Pathma’s Story: Searching for Answers
Pathma’s home is like any other when he welcomes me inside. Comfy couches, a five year old daughter smiling down from pictures on the wall.
There are other pictures. Family portraits. However they aren’t your usual family portraits. They’re pictures from identity cards, blown up, framed. “My parents”, Pathma says. Both dead. Like all of his family, dead or missing.
Inside this New Zealand home lies human suffering and a desperate search for answers. The suffering becomes all too apparent as Pathma sits down to tell me his story.
Pathma arrived in New Zealand in 2002 through the UN’s refugee resettlement programme. Before that he spent 11 years in limbo in Malaysia and suffered unimaginable terror in his own country, Sri Lanka.
In 1990, suspected of being a Tamil Tiger, Pathma was shot in the head, knee and lower back. He shows me the scars on the side of his head, the long scar on his back. He shows me a worn hospital card detailing his injuries, in case the scars aren’t proof enough.
His nightmare didn’t end there, in fact it was only beginning. His wounds branded him and soon after being released from hospital he was arrested, suspected of taking part in the conflict.
For three days he was held in the police station, tortured. In the evenings he was taken to a room where police officers would tie his hands behind his back and string him up over a bar, suspending him in the air. Then they would beat him repeatedly in his still healing leg wound with a rubber pipe filled with cement.
His knee never fully healed, today he is unable to stand for long periods of time.
One officer pushed his finger into a small wound on Pathma’s throat, all the time interrogating him; he pushed and pushed until Pathma’s blood spurted on his face. He shows me the scar.
Eventually Pathma bribed his way out of the police station and later out of the country, fleeing to Singapore and then Malaysia where he was given refugee status.
His family was not so lucky. Fighting had escalated in the north of the country and Pathma’s family, along with the rest of their village and people from 24 surrounding villages, moved into East University, which had been turned into a refugee camp.
One day the army arrived at the camp with six buses. They rounded up some 200 men - doctors, lawyers, businessmen. They were forced onto the buses and taken away. Pathma’s brother was amongst them. The were never seen again.
Pathma’s sister, so upset by her brother’s disappearance, became mentally unwell.
“She began to throw stones at army trucks, so they shot her dead,” Pathma says.
When he was finally accepted into New Zealand Pathma says it was, “like I was flying in the sky.”
New Zealand was a new chapter; it brought personal freedom but it did not bring peace.
Pathma has regrets. His daughter isn’t surrounded by extended family, she won’t know their country or the sense of community he remembers from his childhood.
He feels that he’s failed his daughter, failed to give her the happy existence she deserves, He says that while they may be alive, they’re not living, not really.
“So many Tamil people have been killed. I want to know why,” Pathma says.
“Is it because our skin is dark?”
“Are we not human beings?...The international community should have saved us.”
For Pathma and his family, even though the war has ended and his family are safe in New Zealand, the suffering continues.
No one has been held accountable for what happened during the war, for the alleged crimes against humanity. There has been no justice.
And the abuses continue. People continue to disappear for speaking out, people are still missing and their families continue to search for them.
I meet Pathma’s wife, but she won’t let me use her name or photograph her. She fears that if she speaks out, her brother and sister, who remain in Sri Lanka, will suffer. It’s a fear that she says is so great she can’t put it into words.
But her voice portrays her suffering and desperation for things to change.
“From 1983, when I was 10 years old, my heart began to hurt.”
“It hasn’t stopped yet.”
“Why did it start and where does it end?” she asks.
Pathma’s wife says that all she wants is for her people to have happy lives, free lives with all their rights intact. “That’s all I’m asking,” she says.