Victims the real heroes at London sexual violence summit

I had the unusual experience of attending last week’s preventing sexual violence summit in London with a survivor of rape I know. I bumped into him at a play called Unlocked, which is based on the testimony of three survivors of male rape – Congolese, Bosnian and Sri Lankan Tamil.

It was an incredibly brave thing for the young Tamil man, who needs to remain anonymous, to think he would be able to sit in the audience and listen to his own story recounted by an actor. He lasted about five minutes before he signalled to me that he had to leave.

The play deftly intertwines the three tales together. The actor playing the Tamil man had just started to describe how he was at home with his family one evening when they heard dogs barking outside. He went outside, thinking it was thieves, when he was seized and abducted in one of Sri Lanka’s notorious unmarked white vans now synonymous with torture and terror.

Since I knew the rape survivor, I followed him out of the tent in the fringe area of the Global Summit to see if he was alright. He couldn’t breathe and was sweating and shaking. “Let’s go and have a cup of tea,” was my first suggestion to calm him but it was soon clear he needed to get out of the conference hall altogether. The noise, the pictures of conflicts, the slogans about sexual violence were too much for him and he said his heart was beating very fast and he needed air. I was worried he might collapse and quickly led him outdoors. Trying to distract him as we stood on the edge of the River Thames in the docklands I talked about anything I could think of that wasn’t war and rape. I told him about someone I know who lives nearby who swims in the Thames and says he sees dolphins. I chatted about the tides, the cable car, the derelict warehouses and the regeneration of the area.  I told him this was where hundreds of years ago ships brought spices from Ceylon and unloaded them in the warehouses like the ones we could see. Later it struck me if it wasn’t for those trading ships centuries ago, his path and mine might never have crossed.

It was a beautiful sunny London summer day and we spent the next hour walking up and down the river’s edge chatting. I told him how I used to live in Sri Lanka and how my tiny son loved it there so much that when people used to ask him where he came from he would answer – my mum is English, my dad is Iranian and I am Sri Lankan. That would prompt some very puzzled looks from the adults. After all it was a country in the midst of a civil war where ethnic and national identities are more strictly delineated.

I learnt that he likes to do traditional South Indian dance which is a good outlet for pent up emotions but that sometimes he breaks down in tears while dancing. He had a brilliantly evocative way of expressing himself in English and I learnt that his parents had got him an English tutor as he was growing up and how he’d studied literature in Tamil. We talked about the Tamils I know who survived the civil war, deeply traumatised and guilty for just being alive, who sit up in the small hours of the night writing poetry. One day I think he will write his own story and it will be extraordinary but right now the experiences are so raw they keep coming back to grab him by the throat and squeeze the air out of his lungs.

After this peaceful interlude, we went back into the summit building to find his friend who’d accompanied him. Perky NGO activists were thrusting leaflets in our hands to get us to come to their events, there was a marketplace selling goods made by survivors of war and to one side a music show was going on. The volunteers were wearing red T shirts saying “Time to Act” were the same age as the Tamil man but what charmed lives they led by comparison. The mood was celebratory – excitement that issues so long hidden were being officially recognised. As we walked closer to the theatre area I could see my new friend’s physical distress mounting. Just being in that space was threatening. He was so exposed emotionally it was as if I’d asked him to walk stark naked through the fringe. At some point even the most well meaning conferences on poverty, war and human rights lose touch with the raw emotions of the people they are trying to help. How much more inevitable with a summit on rape. It is of course right to champion the strength of survivors of sexual violence but not in a glib way. The extent of their pain and suffering needs fully recognising before you can really understand the bravery needed to overcome that.

He kept apologising for the fact that he’d caused me to miss the performance. Outside the theatre as we were waiting we spotted the actor who’d played him. I asked if he’d like to meet him and he said yes. Again he profusely apologised to the actors for having walked out of their performance. All I could do was apologise back for the fact that my country has not treated him better and he’s still struggling to get asylum. He recently spent his birthday in an immigration detention centre that wouldn’t even allow his friends and supporters to send in a cake.

I never saw the play in full – more apologies to the dramatists. And after that day, all the workshops, events and camera scrums around celebrities never felt the same for me.

Photo courtesy: Human Rights Watch

© Asian Correspondent

Frances Harrison is a former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka and the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India).