Unheard Voices

Don't test the color of my blood

Our lost dark nights of war in Sri Lanka: Women and rape May 28, 2009

I feel frozen. My neck is starting to tighten and my heart is beating like a drum. I don’t know why. I thought the memories are erased but it is not. It is buried in me and in many other women. Our eyes are telling so many stories. No one can read or listen or hear but as sisters we feel the pain and the fear among us.

Each time the sounds of the guns come closer to me, my body is shaking and we ran and ran to the place where there is no smell of the army. Each time we hear the news that army is coming closer I wanted to crawl and hide my face between my legs in the dark corner.

When we heard the noise of the army boots, my mother scuffled our hair and asked us daughters to wear clothes that covered our bodies fully with long gowns as many other mothers. My mother put me and my sisters inside the cupboard and  under the bed as her hands are shaking and her eyes are watering with fear. Her hands are tied as her options are blocked to save their daughters.

We learnt when we hide we get assaulted, so we decided to stay together but they the terrifying men selected us by the look of our body and asked to go to the rooms for check up  with them. With their gun inside our mouth they tested if our breast are bombs or if we carry guns in our vagina. Our voice were blocked inside the gun barrel stuck inside mouth. Our body become the frozen ice as blood became frozen inside our body as our eyes were looking for help. There is no rule or hands to wipe our tears of blood. We let our entire body to be frozen.   There are so many tests happened to my friends and sisters like this but we keep quite and only told our mothers.

Our mothers kept quite to save our fathers and brothers life as they would be killed if they asked questions as many times our fathers and brothers think that they are responsible for us.  On the way to school and to home, passing that army camp is not easy or safe. Our bodies got frozen as they checked our bras and between our thighs. Our brothers and fathers were beaten up and taken to their custody for speaking for us. I saw my sisters peeing on the streets as they were checked out and assaulted. We pass the sentry point as we pray the God. Even the God did not hear our cries or wounds.

Each time the army capture our homes(space) many of our sisters bodies are destroyed, assaulted, raped, killed and targeted as war tools to celebrate their victories. Our future turn dark. Many of my sisters quit school and we stayed home avoid the army and the camps.

Our homes are checked on a daily basis especially if there are women. Each time they check, they assault us by saying they are checking to see if we are terrorists and have any thing inside our clothes. Some of our sisters get raped too.

Our Tamil armed group brothers of freedom fighters who helped the army watched us being sexually assaulted; but some I saw had tears in their eyes as their hands are tied.

The army did not even leave me as a 13 years old or my sister who is 6 years old. My  sisters’ bodies got frozen and never talk about any thing. Our mothers told us not to say any thing to our neighbors or the world as she did not trust the world and worried that our future will be destroyed as we were told. One  day a sister from our neighborhood committed  suicide. We asked what happened, the parents kept quite. Later my mother told me that she was raped and killed herself as she does not want to see this terrifying world. We know so many sisters’ disturbing stories are buried in our backyard and in our streets.

As Tamil women, we were raised to not talk about our sexuality or our body as women. It is a secret. And we were brought up with a sense of shame to openly speak about our bodies.  We did not even talk about our sexual issues infront our fathers or brothers. We were told  that without virginity our lives are over.

I saw so many of them and still feel the wounds as someone who have worked in many villages and in Poorani  Women Centre. Poorani Women Centre is the first women centre that gave space to say and build hope for women who are being affected by (raped women, lost parents, lost homes, other…..). Working class women were in more vulnerable situation as we did not hold any status or contacts or as only we acted as with feelings and our voice already in the bottom of the agenda in our society.

I was involved from day one on as committee member and then staff at Poorani. It was seeded by Pat Ready who was a Burgher women who lived in England and Dr. Rajini Thiranagama and many others. As someone who was part of Poorani from the beginning and as someone who translated and communicated  the stories of rape  and their dark life to Pat Ready. I got to know more unheard voices which are still echoing in my ears during IPKF arrival for to bring so called peace.

Sothi(not real name)

“ they destroyed my life. Ariyandom, ariyandom. (dirty, dirty)” Her words hide from her mouth as she was trying to re-live and her body shakes.

“7 army tied me up on the bed. Both my legs and arms are tied…”

I did not want to hear any longer and stopped translating as women we feel and connect. She continued to stammer while her words get lost in her tummy.

“All 7 raped me until my vagina got trashed.”

She was pregnant  which she even did not know until we asked her and had to go through abortion.

“I do not want the child. I will kill the child if I had him.” Thanks to God it was not too late to do abortion.

As we hugged her, Sothi’s story went into my blood and touched and tore my heart. Seeing her washing her hands and feet all the time and screaming at sleep, feeling lost, I wanted to be with her and other women who are in same situation. I quit my school and forgot my age as teenager, as my life was full of these stories.

Another women who had passed the abortion deadline and could not accept her pregnancy or the baby, kicked her stomach to take revenge on the baby. She eat green Papaya and other medicine to kill the baby. But the baby was born. As the baby lay crying for milk, she refused to even see him or feed him. The Indian Peace Keeper destroyed the peace in this woman and her child, like many other women and children to prove their victory.

I can go on and on about women who have lost their hope and their self due to rape and effect of war. Poorani gave a space for women and gave hope. It was destroyed by the Tamil armed group to take over the power of the centre.

After that many women went in many different directions. Some women who had families went to their family and got married. Some of the raped women joined the LTTE as black tigers.

Few years later, Sothi’s destroyed body was given to my mother in a bag as she had requested and felt that she was part of our family. I do not know what happened to other sisters, therefore, defeating the LTTE and killing them does not make me happy or enjoy their deaths as they are my sisters, friends, classmates, neighbours and fellow human beings  even though they have chosen different path.

Even at the Poorani, in the beginning the army came into our bedroom and watched while we were changing clothes, taking bath, in wash-rooms day and nights until the authorities were challenged by us, especially Pat Ready and Rajini.

There are many dark nights that our eyes were not closed and our bodies were frozen:

Example: One day Pat Ready and I went to the army camp and informed Captain George that we are a non-violent group and his soldiers should not come to our centre, especially inside without permission. Pat told him that she will be travelling to Colombo and asked him to tell his army to not to come to our centre or frighten the women who are living there. She informed him that if proper action is not taken, she would report to the International Community. He agreed and came to see and toured the centre.

The day Pat left, Captain George came to our doors at late night, drunk with his gun slung over his shoulder. We had hired a new administrator from Jaffna University.  As soon as we saw Army Captain and his gun, many women and my sisters who came to visit the centre on that day and my grandmother hide themselves under the bed and in rooms. The administrator and two other women tried to talk to him while the Tamil armed group who came with him waited outside. I hid myself behind the front door. The administrator started to talk. George was asking all the questions as he pretended not to know any information about the centre. He requested her to take him to show the place that we are going to use for nursery which was filled with bushes and was dark. The administrator started to shake and cry but her feet were moving. I know why he asked her and what he wanted. I came out and said “Hi Captain George! Why do you want to see again. You came here before and were informed that you and your group cannot come here. Why are you here?” He was startled to see me there. He said that he was just checking to see if we are all safe. I said if there were any problem, we would inform and requested him to leave. He  left. Even though I was so terrified and shaking, I had to do this to save our sisters and me. I felt very strong at that time even though I did not belong to the same status as Dr.Rajini and Pat and was very young at that time. I spoke out for the first time against an army and have never seen even my mother or neighbours challenge the army.

That night, we slept in one of our neighbor’s house. The old woman had asthma. So many boots walked in the SARUHUKAL (dry leaves) and kicked Poorani’s doors throughout the night. The sound squeezed our hearts. The old women, our neighbour’s asthma started acting up  and she could not breath. She was making so much noise, we had to hold her mouth and block her breathing on and off to save all of us. That night our eyes did not close. I can not explain the fear and sorrow till the boots and the smell left us that morning.

Our nights continued to be full of these stories for years. We never wanted to live with those boots and gun and smell of army. But the Tamil human rights activists, media and the International Community talk about how some of our brothers and sisters being kept as human shields. But they buried our feelings and fears and our belonging in their reports as women, especially as working class women who do not have contacts, wealth or education. Our fearful faces and nights of terrors buried in our villages. We never wanted to pass this army camp even if we had to pass to save our lives, lives of our children.

2009:

I was told by a trusted source close to me, that women are being raped and have disappeared. Families are being separated on the way to safe zone. This information  would not be new to most of us, as we see reports everyday.

“A woman was raped by 26 army on the way to safe zone and her vagina and uterus were torn to shreds. She did not tell any one but her pain brought the truth to attention, but she does not want to say anything to anyone.”

Our wounds hidden and buried in the safe zone are slowly emerging.

Continuing effects in diaspora:

It did not stop. We, as women carry the dirt feeling and effect with us everywhere we go. I have counseled many women who do not want to let their husbands touch  their bodies. And their voice is again buried within themselves as they were afraid that they would be abandoned by their husbands and society.

As we shared our stories among us and see the injustice and cruelty, my voice got stronger with other sisters voice.

I have my own stories. But, I could not just only see my pain alone as there are unbearable  pain in scores of women and innocent terrifying experience..

We cannot let any longer let our voice and open wound be ignored. we cannot any longer let the torn vaginas and uterus be ignored. We cannot any longer allow powerful men to use our bodies as tools for their victories.

As Tamils, as human rights activists, as international representatives, as human rights and aid organizations, as humans we have a basic duty, to follow and make changes in these innocent lives, to save their future. Some of the ways we need to immediately address are,

  • send – DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) as they did during Tsunami
  • Should push UN and international community to stand firm and stop the killing, rape, disappearance and torture of innocent civilians and provide basic humanitarian aid.
  • Speak for innocent civilians and should pressure other countries to follow international law to stop the killing, rape, disappearance and torture of innocent civilians.
  • Canada and other countries have to get involved in finding a REAL permanent solution to save many innocent lives in Sri Lanka by organizing a real peace talk by clearly telling the Sri Lankan government that there would be repercussions such as economic and political sanctions.
  • By facilitating a real dialogue between all parties.
  • Most importantly women from the grass root level, who are the most affected has to be part of the discussion and decision making.
  • Let our families and children to live where they grew up, away from the camps.

Until the real solution touches us, our lives remains dark.

By Regi David, Toronto,  May 27, 2009:

Don’t Test the colour of my blood, I also, will be destroyed.

But even then, the colour of my blood is red, just like yours, my friend.

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Buried for years in our backyards: Stories of Rape, Hunger, and Death from SriLankan Tamil Women May 25, 2009

The smell of the army boots, the gun, never our friend

I became an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) when I was just 13 years old. Our house was bombed out. We did not know where to go. We ran and ran. The stench of corpses was everywhere. They were not just dead bodies. They were my uncles, sisters, friends and neighbours.

My mother asks me to close my eyes. I keep seeing the gun that pointed at my face. I see my sister frozen with fear of being raped. I see us running into the church. I see my neighbours crawling without legs. I see people’s feet, stepping over small babies. I see infants crying to awaken their dead parents. I see the pregnant mother running, to save herself and the unborn baby in her stomach. And I see her shatter in an explosion near the church. I see her two legs quivering in pieces on the soil. I see the fragments of shells, raining down to destroy me, to destroy my mother.

We are all packed in a small tiny space, our neighbourhood church. Hundreds of families, thousands seek here. There is no place to sit here. I just sit in one place for five days. I want to stretch myself and go to sleep. I am numb all over. There’s nowhere to even stretch my arms. Five days, I stand or sit, circulating blood. I cried for food and water, as many other children around me did. Our mothers could only give us their tears. Our fathers were nowhere to be seen. Our brothers were taken away by the army. My sisters were hidden under their folded arms, numb with fear. My uncles went with the priest to help the wounded and take the dead bodies to the cemetery as there were dead bodies everywhere. That was the last I saw of my uncles. It was the priest whose white tunic turned red, who tried to console us saying that he had to put my uncles too in the bullock-cart, they had used to send the bodies to be buried. My uncles were killed in the shell bombing while they were helping others. I never had a chance to say goodbye. We screamed and screamed until our throats went dry. No one heard our voices.

The Sri Lankan Government told the world that my uncles are safe… The Sri Lankan government told the world that my sisters did not get raped. They told the world that it was not true. But the truth is they are all gone.

Our stories are buried in our backyards, but our nights are full of these stories.

On seeing the bloodshed of innocent people, I decided to work with the community of people who most needed it. I worked in the community at the grassroots level with women raped and affected by war in many villages around Jaffna and continued my work in the first twelve refugee camps in Colombo during the 1990s.

I still recall vividly life as a community worker in the refugee camps.

I heard many voices of innocent, helpless civilians who lost their loved ones on their way to the camps. Women’s silent cries at being raped on their way to the camp. Mothers crying over their lost and disappeared children. Scattered families who had to leave behind loved ones who did not want to leave their homes, neighbourhoods they grew up in, friends, schools, temples, fields and trees even when their lives were in danger. My family was one of them. I saw entire communities of Muslims being uprooted from Jaffna with unbearable sorrow in their hearts.

But after all this struggle to reach the “safety” of the refugee camps, more struggle awaited us.

The refugee camps were packed to explode. People just had space only to lie down in the vast open halls of former schools and community centers.

People were lining for washrooms. When people had diarrhea, the last piece of cloth they had were most of the time soiled. And they had to keep wearing them until or if  some help arrives. There were many contagious diseases such as rashes, dysentery, and malaria in these refugee camps which kept recurring again and again.

Armed Tamil groups who were given responsibility over the camps by the government misused their power over the innocent helpless civilians. I saw old men who went to get fresh air, escaping the fetid air in the camps get beaten up until they coughed up blood, by one of the main leaders of the Tamil armed groups for returning after 6 PM. When people speak out, they disappear the next day. Young women and men were watched constantly. The people in these camps were not allowed to return to their neighbourhoods or communities that they grew up in, even if the wanted to. For some people, there was no place to return because of the bombs. People were afraid to speak freely about even regular happenings. There was so much loss and sorrow they could not even think about it, as it filled them up. Many times, when I gave counselling, people were bottled up with unshed tears and pain. It took me a lot of time to build trust. The counselling had to happen inside the camps surrounded by the Tamil armed groups, which kept most of them silent. People were kept in the refugees camps for months without being allowed outside. Even children! Our future is lost in the refugee camps in our own lands.

I had to fight for months with the Tamil armed groups for permission to take the children and families out for a few hours to conduct a trauma workshop. However, I could not continue to just do my set out tasks. I went further and beyond my limitations and asked questions and challenged the authority of the Tamil armed groups. So, I was targeted and was put in jail for 12 days with my family and friends, under the Sri Lankan emergency law just because I spoke out. I was able to get out of the jail only with the support of the international aid community. If they had not come to my aid, my family and I would have lost our lives as many Tamils have.

The international community should not wait to pressure for answers from Sri-Lankan government during disasters because the Sri-Lankan government does not listen or follow international law. This is clear from how the Sri Lankan government is not even allowing the UN to send aid, or the aid agencies to provide much needed relief for the 300,000 innocent civilians caught in the camps. The Sri Lankan government is not even letting in the international media. The international community has to act now and not just send requests as it has done for months. Otherwise many more thousands of innocent lives will be destroyed forever.

Future of Tamils in Sri Lanka:

Refugee camps are not a solution as the Sri-Lankan government, other Tamil armed groups, and Tamil human rights activists would have us believe. Even the leaders and their supporters who propose all these, the question we have to ask is: would you put yourselves and your children through a refugee camp?

During the last 30 years, thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives and homes that they keep rebuilding, along with their identities and hopes.

I can understand the feelings of this war as the 1980s, 90s and 2000s are no different. Being raped in 1990s and being raped in 2009 is not different; the agony is the same. The loss of loved ones, the hunger, the running for safety is the same then and now. Having no hands to comfort, being alone is the same in that war and this war.

The international community and the Sri Lankan government thinks that they only need food and water, a place to sleep, and medicine to heal their wounds and they can survive. Food and shelter is important, too, but that is not enough for real peace. What about their scattered families torn apart by war, the endless mourning for them, and the endless hope for a life without guns and bombs. None of this comes into the solution of a refugee camp.

Therefore, refugee camps after the mass killings of Tamils, after the torture, after the erasure of people, the refugee camps are not a solution, especially because it is the same government who kills them and their families and then offers them refuge. Where is the guarantee of real safety inside these refugee camps? As I mentioned, when I worked in the refugee camps, what I saw was nothing less than terrifying. The threats to their lives, the torture, the violence continued even inside the camps. Therefore, this is not a permanent or democratic or diplomatic solution; it is not even a solution. It will not end the war or bring peace, and any human rights activist who works without any bias or agenda except for humanitarianism would not disagree.

It is our responsibility as a Sri Lankan, as a Canadian, as a human being to support and solve the real issue for our children in the future. The powerful leaders carry out their campaigns with both guns and pens. These guns and pens bury the stories, the pain, the faces of women and working class people in their own backyards. Sometimes, Tamil human rights activists and intellectuals cover up our pain with their personal pain and loss. Our unheard voices were buried for years and continue to be buried.

The war will end and people will be in peace only if the real root of the problem is touched and addressed democratically. Banning the LTTE or defeating them or other Tamil armed groups is not a solution. The solution will be when Tamils are treated as equal citizens in a land that they have lived in for many thousands now. The solution will be when Tamils do not have to prove their belonging or their right of place in Sri Lanka. The solution will be when we all sit down and talk with an open agenda with justice in mind.

No Justice, No peace!


By Regi David, Toronto,  May 21, 2009:

Don’t Test the colour of my blood, I also, will be destroyed.

But even then, the colour of my blood is red, just like yours, my friend.