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Talking about human rights in Sri Lanka

A lecture commemorates the life of human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama.

Sri Lankan army commandos stand guard as Minister for Social Services and Social Welfare, Douglas Devananda, center in white, attends the funeral procession of Maheswari Velayudan at a public cemetery in Colombo, May 15, 2008. Velayudan was shot dead by suspected Tamil rebel gunmen when she went to see her mother in Jaffna peninsula, May 13, 2008. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Reuters)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — April 1989, the city of Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka: My uncle is riding his bicycle to work. A voice from behind calls out his name. He stops and turns around. Armed men begin arguing with him and yell that he is a traitor. He pleads with them, saying that he is a family man. They do not listen and shoot him in the face with a machine gun. His bullet-ridden body and bloodstained bicycle fall to the road.

Later, people said that he had asked for water, but that they had been too afraid to help him. From the camouflage of their gardens, civilians, paralyzed by fear, watched my uncle die. On the day of his funeral, the armed men who killed him came to the house and told my family that what they had done was correct. He was a traitor, and for that, he deserved to be killed. His wife, fearing for the safety of her three children, accepted this version of reality. Her youngest child was just shy of three months old.

I could not attend the funeral. In Jaffna, the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces (IPKF), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Tamil militant groups were engaged in a ruthless and agonizing battle. In this civilian bloodbath, no one was spared. Schools were shut down and children grew accustomed to the sounds of gunshots and grenades. Principals and the elderly were murdered. Women’s bodies were used and discarded on the road, like empty bullet casings. My family and I mourned silently. I was too afraid to seek the truth and my questions surrounding his death remain unanswered.

No one seemed to know the real story, but more importantly, everyone was too afraid to retell it. Why was he killed? What did he do to be called a traitor? I was eight years old. These were my questions.

Five months later, on Sept. 21, 1989, Rajani Thiranagama — professor of anatomy, mother and co-founder of University Teachers for Human Rights Jaffna (UTHR(J)) — was also shot in the head by a gunman while riding home on her bicycle. In 1990, UTHR(J) published “The Broken Palmyra,” with Rajani listed posthumously as a co-author. The text documents the human rights violations, fear and narrowing space for democracy in Sri Lanka. In particular, the book relates the devolution of civil society experienced by Jaffna civilians during the 1980s. Especially noteworthy is Rajani’s chapter, “No More Tears, Sister,” an account detailing the war-induced sexual violence, disappearances and trauma experienced by women. In 2005, a critically acclaimed documentary by the same title about Rajani’s life and work was released. Though UTHR(J) was forced underground soon after her assassination, the organization continues to document human rights violations, and two of the co-founders were awarded the 2007 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.