Governments change, but the torturers stay the same

“These are not things you can tell your wife,” said the Tamil man from Sri Lanka, “you do not talk about these things in my culture”.

He’s so ashamed about what the soldiers did to him  - and there were many of them - that this is the first time he’s told anyone, even his immigration lawyer. Sinhalese soldiers in camouflage uniform forced him at gunpoint to undress and then one by one raped him. It happened again and again.

He knows which camp but he also knows it’s dangerous to say. He left his family behind in Sri Lanka and the security forces are watching them closely.  “This evil needs to be stopped,” he says.

Shadowy structures of repression

While the world hails “the new Sri Lanka” for committing to deliver accountability for the past, the same torturers and rapists are in place doing what they’ve always done. Politicians may come and go but the shadowy structures of repression remain in tact.  Experts discuss transitional justice and security sector reform for Sri Lanka but they use terms that don’t yet exist in the local languages. They don’t look the human beings in the eye who’ve been crushed and degraded again and again in ways that are often too unspeakable to articulate in words. They talk about mapping projects or jurisdictions but it’s the scar diagrams that doctors draw for torture survivors that really map what politics can do to human flesh .

For the new Sri Lankan government the victims of ongoing torture and sexual violence are an inconvenience; they disrupt the meta-narrative of hope and change. They shouldn’t worry too much: the recent victims exist clouded in shame and pain in foreign lands and it’s pretty easy to overlook them. They don’t hold noisy protests like the Families of the Disappeared. But without their testimony there will only be a partial truth at any future Truth Commission.

Sexually violating detainees

Then there’s the difficulty of talking about rape, especially male rape, in any society that’s squeamish about talking about sex. One young man described kneeling on the floor while a circle of soldiers took out their penises and forced him to perform fellatio on them one by one. Perpetrators acting in groups while sexually violating Tamil detainees is a common feature in the accounts of survivors.  There’s no sense of shame about raping men in front of each other even though homosexuality remains illegal in Sri Lanka. Not that this is about sexual gratification, rather about the systematic destruction of Tamils physically, psychologically, financially and culturally. Some of the recent victims look so young that I’ve often wondered if there’s also an element of paedophilia involved too.

Survivors of “white van” abductions and torture have arrived abroad in recent months with scars so fresh that they’re still bleeding. One Tamil woman still had the marks visible from the handcuffs on her wrists; another had the scratch marks from her rapists still visible. A young man had cigarette burns and branding marks on his body that were still pink . In many countries it’s considered unacceptable to brand livestock but Sri Lanka’s torturers seem to enjoy marking their victims, safe in the knowledge they will never get caught.

Violations tend to be recorded individually but when you start to look at each family, there is layer of pain piled upon layer of loss,repeated again and again, and finally topped with the loneliness of exile. These are mostly survivors of the death march of Mullivaikkal – the final village of Sri Lanka’s 2009 killing fields. Starvation was their constant companion, death whispering all the time in their ear. Some literally crawled on all fours on injured limbs to escape the war zone; others ran through puddles of human blood. Teenagers were forced to join the rebels at gunpoint; most who survived the trenches just waited for an opportunity to desert and join their parents. Terror came from every direction – the air, the sea, the lagoon and their own people who needed reinforcements. Many families lost a child in the war – if there was a corpse and they found it and had time to conduct a hasty burial in an unused trench they were considered lucky. Not knowing is even worse – a half-life of decaying hope.

Paying ransoms

Years later they’ve returned to their scorched villages, to homes with no roofs or doors, to a land littered with human bones. They’ve survived detention, either as internally displaced people or as rehabilitees. They farm or fish, and get on with life, working hardand keep their heads down. They silently mourn those who disappeared or perished in the war. Then a son or daughter disappears one day in one of the notorious “white vans”. There’s a frantic search and if they’re lucky they find a broker who locates the child before too long elapses. Huge sums of money are raised to pay the ransom but paying never prevents the torture and sexual abuse, it only secures release afterwards.

Several of those being tortured and raped in 2015 were victims of abduction by the LTTE while as young as 15 years old. You would think that would elicit some sympathy but on the contrary they are detained for not having declared themselves LTTE members, no matter that they never chose to join, remained in the movement a matter of weeks and often deserted. Their crime six years later is that they didn’t join the government’s rehabilitation programme, which was rife with torture too. One way or another they seem destined for torture; it’s just a matter of when.

Even in exile it’s not over. The family continues to be harassed by the security forces. Sometimes a father or mother or a sibling is detained or disappears. There are suicide attempts; self harming is common among survivors. They live in a state of mind always defined by the past:  flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, sweating. The mere sight of a man in uniform or sound of a boot crunching on a hard floor can set them off.

No justice

It’s a very long journey back from the terror of the torture cell. A highly educated civil servant who was raped with a glass coca cola bottle in detention told me how he’d ended up sleeping rough on the streets of London because he was so traumatised by what had happened to him. No matter that he had a sibling in London to look after him. Sexual violence obliterates the individual’s sense of self every bit as much a shell blasts a body apart. It also erects frontiers and no-go zones within close-knit families. A woman who’d been repeatedly raped for years in detention still hasn’t told her brother for fear his wife will throw her out of the house if she knows. She hides the truth and it’s eating her from the inside.

Those who do manage to speak about what they’ve survived do so for one reason only: to stop it happening to anyone else. They know they will never get justice for themselves. That is a very bitter pill to swallow.

A year into the new government in Sri Lanka and the torturers are still racking up - at the very least - dozens of new victims. There is absolutely no sign of it stopping.

Read the ITJP report: ‘Silenced: survivors of torture and sexual violence in 2015’

Lead photo: YG (pseudonym), an ethnic Tamil who is a survivor of torture at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces, poses for a photograph in London, the United Kingdom, October 16, 2012. (Image courtesy: Will Baxter /


The former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison is 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).


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.