After meeting Selvy, I find myself telling tearful traumatised women about her. These are survivors of torture who’ve just arrived in Britain from Sri Lanka even though the civil war is long over. They have dazed looks on their faces and are so physically jumpy that I have to ask permission before even touching them on the hand. Occasionally they stare intently at me, aware I don’t understand Tamil, transmitting their misery through hollowed out, unwavering expressions. There’s something dead about their eyes. After they’ve told their stories, they just sit frozen on one position for several minutes, just staring off into space, unable to return from the abyss.
Listening to them leaves me exhausted and stunned, as if someone has clobbered me over the head. I have to remind myself that these fragile young women have been to hell while I am just peering over the edge. After a while I desperately want to throw them a lifeline. So I tell them about Selvy. They listen hungrily, grasping that it might just be possible to have a future after what they’ve been through. Of course Selvy doesn’t know it, but she’s an inspiration to others.
Yet Selvy hasn’t told the others in the house what happened to her. They’d never guess because she exudes happiness. Somewhere along the line she understood that this was the best way to defeat the men who tortured her.
It’s not as if her life in northern Sri Lanka was easy before she was detained. As a Tamil living in areas controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels, Selvy was born into war. For nearly three decades the rebels had fought for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the tiny island. They’d lived through discrimination and pogroms, they’d tried democratic politics until finally taking up arms seemed the only answer. Bombs and air strikes were the refrain throughout Selvy’s life, but for her, the real trauma came later, when Sri Lanka was supposed to be at peace.
Against all these odds Selvy managed to get to university, learn English and secure a job with an international charity. But 2007 the rebels started going door to door, combing the sleepy agricultural villages and tropical coastline for fresh recruits to join the intensifying battles with the government forces. The Tamil Tiger rebels enforced a strict rule that every family had to give them one child to fight. Of course nobody knew then that the war would end so apocalyptically in 2009 with the slaughter of tens of thousands on a beautiful white, sandy beach. Selvy only knew that if she didn’t go, the rebels would snatch her younger sister or brother, so she sacrificed herself to save them, but not enthusiastically.
After twenty days of basic military training and just one day using an AK47 rifle, she was sent as a first aider to the battlefront, patching up injured fighters, helping to wash and feed them. For months she starved, slept in the open, fled on foot, dodged shells and bullets and watched the innocent die in agony, just as everyone did on that final death march away from the advancing army. They were headed for a tiny sandy spit of land on the palm fringed coast; a tropical paradise if it weren’t for the fragments of hot flying metal and the stench of the dead. In April 2009, Selvy and four other girls managed to desert from the rebel ranks and join a group of civilians trying to flee the war zone. Before they could escape they spent a night trapped between the rebels and the army, sitting on the ground. They waded through neck-high water across a lagoon and then marched under armed guard past dead bodies in the jungle. Seared into her memory are two young rebel fighters in uniform – a boy and a girl – captured and awaiting their fate by the roadside. She can’t forget the pet monkey on the boy’s shoulder – a rare intimation of innocence in a very cruel world. Reaching an army checkpoint, all the women were separated and strip-searched in full view of the male soldiers. Selvy watched a female soldier approach a heavily pregnant woman and prod her hard in the stomach with a baton and ask what was in her belly. Fighter jets roared overhead and there was the dull thud of shells landing in the distance as they lay on the ground in a filthy crowded coconut grove with hundreds of people waiting to be bussed off to refugee camps that were little better than internment camps. Selvy heard the parents of young girls crying after the soldiers took their daughters away. Her parents in Sri Lanka still don’t know what really happened to her after the war. She says she would never tell them even if they came to visit her in Britain one day. It’s already been six years since she last saw them.
In the refugee camp Selvy eventually found her brother but it was months before she discovered where the rest of her family were and she never got to see her parents. Even today, more than four years on, she’s still counting the dead. She has only recently learnt that her neighbours died during the fighting, leaving their children orphaned.
An uncle bribed the soldiers to get Selvy and her brother out of the refugee camp; ironically, they escaped by pretending to be taken away for questioning by the police in a van. She stayed with a relative in the nearby town. In December 2009, six months after the war ended, she decided to travel to see her sister in Jaffna – the northernmost town in Sri Lanka and the cultural heart of the Tamil homeland once claimed by the rebels.
It was four in the afternoon at the main checkpoint by the road going north, when a rebel informer recognised Selvy from her time with the Tigers and turned her in. If she ever saw him again would she want revenge, I wonder. Yes, she says instinctively, ‘it’s better he dies for that horrible thing he did to me’. Then she reflects sadly on what the informer might have endured to turn traitor on her. ‘Probably the army took his family and said they’d only give them back if he identified someone’.
It was dark by the time the Sri Lankan security forces drove her away blindfolded in the back of a white van. Many hours passed. The road was straight, then it curved and went up and down gentle hills. Selvy heard hawkers by the roadside calling out in the Sinhala language, which meant she was being taken out of the Tamil north of the island. Eventually the vehicle was driven inside a building. Like other detainees Selvy never saw the outside of the place where she was held. There was no window in her padlocked room but every day she heard female voices screaming and crying in Tamil. ‘We don’t know anything’ they screamed, ‘Help me! Save me, Mother!’ She never saw another detainee or a woman guard. It was only men in uniform and civilian dress – from the majority Sinhalese community.
On the first night the interrogations started; they asked about her time with the rebels. ‘Do you know this man, do you know this woman, when did you join?’ they wanted to know, as they beat, pushed, kicked and shouted abuse at her. She was handed photographs to identify. They whipped her with a leather belt. She was burned on her body with hot metal rods and with lit cigarettes on her legs, breasts and back. There are now at least one hundred documented cases in the UK alone of Sri Lankans who’ve been branded with hot metal rods and almost every torture survivor has cigarette burns. One Sri Lankan man described his torturers casually extinguishing their cigarettes on his body as if it were an ashtray; others recall the torturer puffing hard on the cigarette stub first to make sure it was burning brightly in order to burn the flesh more.
By the second day, she’d signed a confession she wasn’t allowed to read but that didn’t stop the abuse. After she’d confessed, a succession of men repeatedly raped Selvy. ‘So many men – in uniform and civil dress – many different men,’ she says, unable to remember how many times she was raped because it happened so frequently over the months. They didn’t rape her in the hope of securing information; there were no questions. Most of the time the soldiers shouted at her but she couldn’t understand what they were saying in their language. Selvy contemplated suicide because she couldn’t imagine coming out alive; the only reason she didn’t kill herself was the lack of resources to do so. When she was taken once a week to shower, the guards submerged her head in water to suffocate her.
She endured four months in that secret detention centre being raped and humiliated before her uncle found her through a pro-government Tamil paramilitary group and arranged to pay a bribe for her release. Every single person I’ve met who has been abducted in Sri Lanka’s notorious ‘white vans’ has escaped only because a relative paid a large bribe to the security forces. It’s rapidly becoming a torture industry.
After her escape, Selvy hid in eastern and southern Sri Lanka for a year until she left for Britain on a student visa to study business management. There were many lonely nights spent in provincial towns in England where she knew nobody. Concentrating on her course was impossible. It was four months before she even realised she could claim asylum. She went to the Home Office for the screening interviews alone and once she got asylum found a job in a factory. It’s hard physical work that doesn’t require a university degree; she’s the only woman there but she doesn’t complain.
After her detention and before leaving Sri Lanka, Selvy quietly married a Tamil man and he’s now joined her in London. I never met him because he works seven days a week; Monday to Friday in a supermarket and then in a petrol station at the weekends to support them. I inquire as to whether her husband knows what happened to her as most Tamil women can never discuss the taboo of sexual abuse with their partners or parents. She says he knows everything, though her brother who lives with them doesn’t, nor do her parents back in Sri Lanka. A humanitarian worker who risked his life for others during the war, Selvy’s husband still loved her and wanted to marry her after the rapes, making him a rare example to other men in his community. ‘He knows it’s not my fault,’ she says still half trying to convince herself.
‘In our culture rape is a very bad thing; if a man rapes a woman then people think of her differently, they don’t like that woman, or talk to that woman. In our culture it’s like that, but it is not our fault, it’s not my fault or my parents’ fault that this happened. It’s not our fault’.
There are now so many Tamil rape victims – male and female – that the stigma is slowly wearing down. The survivors know if they keep silent the ongoing crimes are hidden, that’s why a few are starting to speak out. They have absolutely no hope of justice – but believe they must talk about the rapes to stop them happening to other women.
I ask Selvy if she thinks anyone will ever be punished for what happened to her. The answer is instant. ‘No, never’.
After the interview is over, Selvy serves us a delicious Sri Lankan meal she cooked. Somehow it’s typical of her – there’s an expectation that people would justifiably retreat into themselves after the harrowing ordeal of recounting months of rape and torture in a secret army camp, but she still radiates generosity and smiles. It’s not that she takes her suffering lightly, but rather that she refuses to be defeated by it.
Some details and names in this article have been changed.
Photograph by Darragh Goggins