Officially the civil war in Sri Lanka ended in May 2009 with the overwhelming defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels – a group that fought for 26 years for a Tamil homeland in the north-east of the island but were proscribed as terrorist in many countries for their use of child soldiers and suicide bombers.
The United Nations has said the death toll in those final months of war in Sri Lanka could reach between 40 to 70 thousand Tamil civilians — a staggering number considering the size of the terrain. Both parties have been accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity but UN experts — one of whom is in the room — Yasmin Sooka — have said the majority of the killing was due to government fire.
The Sri Lankan military though maintained it operated a zero civilian casualty policy and was actually mounting a humanitarian rescue operation to save Tamil civilians – not kill them.
The war and its aftermath is now subject to an official investigation by the United Nations. This should also include the allegations of sexual violence — some of you may have seen on television the horrific images of the executions of captured Tamil men and women, naked and bound.
But today we’re focusing on what is happening now — five years after the guns went silent. The Sri Lankan government’s narrative is one of reconciliation, peace and reconstruction. These survivors tell a different story.
The extracts you will hear tonight come from among 40 legal statements taken from young men and women who recently escaped to Britain after being sexually tortured by the security forces in the post-war period. Many but by no means all – had some tenuous association with the Tigers in the past — if you lived in northern Sri Lanka that was hard to avoid.
Several people in the room have also documented rape and torture in Sri Lanka in their professions as doctors, lawyers, charity workers and journalists and I’d urge you to speak to them. [could mention guests such as Steve Rapp US AMB for war crimes and the UN Special Rapporteur for sexual violence in armed conflict Zainab Bangura and Baroness Helena Kennedy, Bar Human Rights Committee chair Kirsty Brimmelow etc]
The horror story begins in the same way: abductions in ‘white vans’ — vehicles that have become synonymous with terror in the island. It ends with family members paying bribes to the security forces through intermediaries to secure the release. And then, a terrifying journey abroad to safety while still suffering immense physical and psychological wounds.
Jenni Murray Opening