“If you tell anyone, we will kill you and your husband”
Frances Harrison, author of Still Counting the Dead, explains how Sri Lankan refugee women are living in fear.
All I had was an address in East London. The interview was set up by a series of lawyers and priests and I still don’t know the woman’s real name. We sat in a tiny back room of a terraced house and she told me, a complete stranger, the story that she’d never told her mother or husband. Then, understandably, she never wanted to see me again.
Manimolly, as I’ve called her, is a Sri Lankan Tamil who has sought asylum in Britain. Growing up in the capital Colombo, the civil war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the predominantly Sinhalese army was just a distant backdrop to her early life. Her family was from the Tamil minority, but she didn’t come from the conflict areas and she was about as apolitical as it’s possible to be in such a situation.
Yet her entire life crashed one day in May 2010, a year after the guns had gone silent and Sri Lanka was supposed to be at peace. Policemen came to Manimolly’s house, looking for her husband who was travelling for his work. He came from a family connected to the Tamil Tiger rebels and the police wanted to question him. They dragged Manimolly screaming into the waiting van, leaving her sixteen month old baby with her mother. They beat her and interrogated her, but Manimolly didn’t mind that as much as what happened after midnight. She was taken to a residential house to identify some suspects and then locked in a room. Next door she could hear the policemen getting increasingly drunk and singing in Sinhala.
Two police officers raped Manimolly, handcuffing her to a chair. They didn’t know she was forty days pregnant at the time and she started bleeding heavily. “If you say anything or tell anyone we will kill your husband and kill you. Nothing happened here. Do you understand?’ the men warned as they drove her back to the police station. There the Sinhala police women just brought sanitary towels to mop up all the blood, unsurprised by Manimolly’s condition. Two young girls sharing the same cell had clearly been through the same treatment.
Manimolly was released when her husband surrendered himself to the police. They then tortured him, instead. Manimolly tried to kill herself – twice. She stopped looking after her baby. Her family guessed what had happened to her. The stigma in Tamil society against rape is so intense that, shockingly, suicide is often considered the only honourable way out for a woman. This shame creates a second form of abuse for survivors. Manimolly was extremely fearful that someone in the Tamil community in London might find out she’d been raped because then, she said, they’d all gossip about her. She only agreed to see me if I was alone – there were strict instructions not to bring a translator, even a female one.
As we spoke, Manimolly’s husband tactfully took their toddler out of the house to buy sweets. He knew what we were discussing and supported her decision to speak out, but she has never spoken even to him about it. Manimolly says she is still frightened of every man she sees, and still doesn’t want her own husband to touch her.
Manimolly and her husband sold everything they had to come to London on student visas. Once here they claimed asylum. Back home the Sri Lankan police have continued to visit their house and even detained Manimolly’s elderly father-in-law for three months when they couldn’t find her husband.
The Sri Lankan government and their supporters argue that it’s safe in Sri Lanka since the war ended in 2009, and that only those who have a background of political activity or armed struggle are at risk. Manimolly’s case unfortunately shows how the wider violence against Tamils has not stopped.
At the end of the war, horrifying photographs and videos appeared online of dead, half naked, bound Tamil women, their breasts exposed. They were female rebels and the comments on the videos by the soldiers strongly suggested sexual violence. But it’s not only the defeated rebels who’ve encountered rape. It’s housewives like Manimolly, grandmothers, female aid workers, wives of humanitarian workers – women who are gradually finding their way abroad in the hope of safety and anonymity.
Unfortunately, safety is hard to find even if they make their way to the UK. They may be refused asylum even if they have evidence of persecution. Recent research by the Refugee Council found that a third of the women accessing one of their projects were Sri Lankan, that nearly all had been tortured and raped, but that nearly half had been refused asylum in the UK. Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch have documented that failed asylum seekers who are removed to Sri Lanka may be tortured on arrival.
These women therefore live with uncertainty, fearing they could be deported back to Sri Lanka. They recount their traumatic experiences to lawyers and immigration officials, but keep them secret from their extended families and friends. Some women even fear going to counseling organisations lest they meet other Tamils who will automatically know why they’re there. It’s a very lonely life.
Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent. Her book of survivors’ stories from the end of the Sri Lankan war, Still Counting the Dead, is published by Portobello Books on 4 October.