Alive from the abyss: continuing abductions and torture in Sri Lanka

By Frances Harrison

A new generation of young Tamil men are being picked up and tortured by the security forces in the north and east for exercising their legitimate peaceful political rights. 

“I did not think I would get in any trouble,” said the twenty-year old, who naively allowed someone abroad to send money to his bank account. He was told it was to support the families of the disappeared. Even his parents didn’t object. “We all thought there might be some danger, but none of us appreciated the potential consequences,” he said now in London, his body now permanently marked with scars from torture.

Early one morning in 2020, his life was to change forever. Officers from the TID arrived to arrest him. “The last thing I saw was my father comforting my mother as I was forced to walk towards a jeep”. The details of his sexual torture in detention are frankly too brutal and graphic to print. His family managed to pay a bribe for his release.

'Tamil dog'

Another boy the same age started going to the protests held by the families of the disappeared and then helped distribute leaflets in the 2019 presidential election campaign. The leaflets ironically warned that if Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected then the white van abductions would restart. He noticed the plain clothes intelligence officers observing the meetings but didn’t take them too seriously.

"I did not feel completely safe at the time, but I wanted to do it for the people,” he said. There was even a warning but he didn’t take it seriously.

One night in 2020 he was cycling home at dusk and noticed a white van. As he passed, three men jumped out and asked for him by name. One man grabbed his neck and the other two pushed him into the back of the van, face down, blindfolding him and tying his hand with rope. When he tried to scream for help, they gagged him.

“I thought that they would kill me. I was completely terrified, and I didn’t know what was happening as it was all so fast. I was in real shock.”

In the back of the van the men chatted in Sinhala, kicked him and called him a “Tamil dog”. When they arrived, he was pushed into a dark ill-smelling room. Several times the first night someone opened the door and threw water on him to prevent him sleeping. The next day he was taken to a room with bloodstains on the wall. In the corner were pipes, batons, wires and a nylon rope. A Sinhalese men asked why he was trying to revive separatism and turn the people against the government, and then his torture began.

“One of the men put a petrol-soaked polythene bag over my head and suffocated me. I could not breathe and I had a severe feeling of burning on my face when he put the polythene bag over my head. I lost consciousness and fell down”.

The next day he was asked to identify other people in the disappearance protests and those “working against the President”. The interrogators tied him face down to a bench and whipped the soles of his feet which sent electric shocks through his body. There were cigarette burns, half drowning and beatings before the rapes which were accompanied by obscene insults to Tamils. His life had hardly started but the boy lay in the cell naked, wishing he were dead.

Suicide attempts

The youngest victim we have seen is 19. None realised they were at risk of torture when they participated in commemorations for the war-dead, disappearance protests, the P2P march or volunteered to help Tamil political parties. For many this was part of a political awakening.

“This was my first experience of a big protest” said another young man in his twenties, “I was very passionate about this issue; it was an emotional experience to witness the families of the disappeared crying out about their loved ones; it made me more determined to work for justice.”

He became involved in printing banners and placards – hardly a threat to the State. A year later, having been abducted and destroyed by torture, he was traversing the rough waters of the English Channel - one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world - tossed up and down in a rubber dinghy with no fuel and thirty - one other people on board. He was lucky to make it to shore alive.

Seven Tamil men I know of who arrived in the UK in 2020 and 2021 tried to kill themselves after arrival. Being a refugee in Britain is an ordeal from start to finish – one man said we were the only people in this country who had treated him with respect. A few have close family to care for them but other Tamils stay with acquaintances and soon overstay their welcome as the asylum process drags on for years and their families are driven deeper into debt.

“I have never been away from my family before” said the boy who received the money.

“I know I have no option now as it is not safe for me to go home, but I am finding it difficult without them. It is hard for me to have any hope”.


Frances Harrison, the former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka (2000-2004), is the author of a book on the 2009 war in the Vanni, 'Still Counting the Dead' and director of the International Truth and Justice Project, which is headed by Yasmin Sooka.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.