1,941 names. 51 pages. Single-spaced. It breaks my heart.
I know we have all heard more shocking numbers before. 800,000 in Rwanda. 2 million in Cambodia. 6 million during the Holocaust. But those are numbers; it seems truly impossible to imagine that many bodies. As I flip through the pages of HHR’s newest quarterly journal, which includes each victim’s name, age, site of disappearance, and date his body was found, each number becomes a real person. Although some are listed as missing, there is little question that many of those have also died but the bodies just haven’t been found. My eyes skim the ages: 11, 85, 22, 15, 67, 37, 8. No one is safe.
And that is only 2006. An estimated 70,000 victims have been killed over the past 30 years of the Sri Lankan conflict. Thousands more have been displaced. HHR’s Documentation Unit has been taking note and and tracking statistics.
This weekend I am moving to another guesthouse closer to the HHR office. Although I will miss the very nice people at my current guesthouse, I will not be sad to say goodbye to the policemen who station themselves at the corner everyday. Many tourists might feel comforted by their presence, but they have not been reading the same reports that I have over the past couple of days.
The victims who participate in HHR’s Torture Rehabilitation Program have harrowing stories. Common methods of police torture include:
Placing plastic bags filled with chili powder and petrol over people’s heads to suffocate them
Hanging people upside down or by their thumbs for hours
Beating with clubs, metal poles, etc.
Pouring boiling water down people’s throats
Burning with lit cigarettes
Rubbing chili powder in wounds from the beatings
The Torture Rehabilitation Program provides the victims with medical assistance, psychological counseling, and financial assistance to restart their lives. In one notable case, HHR went to court on behalf of a female gang-raped by 12 police officers at a police station, and she won a 250,000 Sri Lankan rupee compensation award (about $2,500, which might not seem revolutionary by American liability standards, but believe me it’s really good for a human rights case here).
Last weekend I went to Hatton in the central Hill Country of Sri Lanka with several girls from HHR. The girls, many of them my age, led a two day workshop teaching women’s and children’s rights to 22 people. Most of the participants were university age, but there were also several school principals. And there were equal numbers of men and women.
After Mehela and Selva’s intense simulation of a human rights debate during which the participants had to defend their positions in various case studies, we know that the participants really do have a basic understanding of women’s and children’s rights.
Then at lunch on our second day, a story came on the news that two aid workers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), the national organization of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), had been abducted and murdered over the weekend. The two workers were Tamil men who had been in the capital from the North for a workshop at the ICRC headquarters. Men claiming to be police took them from the Colombo train station as they were waiting to go back to their town, Batticaloa. Other SLRCS workers at the station protested the abduction, telling the abductors that the two men did not speak Sinhalese well and that one of them should accompany to translate.
But the abductors said that wasn’t necessary. Just like that. No, a translator won’t be necessary. As though they already knew what they were going to do. As though the two men never had a chance.
There was a silence while we were all transfixed by the screen and people quietly finished their lunch. It goes without saying that if Red Cross aid workers, who maintain careful neutrality so as to work with both sides of a conflict, are targeted, then these are precarious times for anyone involved in human rights work.
Then, as they do with all of HHR’s programs, in spite of what they heard, in spite of any fear, the girls went upstairs to finish the workshop.
Posted By Madeline England
Posted Jun 7th, 2007