When I arrived at Divine Pearl, a secret Sri Lankan military camp that lay ninety-five kilometres from Colombo, it was quite late in the evening. DP was a prison camp built by the British colonizers to house hardened criminals. Though the façade resembled the palace of a feudal overlord, it was a fully equipped jail designed to hold prisoners securely and to torture them in many ingenious ways. The main building had twenty-two cells spread across three floors, and three rooms called prayer rooms that were used for interrogation. In a small building adjacent to it were offices and rooms for the officials. DP stood atop a hill in the middle of a hundred-acre tea plantation. We were subjected to a thorough frisking before being allowed in, even though we had special sanction from the president himself.
We were there for pre-production work on a movie, The Woman Behind the Fall of the Tigers, that Transnational Pictures was producing in collaboration with the Sri Lankan government. The crew comprised of me – Peter Jeevanandam, the scriptwriter – the director Christie Alberto from Scotland, his girlfriend and cinematographer Mary Ann, Tony Bernard who was one of the producers and Charles Samaraveera, a top official in the cultural ministry and a close confidant of the president. The camp in- charge, Colonel D’Silva, and his entourage treated us with a great show of hospitality. This could be attributed to the typical fancy third-world citizens have for Hollywood, or perhaps it was because the government had shown special interest in this project. The movie was an effort by the Sri Lankan government to whitewash the atrocities that had been committed in brazen violation of human rights during the civil war. But we planned to use the opportunity to portray how anti-democratic stances within a movement can fragment and weaken the revolution itself. Christie had picked me to write the script since I had spent several years with the Tigers working on a movie project during Prabhakaran’s time, but had been forced to flee for my life without completing it.
Colonel D’Silva explained the working of the camp in detail. The most dangerous of the Tigers were housed in this camp. They could not be rehabilitated or reintroduced into society, as neither liberty nor torture could change them. Many of them still believed that their dream of a Tamil Eelam could be realized. Some of them had even lost their mental balance. There were prisoners who thought that Prabhakaran was still alive and would come to rescue them. Some of them would suddenly turn violent or attempt to commit suicide. Each one of them had been charged with hundreds of crimes, including mass murder, terrorism and anti-national activities. The trials were prolonged endlessly.
‘And until then?’ Christie asked our guide anxiously.
‘And until then, it’s our responsibility to see that they don’t make trouble. But it’s not easy.’
‘Yes. That is often required. As the prisoners are not ordinary criminals, we have to resort to different methods. Torture without using weapons or inflicting wounds.’
‘How is that done?’
‘ There is physical as well as mental torture. Prisoners are made to lie naked in a big steel box resembling a coffin. Then spiders are let loose into it. When the spiders crawl on their naked bodies, the prisoners writhe in pain. In another box, there are millipedes. There are also boxes filled with ants, scorpions, crabs and snakes. Because the prisoners are not allowed to die, we only use snakes that are not poisonous. Every day, the prisoners have to lie in one of these boxes for hours while they are interrogated. All these people have been questioned hundreds of times. Yet we continue to question them in the hope that they will talk. But they are Tigers, after all. They do not give in easily. All this happens in the prayer rooms upstairs. After the physical torture is over, we start torturing them mentally. We use the prayer room on the first floor for this. It is a mini-theatre that shows movie clips of the Sri Lankan army defeating the Tigers in battle and the victory celebrations that followed. They also show the Tamils suffering under the Tigers. These clips are played in the hope that they will make the prisoners feel guilty. We also have footage of the prisoners’ relatives cursing the Tigers, confessions of people like Daya Master who surrendered, and the advice of people like Karuna who shifted loyalties. They are also shown clips where the Tigers are criticized on international platforms for their atrocities. When movies are not being shown, songs parodying Prabhakaran and his people are played loudly.
‘The prayer room on the ground floor is a modern torture chamber. It houses torture machines of international standards. There are machines to pull out nails and crush bones, cots that administer electric shocks, machines that simulate drowning, electric sticks that can be used to penetrate anuses and vaginas, gas chambers that make you laugh or cry continually and weaken your body, whips studded with nails, chairs of thorns, and microscopic instruments used to administer shock to private parts. These machines are not used in ordinary circumstances. But the prisoners live in fear that they might be used at any time. Every day at eight in the morning, after roll call, the prisoners are shown these instruments and are given detailed descriptions of how they are used, before being taken to the second floor. But they are Tigers and are not easily fazed. And we still haven’t received permission from the president to use these machines. It may be because the International Human Rights Association keeps a close watch nowadays.’
By the time the Colonel had finished explaining all this, Christie had become impatient. ‘We want to see everything,’ he said.
The Colonel and a couple of army officers began bombarding us with questions: When will the shooting begin? Who is playing Prabhakaran? Is Mary acting in the movie? Will you shoot here? Christie and Mary were inspecting the rooms without giving clear answers to the questions. But I wanted to meet Thamizholi. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet her or any other prisoner. The Colonel bid us farewell saying, ‘As there are security issues, you will only be able to meet the prisoners tomorrow.’
My mind was in turmoil after the prison visit. I did not share Christie’s and Mary’s excitement. It was the first time they were visiting such a place. But when I recalled the torture chambers in Kilinochchi and Vanni, this one seemed to pale in comparison.