medical ‘camps’ while at the same time, remarkably, completed her A Levels.
But in 2007 other, more sinister events began unfolding. The LTTE started a compulsory recruitment of child soldiers in the build up to the final phase of the war. At least one child from every family was what they wanted.
‘How long was it,’ I ask, ‘before you heard your brothers were recruited?’
At that Rani throws her head back and I wait for the storm to subside. The sound I am listening to cannot simply be called weeping. It is too wild, too primeval, too piercing. The sound goes on and on, defying words, the hopelessness a lament for lost love. When at last she speaks she describes how her brothers left at night, holding hands for mutual support. Neither of them, she says, has ever been seen again.
By 2008 hostilities between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE had moved to a part of Sri Lanka far from the north east of the island and Rani lost all contact with the rebels. Determined however to be of use to her family she took up new activities, attending courses in tailoring and cake making. But the harassment of villagers in her neighborhood continued so that suddenly, fearful of her past connection with the LTTE, her parents urged her to stay with relatives in another town.
Time passed and the war was over, in name at least. Rani was missing her family badly and in April of 2011 she moved back into her parental home. But, shortly after her return, she was arrested by the Sri Lankan intelligence forces, the CID. They kept her in jail for 10 days.
‘They tortured me so much’, she whispers, the coffee that has been brought in for her, untouched, growing colder.
I am silent, unable to ask the questions forming on my lips so the interpreter asks for me, instead. Yes, she was beaten. Yes, she was raped, many times. As part of the torture they cut her big toe, she tells me and I shake my head in disbelief.
‘They hurt my mind,’ she cries, from deep within her curled up body.
With the help of a lawyer and an MP, Rani’s father secured her release. She was admitted to hospital for a month during which time her mother held her daughter in her arms and rocked her day and night. The only thing Rani remembers of that time is the feeling of her mother’s arms, the tenderness of a woman comforting her child. As she recalls this Rani too begins to rock gently. I look away towards the dull February light coming in from the window. Words are failing me.
Finally, she left the hospital, a broken person. Those who have been tortured say that once their bodies have been violated they no longer belong to the world. It is this way for Rani. It was clear how very unwell she really was. She hardly ate, could not sleep and the searing flashbacks that began then have never left her. The doctor she was seeing told her, ‘forget the past.’
She could not. What had been done could not be undone.
After her release from the hospital Rani was obliged to ‘sign on’ at a police station each week but she found the sessions deeply distressing. The men there would pull her hair, sneer at her and run their hands abusively over her body. Any resistance would have made matters worse. At one point she tried persuading her father to allow her to stop the weekly humiliations. Helplessly he told her that this was impossible unless they moved away altogether. He tried but failed to arrange a student visa that would permit her to leave Sri Lanka and come to the UK. Then, on a bright November morning, on his way to work he was abducted. For some time now he had been watched because of his daughter’s connection with the LTTE. Later, on that same day, they found his battered and bleeding body dumped very near the sea.
‘Everything happened because of me,’ Rani now cries. ‘They killed him because of me’.
Her father had been the gentlest of men, she says.
‘I wanted to die after that. I tried poison – but my mother stopped me’.
And then she adds, chillingly,
‘If I had died my mother and sister would still be alive’.
After her father’s death, Rani, accompanied now by an uncle, continued to sign on with the Sri Lankan authorities. But by May 2012 she was no longer able to stand the abuse. Her mother frightened for her sanity arranged once again for her to go into hiding in Trincomalee.
During those few weeks between May and early July Rani was too frightened to leave the safe house. Her mother rang as often as she dared but men from the CID had started making spot checks on their home in search of her daughter. Her mother continued to deny all knowledge of her daughter’s whereabouts.
‘My mother told me not to worry. She would somehow manage the situation.’ Rani tells me.
Then on 8th July her mother rang one last time. The men told her that if she didn’t disclose Rani’s address they would kill her instead.
‘Don’t come home,’ her mother said. ‘Wait!’
She spent a sleepless night, worrying. The following morning her aunt telephoned the safe house. The family home had been set ablaze. Rani’s mother and younger sister had been in bed.
‘I went back, then,’ she tells me, her voice indistinct.
Arriving at the house she saw the villagers gathered in front of it. The moment is fixed forever in her mind, the silence of the crowd, the charred walls, the overpowering heat of the day, the smell of petrol. Someone, she cannot remember who, led her inside where two skeletons remained on a bed of ash. Everything slowed down and blurred. She saw a fragment of fabric from the dress she had handed down to her younger sister. Gripped by despair she fainted.
Now there was no longer any reason to hide. What was lost could not be recovered. And although the police came back to harass her with questions, crazed with grief she no longer cared about her life. The villagers urged her to flee but she would not. Everyone, she tells me now, knew she would be arrested again and when they came for her in the white van she thought nothing could be worse than what had already happened. How wrong she was.
For 47 days and nights last November, Rani was tortured and gang-raped. She was burnt with cigarettes, her head was pushed into a barrel of water. She was made to kneel while faceless men in army boots kicked her. Her distress served merely an incitement to further abuse. In the end it hardly mattered as she drifted, like a boat without oars, into semi-consciousness. Stripped of all humanity she had arrived at a place beyond human help.
At last, on the forty-seventh day Rani's uncle having bribed a CID officer managed to have her released. He took her to the coastal town of Mannar.
Now, in this silent interview room, with only the ticking of a clock, I am piecing together what happened next. I am piecing it through her tears for she can no longer speak in any coherent way.
She left Mannar that night hiding on the bottom of a boat. Leaving under a fistful of stars shining over a land that had betrayed her. Leaving, a word that sounded so like grieving, with the slow, slow, dip of oars into water. In this terrible way, in the torn and bloodied, semen-stained dress sewn long ago by a mother’s loving hand, carrying her broken body, she went. Steering away from rocks that, so the legend goes, were placed there by the demon Ravana. Helplessly, sliding away from her home, shedding her past as though it were a skin. Leaving it as if it were a foreign country. Going from the place where she had been born. Sinking into the sea.
Betrayed, she tells me, on this dull February day, ‘if they send me back from here, I will just kill myself.’
The scent of hyacinths is strong in the room.
I have heard stories of how, in the process of the destruction of Tamil families, one shell of a person is left as a warning to others, so the brutalities could be spoken of and thus cause fear. Elie Wiesel, when he accepted the Nobel Prize said,
‘I have tried to keep memory alive… I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.’
This I think, is what I too must do.
‘Don’t forget your flowers,’ I say, and I place them in her hands once more before raising them up to her face.
Behind the opening buds I see her eyes, as bright and as young as the blue-winged Leafbird from that place which we both once called home.
Since writing this article an anonymous benefactor hearing of her plight has offered to pay for any medical help that Rani might need. She is also soon to undergo counselling.