David Cameron’s recent decision to speak out about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka focused attention on the plight of the country’s minority Tamil population. Sheena Grant speaks to a journalist who fled the country to find sanctuary in Suffolk and hears about the artwork that is helping her deal with her experiences
When Sri Lankan-born journalist Viththiyaparan* arrived in Suffolk a year ago she was not in a good way.
“I would describe myself as a mobile corpse, a corpse that eats and breathes” she says.
The mother-of-two had left her native country four years earlier, fearing for her life.
Since then, her sister has died – after, says Viththiyaparan, being arrested and tortured – and her parents have gone missing.
Her experiences have taken their toll on her health too. Three years ago, at the age of only 32, she suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak.
Since arriving in Ipswich, however, she has started to turn her life around and regain her voice.
She credits the help and support she has received locally with playing a big part in her recovery
She has also taken up painting, something she had never done before, as a means of processing some of the turmoil in her mind and helping her to express herself when words will not come.
Some of the pictures don’t make for easy viewing, especially when taken in conjunction with the titles Viththiyaparan has given them.
In ‘A dream of mine’, a blood-spattered figure is accompanied by the words: “Why was I killed? Is it for reporting truth?” while in “It’s my hopeless life” a goat is depicted, clinging precariously to a sheer cliff face.
“I hadn’t touched a brush before,” says Viththiyaparan. “A lady just gave me the paint and things. It has helped me. I never think, ‘I will draw this, or that’. It just happens.”
Viththiyaparan, who is seeking asylum in Britain, fled Sri Lanka just before the end of a bitter civil war that had raged for almost 30 years. Sri Lanka’s army defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009. Allegations of atrocities during the closing stages of that war have dogged the government ever since. The rebels were also accused of abuses.
Viththiyaparan, who is from a Muslim Tamil background, worked as a journalist for a government newspaper but also wrote “freelance” articles under a range of pseudonyms, reporting what was happening to the Tamil community in the north of the country.
Sri Lanka is a dangerous place to be journalist, especially one writing anything the government might frown on.
Only last month, foreign journalists reporting on a Commonweath summit hosted by the country, were subjected to such intimidation that some of them decided to leave.
They included a team from Channel 4, whose news editor Ben de Pear told how his reporters were followed and attacked by members of the intelligence services.
“The people who so effectively executed the annihilation of the Tamil Tigers and many tens of thousands around them still run the country on a war footing,” he said. “Now the enemy is civil society, journalists, the opposition.”
The fact that Sri Lanka is ranked 162nd out of 179 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index gives an idea of the hostility towards journalists. Bottom of the list are North Korea and Eritrea.
Viththiyaparan, who is currently living in Ipswich with her husband and two young sons, both born in the UK, believes that if she had not got out, she would now be dead.
“My heart has been eaten up since the time I was forced to claim asylum,” she says. “However, my heart remembered to breathe.
“There were days when I felt as if I’d lost everything in my life but I never wanted to just accept that.
“I am now living at least for the sake of living and it’s thanks to the people I’ve met here in Suffolk that has helped me get to this point.
“The people of Suffolk held my weak hands and walked with me to this stage where I am now. Gradually, this beautiful county has become like a second motherland to me. The people I’ve met have treated me as if I was a family member. They have encouraged me to start rebuilding my language skills again. They have encouraged me to write. They have put me back on the right path.”
Viththiyaparan says she was targeted in Sri Lanka because of her job and what she was doing.
“I worked for a government newspaper as a journalist but was working freelance and writing against the government too. The articles I wrote supported other parties and were against all the harrassment they were getting,” she says.
“What’s it been like for me to recover from a stroke as well as coping with having no news about my family back home? Only worries.
“After my family were relocated to Ipswich by the Home Office almost a year ago my brain seemed to never co-operate with my body. I would describe myself as a mobile corpse, a corpse that eats and breathes.
“I used to be an investigative journalist in my motherland. It’s a country that has been bleeding with war and violence for more than three decades. As a result, journalism is the most dangerous job in my country. I was writing about the government’s record on various aspects such as human rights and aspects of both the good and the bad policies it seemed to be pursuing. I wrote under various aliases and in several languages in order to protect myself and my family.
“Sadly, my activities were noticed by people who acted like wolves in sheep’s clothing and my name was given to the authorities. This helped me to pull out from the fire before I could be harmed. If I had stayed, maybe the same would have happened to me as happened to my sister. They tortured her. She passed away. My parents were caught and tortured as hostages by the government and that was when I had my stroke. I don’t know what has happened to them. I just hope they are hiding somewhere but there is no option for me to find out about them.
“It has been a long recovery for me, but since coming to Ipswich it has been great. Thanks to so many people I am now able to speak and to write again and now have the courage to tell others about what happened to me.”
Among those she praises with helping her are Liz Wood, of the Suffolk Refugee Support Forum.
“Liz was the first person I met here,” she says. “When I met her, I was scared of everything. I didn’t trust anyone. Yet Liz still heard me. She found me legal support, health support, and so much more.
“Legally, as an asylum seeker I am not given many rights. Indeed, I am legally destitute. But Liz and her organisation gave me the confidence that I should expect to be treated with a minimal amount of respect. One way they helped me regain some sense of self-worth was to encourage me to start writing again.
“When I wrote a few words for the Suffolk Refugee Support Forum about my experiences, they never took my efforts for granted, and helped me feel a little better about myself.”
Help also came from the Refugee Council’s health befriending project.
“I craved trustful friends around me though I was very scared of people,” says Viththiyaparan. “Stefania McLoughlin (a volunteer co-ordinator with the befriending project) first suggested that if I was struggling to speak I express myself by drawing and painting. I didn’t know that I could even draw stick people before that.
“I must admit that when she asked me to draw, I thought it would be a waste of time. Also she gave me some paints and canvas to take home to paint. In my sleepless nights I started to hug them to comfort me. I never believed her until she influenced me with positive thoughts.”
Nicola Johnson, another volunteer with the health befriending project, is credited as being an adopted mother since the day Viththiyaparan’s son introduced her as “my Nicola”.
“I am blessed to have her around my family. Whenever my brain turned off, her brain switched on, on behalf of mine,” she says.
“Then there is Judith Croft, who has also helped me. When I asked her about why she offers her hands to hold she told me: ‘I am blessed with many fortunes and I am sharing them with those less fortunate than me’. It’s an excellent way to express the hand she offers me; a hand of trust and care. An asylum seeker never expects more than that.”
Attention has been focused on Sri Lanka’s human rights record in recent weeks by the Commonwealth summit held there which was overshadowed by claims of war crimes. The leaders of India, Mauritius and Canada boycotted the event. David Cameron, who did attend, visited the northern Jaffna region to see the situation facing the country’s Tamil minority and called on Sri Lanka’s president to set up an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes – or face a UN probe.
The Sri Lanka government has denied allegations of war crimes and insists it is on the path of reconciliation.
Viththiyaparan praised Mr Cameron’s decision to visit the north of the country – the first international leader to do so since Sri Lankan independence in 1948 – but said he had only seen a fraction of the problems there.
“Journalists in my motherland are forced to forego their duties and rights. I expected that the Commonwealth summit would open the eyes of the world wider. The only satisfaction I got was at least a few eyes opened their lids.
“It was amazing to experience the compassion and sense of responsibility David Cameron showed. The violence on journalists and their families are a gruesome action by the regime. I do appreciate that Mr Cameron set a spotlight on war crimes, the disappearance of people and Tamil Journalists.”
But, she asks, given the oppression of journalists, who is left in Sri Lanka to ask questions about human rights now.
She says other Sri Lankan journalists seeking asylum in Britain share her views and hanker after the days when people of different backgrounds and religions lived peacefully together.
“This had been ruined. This is the dreadful damage done by both parties. Who is going to bring this atmosphere back?”
For all that she has seen and suffered, Viththiyaparan remains hopeful, thanks, in large part, to the sanctuary and support she has found in Suffolk.
“I do have very harmful, discouraging and hopeless experiences,” she says. “They melted with the warm experiences. Many times the impact of bad experiences was much heavier than the good ones. Still, Suffolk sounds like a very soothing music to me.”
* names have been changed to protect identities.
This interview was published Saturday 7th December 2013 in East Anglian Daily Times please see the link below.