Frontline World

Sri Lanka - Living With Terror


Synopsis of "Living with Terror"

34 days in Sri Lanka

Interview and Analysis

Profile of Rajan Hoole


Excerpt from the Novel

Sri Lanka News and Information




A Lonely Warrior for Human Rights
For the past 14 years, University Teachers for Human Rights has published scathing reports detailing human-rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The reports include firsthand accounts of forced recruitment of child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers.

In the eyes of Rajan Hoole, a member of UTHR and a crusader for human rights in Sri Lanka, documentation of abuses is vital to reform efforts. Underscoring the dangers of such reporting, Hoole must travel the country in disguise. Hoole and other members of UTHR seek to leave a record of human stories that will inform Sri Lanka's political future as it moves toward a mediated peace process between the government and the LTTE.

In November of 2001, FRONTLINE/World's Joe Rubin met with Rajan Hoole and filed this report.
Before civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, Rajan Hoole was a mathematics professor and classical pianist living in the cosmopolitan Tamil mecca of Jaffna in the north of the country. He stayed clear of politics. But by the late 1980's, disturbed by reports of massacres and other human-rights atrocities resulting from the war, Hoole and three hundred other professors joined University Teachers For Human Rights (UTHR) in Jaffna.

In 1991 UTHR's founder, Dr. Rajani Thirangama, was assassinated in Jaffna by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The assassination had a chilling effect on the human-rights organization, and its numbers dwindled. But for Hoole, the murder of Thirangama had the opposite impact. He was transformed from a shy, Oxford-educated professor into a daring human-rights crusader for UTHR.

Over the past two decades, Hoole, who is himself a Tamil, has at various times taken on the government, the Indian army, and the Tamil Tigers, authoring dozens of blistering reports of human-rights abuses in a conflict that has taken 64,000 lives.

While Hoole has many enemies in Sri Lanka, challenging the Tamil Tigers is particularly daring. The Tigers have made a habit of targeting fellow Tamils who criticize their often ruthless tactics. UTHR estimates that more than 8,000 Tamils have been killed by the Tigers.

Considering all this, the risks Rajan Hoole took in attacking the Tigers human-rights record were remarkable.

The Meeting
I decided Hoole was someone I should try and meet, so I sent out some feelers. One afternoon I got a call with the message, "Rajan would be willing to meet you." An hour later, as the sun set on another scorching day in Colombo, Hoole was knocking on the door of my hotel room. I expected him to look nervously over his shoulder. But he entered the room deliberately and introduced himself. He's been taking deadly risks for a decade.

I'd spent the night before reading his latest report for UTHR on the use of child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. The report alleges that child soldiers make up sixty percent of the Tigers' latest recruits.

"Sometimes," Hoole told me, "if you give a child a gun and tell them to go into a village and shoot someone, let's say a civilian the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) wanted to get rid of, the child can actually do that kind of thing very effectively. For them it's a game of hide and seek."

Allegations of the rampant use of child soldiers by the Tigers are nothing new. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an international watchdog group, has for a decade singled out the Tamil Tigers as one of the worst offenders when it comes to using boys and girls, some as young as nine years old, as foot soldiers. Hoole's latest report breaks new ground by painting a disturbing picture of forced conscription.

"What [the families] are being told," Hoole says, "is that if you don't give a child to the LTTE, that you're a traitor and that you don't deserve to live here. Your house and property will be confiscated and you will be driven out of the LTTE area.

"When the parents are forced to give up a child, they are made to go before television cameras and make a claim that they are doing this entirely voluntarily. Usually when this happens, the atmosphere in the home turns to that of a funeral. Broken by the event, a number of [the parents] have committed suicide."

Because UTHR's field work in Sri Lanka is so dangerous, Hoole travels the country in disguise, by bus and on the cheap, collecting the stories of human-rights abuses first hand. "It's dangerous. I have to take precautions all the time. I maintain a great deal of uncertainty about my movements and where I stay. I have a few friends who I depend on a lot. Besides that we are cut off from the community," Hoole said.

While Hoole's life has all the daring drama of a political thriller, friends say he maintains his equilibrium through routine. Every morning before dawn, Hoole works out complicated math equations to keep his mind fresh and calm.

"A lot of human-rights work around the world is a kind of prestige job within the country, or written from comfortable desks somewhere 6,000 miles away," said Peter Rosenblum, associate director of Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program. "With Rajan Hoole's reports, the word that always comes to my mind is €intimacy.' They give a sense of the genealogy of the conflict and include a great deal of nuance, differentiating between those who are working with the LTTE because they are under duress and have no choice, and those who are enthusiastic participants."

"UTHR is phenomenal," says Rosenblum. "They've suffered the indignities put upon them by the Sinhalese majority, and at the same time they've believed to such an extent in pluralism and human rights that they were willing to risk their lives to take on their so-called liberators. Every step they take they risk their lives."

A Chance for Lasting Peace?
UTHR's work on child soldiers comes at a critical time in Sri Lanka's peace process. The government and the Tamil Tigers are about to sit down with Norwegian mediators and possibly hash out a peace agreement that could bring the civil war to an end, and put the Tamil Tigers in a position of legitimate power.

I wondered how Hoole, a Tamil, felt about the prospect of a Tamil Tiger-led state. I asked him if the world should consider the Tigers to be liberation fighters or terrorists.

"The problem with categorizing an organization as terrorists," he answered, "is that you look for sensational acts of violence on foreign soil. But the LTTE is more an organization that is against ordinary human aspirations. They want to place the people within a fascist polity, where there can't be any kind of independent thought or dissent."

But despite all the human-rights abuses that UTHR has documented, members of the group feel that the current peace process could offer some hope. "I have a lot of doubts about the peace process, especially if this is just about quick fixes, rather than creating the conditions for lasting peace," said K. Sritharan, a longtime UTHR activist.

"But if all parties -- the Norwegians, the LTTE and the government -- make a commitment to civil society and plurality, then the peace process could be a hopeful thing. Otherwise, if this is just about taming the Tiger, peace with no real commitment to human rights, then I'm afraid things will break down into a bloody mess again soon."

Links relevant to this article:

University Teachers For Human Rights (UTHR) in Jaffna
UTHR aims to document, humanize, and raise awareness of human rights violations. The Web site includes the latest breaking news briefings, bulletins and reports, as well as background information on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and a history of the organization's efforts.

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was formed in1998 by six international non-governmental organizations to prevent people under the age of 18 from participating in hostile or military activities. The organization is active in 40 countries, in efforts to create greater awareness of the problem and lobby for enforced international legal standards for the rights of children.

Amnesty International - Child Soldiers in Sri Lanka
Amnesty International is a member organization of The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. This report on child soldiers in Sri Lanka provides details on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and their large-scale recruitment of children for combat.