I first went to Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, when it was under siege– the city itself held by the government and the countryside by the LTTE. The streets were empty, many of the shops closed, and soldiers were everywhere. A concrete pillbox equipped with machine guns guarded the entrance to the town.
In the midst of this chaos, I met a woman named Amura. A Sinhalese Catholic from Colombo, she was one of the few Sinhalese in a Tamil/Muslim area. She’d lived there five years, had learned the Tamil language, and worked as a counselor for government detainees and their families. My “interview” with her became a long talk in which we discussed peace work and our spiritual paths for most of the morning. She was one of the most heroic and inspirational people I have ever met.
Much of Amura’s work dealt with people detained by the security forces, the army and police. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a person could be detained virtually indefinitely without charges being filed. She told me that a detainee typically was held locally for six months, and then transferred to Wellikala Prison near Colombo for indefinite detention. Torture, while no longer legal, was still practiced regularly by the security forces. Many of the mothers and wives of detainees had no idea where their loved one was being held. Being from the villages, they didn’t know Batticaloa town. Amura provided support—emotional, legal, and logistical—to the families of the victims as well as to the victims themselves.
Besides counseling, Hapuarachchi was also active in peace work in Batticaloa. She had organized several peace demonstrations, including a sit in, a fast, and a meditation. For Human Rights Day she organized a small march. “We’re not anti-government,” she told me, hinting at the risks she was taking in an area where people who oppose government policies often disappear. “[We’re] just expressing the need for human rights.”
I asked mura about her commitment to peace work. She replied,
“My search was more of a personal search. I was searching for myself and my purpose. I wanted to work with those affected by the conflict… I was attracted to a very strong vision, where Sinhalese people would fight for the rights of Tamils, and vice versa. The search for the Ultimate Love in the universe—you look for things that draw you to that… I recognize that I can’t change anything myself. I can only be open and wait.”
As part of her search, Hapuarachchi organized a small support group for people interested in nonviolence, and has been exploring the links between nonviolence and spirituality.
“I think that when you begin to discover your own humanity, then you begin to respect the other [person and recognize] the essential equality and uniqueness of every person.”
It’s a process of awareness, and hopefully, by communicating that process, the other party is also able to change. Criticizing the role of her own religion, she said that Catholics generally want to maintain the status quo. It is uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous, to speak out against the established order. “No one wants to be the persecuted church,” she said.
Peace work is an individual decision. And even though one person can do very little, collectively those who make that decision can make a difference. But any action toward peace or nonviolence brings with it a personal change that is more important than the external results. “Personal transformation is the greatest challenge… It is a lifelong process.”
During my talk with Amura, we were interrupted by a Tamil woman seeking help for her son. He had been detained by the army and imprisoned for six months. The son claimed he had been tortured from the time he’d been arrested until his transfer to a hospital for treatment. He had not been charged with any crime. Amura told me it was likely that he’d be forced to sign a statement in Sinhala language—which, being a Tamil-speaker, he couldn’t read—stating that he had not been mistreated.
The woman had a medical report from the doctor who had treated her son. She passed it to Amura, who passed it to me. It was in English. According to the doctor’s report, the man had been beaten with objects, his genitals had been “squeezed,” and his eardrums had been ruptured. The report also stated that the doctor had ordered the officials to produce the man for a follow-up visit in five days, but that the man had not been produced.
After the woman had gone, I asked Amura if it got difficult to see case after case like this. She replied,
“Sometimes I feel helpless. But I start to look at the long term changes—like how to prevent torture. Legal methods, working with the police, counseling. And spiritual work, holding the people in prayer. All that is part of the whole. If you want change, you have to work at all levels. You also have to ask, what makes society produce torturers? “The difficulty is that many people are afraid to work against torture because [to do so] is seen as going against the government. Torture is illegal, but those people [who did it] are still here.”
Amura tops the list of the most amazing people I have even met. To work with victims that her own people too often see as “the enemy,” she not only risked her life, she became fluent in a new (and very different) language.
After meeting her, I couldn’t help but ask myself, how far was I willing to go for what I believed?