By Georgina Gregory
Sri Lanka is an island country, with a population of approximately 20 million, located off the southern coast of India. The majority of the country are Singhalese and practise the Buddhist religion, and the minority are Tamil Hindus. In 1983, civil war was declared. It was a war that would last over 25 years and, although the death toll has not been accurately assessed, the numbers are thought to exceed 100,000. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, fought for an independent state but were finally defeated by the Government in 2009. The persecution of Tamils continues to this present day.
This is the story of a young Tamil man who I met in 2014. A man who started as my biographical subject, whom I now have the honour of calling my friend. Some details have been changed to protect his identity.
In 1983, two years before I was born, the Sri Lankan civil war began. That same year my father was tortured and had his business burned to the ground.
My family are from a small farming village in northern Sri Lanka. My father’s family also had a business manufacturing and selling shoes in Colombo, so he worked away a lot. I grew up on the farm with my mother and two sisters. We grew rice, vegetables and tobacco that were sent down south to sell. All around everyone was related to each other, my uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents, and I knew as a kid that I could just walk into anyone’s house and get fed. It was a happy childhood, surrounded by my family, playing with my cousins, running through the rice fields. The sound of the war planes was normal for us, fun even, like a game. Whenever we heard those planes, we had to run as fast as we could back to our house and hide under the kitchen bench.
One morning, when I was six years old, I was waiting for my mother to bring the milk. Every morning she would collect fresh milk from the farm for us to drink with our chai, but that morning it didn’t come. Everyone was moving around me, shouting orders and directions, collecting belongings from around the houses. We had to leave. And just like that, without our morning milk, we became refugees.
We were making our way to family near Jaffna, and I remember a road full of people heading in the same direction. People with stuff on their heads, with bikes and tractors. Whenever people talk about displacement and war, I think about that road. My Dad was pushing me on a bicycle and every time we heard a shell close by, he would push me to the ground. The parents used real force to keep their kids safe, and it was only when we stopped at a temple to rest that I saw my knees were covered in blood.
There were fires by the side of the road, random fires with thick black smoke. It was dead bodies being burned. My uncle and aunt walked into a bunker, which got bombed, and their bodies burned by the side of the road. My cousin was lucky, she didn’t walk all the way in to follow her parents, so she survived. She got badly burnt on her arm and even today has a very visible scar.
That was the first time I left my village, my home. We reached our relatives in Jaffna, and we ended up staying there for a year or so before moving to Colombo. We settled there and I went to school, but after two years it was time to move again. My family was not involved with the Tigers, although they did know some of the members, but simply being a Tamil was enough to be in danger. My father had discovered this in 1983 during the Black July riots when his shop was one of 50,000 to be destroyed. When he had the chance to move his family to Europe, he took it.
We flew to Holland via Dubai. It was my first time on a plane, and my first time outside of Sri Lanka. When we were at the airport in Dubai, I was looking at the people and I realised they were so different, speaking a different language and wearing Middle Eastern clothes. I wondered if they did the same things as us, felt the same things as us, I wondered if they sneezed. Then one of them sneezed and I was so happy – yes, they sneeze too!
I didn’t know anything about Holland but I was used to moving around, it became a habit for me. I went straight to school, the last year of primary school, without knowing any of the language. It was hard, but I learned quickly and made friends. Our family stayed very Tamil, we spoke Tamil, my mother and father were very traditional, and proud of their culture and religion. Outside the house though, I pretty much became Dutch. Sports I still play today, like table tennis and soccer, are sports I learned in the Netherlands so I still feel very Dutch when I play them. I feel very lucky to have such strong cultural links to more than one country, but sometimes I feel as if I’m lost in all these identities. If you ask me now, I don’t know what I am.
After several years living in Holland, we had to return to Sri Lanka after our asylum claims were rejected. Peace talks were in process, with a treaty being signed by the Sri Lankan Government and the rebels, mediated by the Norwegian government. My Mum and my older sister were crazy and crying, they knew the country we were going back to, but for me and my younger sister it was an adventure. We were on the move again.
We returned to Colombo, and it seemed so much smaller being back there as a teenager. I went back to school, but I struggled with the rules and the cultural differences, I was still very Dutch. I hadn’t had to be submissive at school in Holland, and people had treated me with respect. In Sri Lanka the schools were much stricter, you couldn’t have certain hairstyles and you had to stand up every time a teacher entered the room. I became interested in IT, I loved computers and I started a hobby job, freelancing and designing websites. I did finish high school and started a multi-media degree, but dropped out after my first year and got myself a job with my friend’s software development company.
That was a period of relative calm in Sri Lanka, when I was enjoying myself and going out clubbing. It seemed peaceful in Colombo and you didn’t even need to carry your ID with you. I was working hard and playing hard. I was very open and very loud online, on twitter, other social media and websites. I spoke out against the Government and – unknowingly – I helped people who may have been working against them, with technical IT stuff.
Then things deteriorated and the bombing started again. There were kidnappings and arrests. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the police and military had the right to detain anyone, without reason or evidence, for up to eighteen months. You didn’t have to do anything wrong to get arrested if you were Tamil – and they could tell by the name on your ID – they could arrest you for nothing. And if you’re in a Sri Lankan prison, it’s not like a prison. It’s like a torture house.
A minister at the time, the brother of President Rajapaksa, famously said, “Either you’re with the Tamil Tigers, or you’re with the Government.” There was no in between. They started silencing journalists and monitoring people’s online presence. The editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader, a controversial newspaper that believed in freedom of speech and exposing scandal, wrote his final article in January 2009. In it he detailed what he considered to be his duty as a journalist, made no apologies for what he had previously published and predicted his own death. Three days after the publication, he was shot dead in Colombo.
This is the Sri Lanka I was forced to leave in 2009. I think I would have joined the Tigers if it wasn’t for my family, because I was angry at the system and the Government, and I was always looking for some action. It wasn’t my decision, it was my Mum and my cousins who persuaded me to leave and put me on a plane to Singapore. On the move again, alone this time. Singapore was expensive, I didn’t know anybody and I couldn’t work, so I decided to go to Malaysia where I had some contacts. I planned to stay in Kuala Lumpur, open a business and keep my head down for a while. See how things were in Sri Lanka, and maybe go back after a few years.
I invested most of my parents’ money in setting up a cafe business there, but I was ripped off by a local and lost all the money. Nearly $40,000, just gone. I couldn’t get a visa in Malaysia and I was running out of money. At that time I was such an angry person, with so much hate and racism inside me. I hated the Government in my own country, I blamed the British colonisation, I didn’t trust Muslims, and I felt let down by white people because our family couldn’t stay in Holland.
My father hadn’t brought me up to be racist. Despite his support for an independent Tamil state, he had so much love for everyone and he had several Singhalese friends. My Dad would always say, “Love is the answer.” Even after everything he’d been through, he would always say, “Love is the only answer.” He comes from a very poor farming background and his Dad died when he was 12. He had to give up school and go to work to support his mother and his sisters. Because of this, he worked very hard later in life to provide the education and opportunities for his children that he never had. He didn’t put pressure on us to be doctors or engineers, he just wanted us to be successful and happy. He also wanted us to speak languages and because I was fluent in Dutch, it was quite easy for me to learn English too.
My mother wanted me to go to Australia where my cousin was studying. In Malaysia, they had started arresting refugees and deporting them if they couldn’t pay the bribe. Some of my friends were arrested and sent back to Sri Lanka, so I started making plans to go to Australia. I found a people smuggler – it’s not hard to find these people – and I went to Indonesia on a fake Indian passport. By this time, I had got used to playing a part.
I was sent from one place to the next, met by random guys who gave me tickets and documents. I arrived at an apartment block outside Jakarta, where I stayed in a small room with three other Tamils for about a week. Then we were driven by jeep in the dark to the shore, where we saw two small fishing vessels. It was the middle of the night, but we saw a crowd of people waiting on the beach. We were told we would have to go in small groups of about ten people in these small boats to make our way to the bigger ship that was waiting eight hours away, so they would have to make several trips.
Over the next twenty-four hours everyone from the beach was transported to the big boat, which was waiting in international waters. That first boat ride was tough. It was dark and the weather was awful. There was water everywhere. Most of us had never been on a boat before and couldn’t swim. I only vomited once, but others vomited all the way. Because of the bad weather, it took us thirteen hours to get to the boat that would take us to Christmas Island.
There were forty-eight of us, plus the Indonesian crew. It was mostly men, but there were eight women. We were given instructions that we couldn’t go up on the top deck in case we were seen by other boats. Below deck there was plenty of food and water, and, although there was no bedding, there was enough room for everyone to find a place to lie down on the floor and get some sleep.
After a few stationary days, we started asking questions. Why aren’t we moving? When are we leaving? How long is it going to take to get there? That was when we were told that there were more coming, and that the boat wouldn’t leave until there were 100 people on board. With this news tensions started rising, I saw personalities change, and regular fights broke out. We didn’t want to wait, we needed to get moving, and there wasn’t enough food, water or space for 100 people anyway. Days turned into weeks.
We were supposed to cook together, but people had started cooking for themselves. I’d noticed people stealing food and sharing it only amongst their group. I got really upset about this, and decided to take control of the situation by getting people together and organising them. There were people on the boat who were getting sick, vomiting all the time and losing all their energy. They couldn’t even talk, and they hadn’t been getting food. Even in this hot, confined space that stank of stale sweat and vomit, where nothing was certain and aggression and impatience were rising every day, we had to take care of each other.
Unintentionally I earned the respect of the crew who rewarded me with special privileges. They allowed me to sleep up on the top deck, on the coiled rope of one of the anchors. It was comfortable, and so much better to be in the open air. One night, after about three weeks of waiting, I was sitting on the top deck at around 3 am and I saw a vessel approaching our boat. We didn’t signal to other boats in case of police, so I just sat and watched the small boat in the distance. The sea was rough and after a while it disappeared and I went back to sleep.
The next morning we discovered that the boat had been heading towards us carrying a total of thirteen people and a spare anchor. They couldn’t see us in the dark, the conditions were not good, and they decided to turn back. The sea was too rough and the boat too heavy. It sank and nobody survived. I was probably the last person to see that boat, and I didn’t do a thing.
The people on our boat freaked out, some of them had known the Tamils who drowned. One man had been waiting in Malaysia for ten years, trying to get refugee status through the UN the proper way, before giving up and attempting the journey by boat to Australia. The other people waiting in Indonesia heard about the deaths and got too scared to come. So, we set off to Christmas Island with the original forty-eight and by the time we arrived at Christmas Island after a month at sea, there was minimal food and water left.
The Indonesian crew had already left the boat, and given us instructions to say the boat had departed from Malaysia not Indonesia when questioned, to reduce the chances of them being caught and their operation closed down. As Christmas Island came into sight, you could feel the excitement all around the boat. People scrambled to brush their teeth and everyone started getting changed into their smart clothes; all this time they’d kept their best clothes hidden, waiting for this moment. I just laughed at them. I didn’t have any spare clothes, and I hadn’t showered for about a week. I didn’t even have any shoes.
The next scene was like a movie. I didn’t know what would happen to me, but I forgot the reality for a moment and got lost in the drama. Speed boats, uniformed men jumping on board, asking questions, frisking, hands up. Just like Bond.
We were taken to a marquee camp, like a big tent, which was a separate compound for new arrivals. We were to stay there until everyone had done their first interview, a slow process which took about a month. When we arrived, all I cared about was getting hold of a phone card to call my family. The day I’d left Indonesia I’d spoken to them and told them it should take a maximum of two weeks to reach Christmas Island. In fact it had taken more than twice as long, so when I finally got through to my mother and sister, they cried uncontrollably.
The first round of interviews happened after about three weeks, with an immigration official and an interpreter if required. I lied in the interview and said that the boat came from Malaysia, but not everybody did. So, in my second interview I had to apologise and admit that I’d been coached in what to say. After the interviews, we were moved to the main centre which was a proper concrete building with dormitories.
Throughout this interview process, nobody was given any information or hints at the future. That’s the worst thing about detention, the uncertainty. Nobody knows if they will get a visa, how long they will be in detention, and where and when they’ll be moved. At least criminals in prison know their sentence.
I tried to keep myself busy, but a lot of men didn’t. They lay on their bunks all day, and some started self harming, scratching and cutting their arms until they bled. I read a lot, and I kept fit. People knew I spoke good English, so I was often asked to translate. There was a request sheet that detainees could fill in and submit to Serco, and every day people asked me to write a form out for them. Problems with the food, complaints about the water pressure in the showers, even a request for anti-dandruff shampoo. It was embarrassing writing out those sheets, and often I mistranslated a little bit.
There was an internet cafe in the centre, with twenty computers for 3000 men, and it opened at 6 am which was the same time we were let out of the compound after overnight lock-down. As soon as those gates went up, there were people running from every direction, the daily race for the computers. People fell, they tripped, bumped each other out of the way, carrying their sandals so they could run that little bit faster. Sometimes I’d run too, but sometimes I’d just watch.
When I look back on my time in detention, I try not to look at it in a negative way, because I learned so much in there. So much about human nature, about desperation and control. I stopped feeling so angry and racist, stopped having the need to blame others. All I cared about was human rights and freedom.
Of course I couldn’t control my freedom or my fate, so I had to make sure I at least kept control of my body and mind, with exercise and meditation. There were regular meetings with case workers, but none of my questions were answered. After seven months on Christmas Island, they transferred me to Perth Detention, which is like a medical centre, because by that time I had nearly lost the sight in one eye and needed an operation. They ended up keeping me there for seven months which was longer than necessary but I didn’t complain. The facilities were better there, with 24/7 internet and indoor soccer. Lots of refugee advocates and volunteers came to visit us there. Compared to Christmas Island, it was like a hotel. So, I kept my mouth shut.
My final move was to Curtin, which was the worst detention centre I’d seen. Surrounded by red dust and flies, in temperatures of forty degrees, forty kilometres from Derby and six kilometres from the main road, we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Because of the acute isolation, visitors hardly ever came, and the conditions were not checked regularly.
The two transfers between detention centres were the worst times for me. I had to be accompanied by two guards, and I saw myself as other people in the airport must have seen me. Moved around like an animal or a criminal, in shabby clothes. I wanted to tell them that I was an IT professional, not a prisoner, but there was no point.
At Curtin, I heard a rumour that if you see a counsellor, it can help your case. I was willing to give anything a go, although I didn’t think I needed counselling. I didn’t usually open up with people or talk about my feelings. A weird thing happened when I got inside that room; I started crying and all the emotions started pouring out. I’ll never know if it did help my case, but I know that it helped me.
Due to a change in immigration policies and the introduction of a new bridging visa, I was released into the community in mid 2011, after 17 months in detention. My counsellor met me at Derby airport and sat next to me on the plane to Perth. On the other side of me was a man from immigration and he started asking me some questions. We chatted for a while, he bought me a cold beer, and he apologised for everything I’d been through. That beer tasted so good.
It was so overwhelming being free. I walked around the city for hours, touching, looking and smelling. I’d relied on other people for so long, to tell me what to do, when to eat, and to open doors for me. I think if you have something and it’s taken away from you, only then do you know the actual value of it. The freedom was overwhelming, and I’m sure some people just can’t take it.
I was lucky to have support. I’d stayed in touch with the volunteers and advocates I’d met in Perth Detention, and one amazing woman, who I call my ‘white mother’, let me stay with her for a few months and found me a job as a chef in a local cafe. I got used to life here, I made a lot of friends and eventually moved into my own place and got a secure job in IT. I got involved with refugee rights activism, and still help out with cultural and sports programmes. I have my Australian permanent residency now and for the first time in my life I’m settled.
I know I’m lucky, there have been so many people who haven’t made it. Immigration policies are much harsher now, so I’m one of the fortunate ones. I try to feel lucky and I try to feel happy, but sometimes all I feel is an overwhelming sense of guilt that I’m safe and so many aren’t.
My dream is to go home to my family. One day we will take our occupied land back, I’m certain of that. The sense of feeling at home is so unique, a unique and significant feeling that you can never buy and you can never fake. The love for your country is like the love for your mother, it can’t ever be replaced. To be back on the farm where I grew up, running through the rice fields; that would be freedom for me.