I have spent the past week helping a Melbourne man who was brutally tortured in Sri Lanka, not in the last decade, not last year, not even last month.
Only two weeks ago “Kumar”, a 35-year-old father of three who has lived and worked in Melbourne for the past three years, says he was convinced his life was at an end as he lay naked and face-down on a table, his hands and feet bound by wire, in a room outside Colombo.
When his captors – men he believes worked for Sri Lankan Government intelligence – took off his blindfold after taking him from the streets late at night, he saw walls splattered with blood and a concrete floor littered with torn women's underwear.
At varying intervals, he says, his interrogators would arrive to bash him on the body and feet with wooden poles, to insert ice cubes into his anus and to crush his testicles with their hands. He says after they inserted ice cubes for a third time he fainted.
When he first arrived in this room he noticed there was a gas stove against one wall and that there was a bucket in the corner, containing several metal rods.
On the fourth day of his interrogation, he discovered why they had these implements at the ready. Firstly, they would heat up the iron rods on the gas stove, then they would smash them across his back, inflicting horrific burns and severe damage to discs in his spine.
Kumar told me his story last week, speaking in a whisper while curled up in a ball in chair at his home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Beside him, his wife choked back her tears as she listened to the sordid details. A friend kept the three children playing outside to protect them from this horror story about their Dad.
Kumar came to my notice, six days after he returned from Sri Lanka. A doctor who treated him in Melbourne contacted the Tamil Refugee Council, where I do voluntary work.
He said he had initially fled Sri Lanka after being questioned, and beaten, by intelligence police over his involvement in carrying parcels for the Tamil Tigers during the war in 2006. He said he was a school bus driver and the Tigers had paid him to do the job. He said he had no idea what was in the parcels. But he believes he was “dobbed in” by one of the men to whom he delivered the parcels when the man was caught by intelligence police. His first experience of interrogation Sri Lanka-style made him realise he had to escape the country, and fast.
He had started a new life here on a student visa, completing a course as a chef, before getting a job in a restaurant in the inner suburbs and securing a 457 visa, a stepping stone, he hoped, to permanent residency.
His wife and daughters had arrived and settled with him in Melbourne last year. Life was gathering momentum for him and his family, until he headed to Sri Lanka back to help at his uncle’s restaurant.
He had returned to Sri Lanka from his new Australian home three times previously without attracting notice, mainly because he had stayed at the family home most of the time. This time, though, he was front of house in the restaurant, meaning he was visible. “It was a restaurant where a lot of big shots went, so they obviously got to know I was there,” Kumar said.
One night he was riding home from the restaurant on his motor bike with his brother when he was stopped by men with guns. He said they identified themselves as intelligence police. They put a gun to his head, blindfolded him, tied his hands and deposited him into a van. Twenty minutes later the blindfold was untied.
Throughout this four-day ordeal, he was constantly asked to confirm he was a member of the Tamil Tigers, the group who fought a civil war against the Sri Lankan government for almost three decades, until it was wiped out in 2009. He says he kept on saying he wasn’t a Tiger, because it was the truth.
After being burnt and bashed with the iron bars on the final day, he heard a man say in Tamil that they were now going to finish him off. He said he was on the floor, grabbing the leg of one of the men, begging them not to kill him. “If it wasn’t for my wife and children I wouldn’t have wanted to live through this. But I had to stay alive for them,” he told me.
They insisted he sign a document. He thinks it was to do with the Tamil Tigers. Soon after he signed, he was blindfolded, lodged in a van, driven for 20 minutes before being dumped on the roadside around midnight.
He would later learn that his uncle had discovered his predicament and had paid a bribe to have him released. Bribes were also paid, through an agent, to get him through the airport and out of the country.
He says he went to Customs at Melbourne Airport upon his arrival to ask for asylum, which he had been advised to do by a fellow-passenger who had noticed he couldn’t put his back against the seat in the plane and asked why. “I almost fainted when I was at Customs. I wanted to show them my wounds but they said they were not interested. They told me to find a lawyer,” he said.
It has been a chilling experience to see the firsthand evidence of the evil ways of the Sri Lankan Government. What has been as devastating is the realisation that my own government actively engages with, and thus defends, the men responsible for these things.
It is a terrifying thought that our elected representatives engage with a regime that authorised torture and rape, all to relieve the political pressure of asylum-seeker boats coming to our shores.
They cannot keep saying, as Foreign Minister Bob Carr has done, that they don’t know this torture happens. Too many reports by too many respected agencies have documented similar occurrences for too long. Now the evidence is here in our own backyard..
Will it loosen Carr’s enthusiastic embrace of the Rajapaksa regime or will he shrug off Kumar’s story?
When I looked at those hideous scars on Kumar’s back and watched him hobble like a man twice his age to go to the bathroom this week, I wished for one thing; that Carr could have been there to see it, too.