About Refugees, By Refugees
S. V. Kirupaharan
OK, it’s recording. So hello, Kirupa, can you maybe first introduce yourself?
I’m Kirupaharan, known as Kirupa from… I’m a Tamil from Sri Lanka, and… I left Sri Lanka in 89. And I live in France since then.
What kind of housing do you live in?
Oh, that’s very interesting because, you see… It little shamed to tell. In Sri Lanka my house was very big one, huge one. But here, uh, for nearly 10 years as a refugee, I lived in a… You know, “chambre de bonne”, service room. And uh, no bathroom. Only a toilet and a wash in the corridor. So I lived like that for nearly 10 years. Then gradually I developed myself. That’s how I lived earlier but it doesn’t mean that now I’m living perfectly, because of my work and all. I limit my expenditures so… I’m managing.
And, do you want to say where you’re living now? Or is it something you don’t want to disclose?
No, I don’t mind telling, no. Actually, it’s it’s called HLM Prive’ and uh, that’s housing given by government. So, that time when I applied there, I asked for what is better than the service room. If it is now, I would have asked for at least two rooms or something. That time because I asked, I can’t ask any more now at the moment, so I am managing with that. But I live in a very good area!
OK. And can you say who do you live with? Do you live alone? Or do you have a family??
No, I’m married but uh… My wife doesn’t live with me, but we meet each other. No, but it is, it’s sufficient for two people even though it’s still a studio. But uh… We don’t have children, so we are managing. But my wife, she is British, but she lives in the UK mostly, and I live here. But we meet very, very frequently!
Ok. And, how do you spend your time in Paris?
Ah, you see, since I moved here, to France, we started the human rights organization. We started because… Yes, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and all were working in Sri Lanka, but we were not happy about the reporting which they were missing, which was happening in the nook and corner, in the… I am a Tamil from Sri Lanka and obviously, I am from the north, Northeast. It was civil war during the time I left. So they consider only the cases which was happening in the cities and all. So we were compelled to start an organization to report the matters, what was happening for the Tamils: arrest, torture, killing, rape, those sort of things. So, I’m always busy since it started. I enjoy doing that human rights work for my people, my ethnic group and my homeland. So I still continue, for the last nearly thirty – more than thirty years.
And does, does that bring you joy? I know it’s a term that’s a bit maybe strange for that, but does that, are you happy to do this work? Are you convinced?
You see – not only my point, the members of our organizations’ point is – we escaped the war. A conflict area, and when we come to Europe, yes, it’s a different life. And… Yes, of course, there are certain difficulties, it doesn’t mean that… Something like the people in the war, or conflict area! So we should think about the people who live in the conflict area, especially our people, you see. So, I… We think it’s our duty to work on that issue. So we’re continuing and we… We work on various fronts. Our main place is the United Nations human rights forums. There we report all these matters, we attend their meetings, conferences. So… We won’t say we are enjoying, but we are doing our duty to our fellow Tamils.
Right. So, this duty you are talking about, you said you started it when you came to France, right? How did you see it before you came, the human rights, at the times of the conflict there in Sri Lanka and before you came?
Actually you see – when you consider the Tamil situation in Sri Lanka – in fact, it’s a problem started since the independence of the country. When British gave independence, the problem started between the Tamil and the Sri Lankan government, or Sinhalese and other ethnic group who is numerically, major numerically, we all sought a nation. But when you compare that period to the period we came here, we… We saw what happened even after, you see, I must be… I’m sure, it must be known in 2009 was the end of the war where… Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred, slaughtered, tortured, arrested. They were put in refugee camps and all that. So they were mentally tortured. Many things happened. So… Our work, it has not improved our situation, but we will have to continue to work. And the government, of course, any state, always has the support of other states. So, when there is a freedom fighter, you know freedom fighters, very easy they say “it’s a terrorist organization” and also, other governments also support that. That’s how this… Our Tamil conflict came to an end. But uh… Situation is still bad, but even the war is ended, we Tamils, the war ended with certain bogus promises by those governments, and they haven’t done anything within the last 11 years. Now is 2020 and until today nothing happened in Sri Lanka for the Tamils. So we consider it’s a problematic uh… The problem still continue.
And how does that make you feel? That there was no improvement.
Oh sad! You see, now… We are in a stage the new generation, youths, are getting involved. But some of the youths who were born here will not have the same feeling like us. We come from the worst situation. We have seen things personally. We have suffered. We were victims. But the children who are born here, hear the stories from us, see it from the media, but they don’t see like us. Anyway, their involvement is very much needed and they are involved. But hope, er… You see, er, any conflict always change hand, change generation. So, hmm, until there is an amicable settlement, or political, proper political settlement, this will continue. We don’t know when it will finish. It has to be done by the international community, especially by India, our neighbors. Uh, it will take time.
And just to go back to to what you were saying about how you had a big house before coming. What was your life like before you came to France?
Oh, that’s good! Uh, actually, I always studied in a private school for my secondary education. But uh, you see, the conflict started – one of the reason was standardization. Because Sri Lanka government introduced in ’70s a system in education, that ruling Sinhalese, numerically majority, can have less marks to go to the university, whereas the Tamils should have more marks. And they reduce the population, the Tamil population, Tamils students entering the university. This is how the pro… conflict started. So, for us, the chances for entering the university: very less compared to the other ethnic groups. So I was compelled to come out of the country and to study in the UK, United Kingdom, because my family can afford to this, do that in… Long before this conflict started. So… I studied computing and then started my career in the computing in Middle East and various other places since 79. And uh, of course, after I came to France, I worked in the computer field, but not the same job I did in… As a computer person in Middle East and all for my studies. Anyway, I am thankful to France to keep me here and support me, but I am not telling I couldn’t do well, partly because of my contribution to the human rights and journalism.
Did it help you when you came here, to… To go through the experience of leaving your country and your human rights work, I mean, was it like a strength for you?
Yeah! You see, the human rights work… It’s important. Because a country like Sri Lanka never respect any international rules and regulations, international law, humanitarian law; they don’t respect. So somebody has to remind them to follow, the United Nations or any state, international community to remind them. We will have to work with them. We will have to lobby them and say: “Oh, what is happening in Sri Lanka is wrong”. So because people like me and various other organizations – not only me, even big international human rights organizations like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, ICJ, various other organizations – there should be a pressure on the Sri Lankan government. So, I think our involvement is doing something better, but uh… we haven’t seen the result yet!
And individually, I mean, how did you feel? That’s what my question was about more like, when you came to France, what did help you? I mean, this human rights work helped you to stay in touch with your home country. But is there anything else also?
See, when I came to France, uh, I don’t know a single word of French.
Even “bonjour” I don’t even know. Because Sri Lanka was colonized by British, so… Yeah, good in English, but we were never taught French in that country. So, when I came, I had a language dificulty. Uh, especially during the period I arrived in 89, English not well known in France. At that time France was… France and I think 12 countries on the EEC, European Economic Community, that time. Until it became European Union, the language was not English, was not attractive. So of course the euro came and now, hmm, the new generation, French, are taught, they talk good English and all that. It’s a different story. So during my time, when I came, you can’t manage your life without French. So, I was compelled to study French – not, I won’t say compelled, I… I was obliged to. So I started, I started from, you know, kindergarten French. Of course I went and studied in Jussieu University. So it was encouraged by the French government, and Sorbonne, and also various other institutions. The advantage at that time to learn French: the state payed us to learn French, not now. That time there is like a monthly salary, they give us money and also they give a paysheet. So you can continue to study French at that time and you can develop your language skills. This will make you to integrate the French community. Uh, fortunately, I was working in, with uh, various French organi… French companies, but one is the… One time I work for a year with EDF-GDF, Electricité de France – one year I was working. So that gave me lots of opportunities to integrate in the French community. So, even though it is difficult, but uh, it’s fine!
How did you feel about this? I mean, to integrate in a new community?
Uh, you see, you will have to do that. Without integration… You’re out, you are like fish out of the water. So, whether in France or Switzerland or Germany, when you go to the country, you will have to integrate with the population. It starts from the neighbors. You see, when you rent out a room or a house or… It start from the neighbors! You say hello, and they see, and sometimes they call you, invite you for a coffee or tea. That’s how you start. When you go to the school and universities and working place, you go to the restroom and you chat with them. Then weekend parties. So that’s how you integrate. Uh, you don’t meet that person on the street and you don’t go like that nowadays; it’s very dangerous to meet the person on the street and uh, be a friend. So, that time, the time we came was a golden era I would say. Not like now, now there are a lot of dangerous people moving in the street. So, being a Tamil, our physical identity is completely different compared to the Western people, uh, but we will have to manage all that.
And do you feel French today? Tamil only? Or how do you, how would you describe yourself?
You see… I am French! And I respect the law and order in France. Of course… I am for France because even though I am born in Sri Lanka, they never looked after us. On the other hand, they were oppressing us more. French is not doing this. So I am for France, but in the meantime, I will think about my people in… in my country, in my area I was born. So because I can’t say that I… I am purely French, it’s not possible. But uh, French have looked for humanitarian work and I know a lot of political leaders in Africa, uh, even Ayatollah Khomeini went from France. Kmher Rouge Pol-Pot from France. These sort of leaders born here in this country. So it’s a liberal country. So thankful to them, but uh… How can I say I am purely French? It’s… Maybe if I have children they will say: we are French!
You were mentioning coming to France. How was your journey to Europe? Because you mentioned that you were also in the UK for a while, then also in the Middle East. So why France?
Exactly! This question, not only you are asking, even I was asked when I applied for my refugee status. “Well, you studied in the UK, why you chose France?”. Yes, that’s a good question because, you know what happened, er, the time I arrived here, there was some Tamil sought refugee status in the UK, they were deported back to Sri Lanka! And they ended up in prison. So, I was considering all this because I was a student there before. In between, I left the country. And again, if I entered the country, I don’t know if they will give me the refugee status or they will ask me to go back. So for all that it’s a safe home, France is a land for, uh… political refugees. So, I thought France is the best place to come and uh, also closer to the UK. So, that’s why I choose France.
OK. And what did you think about France at that time, when you came here?
It’s a wonderful country, but… You see, not only France, anywhere there are advantages, disadvantages. Of course, you know, there is not a single country there are people, uh… discriminating people and all. But it doesn’t mean that it’s a policy of the state. So, hmm… Even in Sri Lanka, I am sure if many foreigners come there are maybe discrimination. So that is happening, it cannot be the policy of the state. Uh… but uh… French encourage the people to study their language, follow their culture, integrate. So these things are positive. Uh… You see, one of the beautiful things I learned from French, in the beginning, when you speak, we say in broken English like broken French, the French people never said “you don’t speak good French”. In England is on the other way; when you don’t speak good English they would say: “What? your English is very bad!”, they will say. But in France, they don’t say that. They would say: “Bravo, vous parlez bien Francais!”, which is not true. They encourage the people to learn their language. That’s the beauty I have seen here.
That’s true! And you are speaking about discrimination. Did you suffer from discrimination yourself?
Not exactly. But discrimination… I will tell you an example. You see, for some reason I underwent an operation in the knee. Here. So I’m entitled to sit in a seat, prioritary. But I look young or something, there are times they refuse to give me the seat, even though I show them the card. Because… I feel that because of my color complex, it doesn’t mean that it’s “if you see a person with this color you should not give”. That is decided by the individual who seated there. He may be a young fellow, but he refused. So these sort of things, these are minor things. I never come across a similar thing for employment or anything, because I worked in the most prestigious company, EDF. And also there are several other companies I have worked. Some companies are still there, some already closed down. I didn’t see any sort of severe thing. These are all minor things decided by the individuals, on the street, or bus, or…
And so… Just go back to what you were saying about the political situation in Sri Lanka, and the conflict, how does that affected you here? You said you were sad to see how the government doesn’t answer.
You see, our work is mainly with the UN human Rights Forum. So when we go there, we come across the Sri Lankan representatives as well. So they come with a bunch of lies. We go with facts. So we will get clashed there, so… So they don’t like our presence in those forums. So because of that, they write nasty things about us in their state medias – not in the private medias – and they brand that we are terrorists and all that… It all happened. It’s not only for me, it’s happening for every people going against every state in the other countries. So, Tamil situation is taken by us and different communities, different organizations. But the Sri Lankan government doesn’t like any of us pressing it again. For example, France and UK and also there are people bringing that. But France, the UK, they all take it very simple and they think they have the equal rights and they have the freedom to talk about Sri Lanka. People like Sri Lanka, or especially Asian countries, are not like that. They think we should not talk! Freedom of expression is denied even in international places. So that’s a bad situation. Because of that outcome, of course, they try to target us and…
Even in France, even if it’s happening today.
How does that make you feel? Do you feel threatened, do you feel fear?
Yeah, I am not… I am not afraid of this, but every day you see there are people following, there are people photographing, there are people recording. This is happening even today. But you see, you cannot have the cake and eat the cake. If you want to do the human rights work and if you want to write strong articles against the state, you face the consequences as well. Otherwise, you go to church and work as a church worker or something. But human rights, journalism or dangerous work, when we started this, we know this is that… This will be the outcome one day, so we are not bothered.
So you have a very strong personality in this, and you keep faith that the work will pay off?
You see, I give important to my work rather than my… That my life should not be finished or something like that. Even you see… I am a person who underwent a heart operation, various operations, but during that time also I worked. So I give priority to my work, that is the one which will give relief to the other people in the country. So… Tamil situation is special, because… They won the war by giving bogus promises, and now, 11 years, they continue to give bogus promises. So until this is realized by the international community we’ll have work. Well, thank you very much. I just wanted to ask you something for the project. We ask the people what was their dream before they came to the country where they live now. So if you can just say, “before I came to France, my dream was”. What was your dream? If you recall. I tell you, I already explained you I was in the computer field. Like I write articles on human rights, politics, and all presently, when I was in Saudi Arabia I was contributing a lot to computer magazines. About computing, how we can download, how we can modify this program, how we can modify those sort of software… Those sort of articles, still I have in some place. So my… I would say my ambition was to become an expert in the computer field. Yes, I did it well when I was there. But later my life changed and my direction changed. So my ambition was to become a computer expert, and still there are magazines evidence for that. I have contributed a lot to computer magazines in the past. Now I am doing political and human rights work.
So can you say “before I came to France, my dream was to become a computer expert?”
Yes. Before… Because of that’s what I studied, that’s what I was working, that was my profession. So… That was my dream, to become a computer expert.
The political situation has changed.
Exactly, and now, can you say “my dream is…”?
Presently my dream is to find an amicable settlement politically and for the grievances that happened, for our people in Sri Lanka, the Tamils. There should be reconciliation and accountability for what the Sri Lankan government has done to the Tamils. More than 200,000 Tamils were massacred. Lot of women were raped, injured. Still, there are people in the detention… Thousands of people have disappeared and there is no account on that. We don’t know their whereabouts. So all this has to be settled, that is my dream now.
That’s beautiful. Well, thank you very much Kirupa. I just need to ask you, because you mentioned what happened during the conflict and you said, people killed, women being raped… I didn’t ask you this question because I don’t know if you want to speak about it or…
Oh I don’t mind.
Yeah, you experience of what happened there. If you want to say it and if it’s important for you, you can tell what you saw or what you lived through…
Actually you see, the things that I have seen with my own eyes, there were people, bodies were on the street and all… I’m talking about even in the 80s, you know, my age group, people were shot and put on the streetside and all that in the 80s – beginning of the 80s. This… I have seen that. But to be frank, I left the country. So after that, what I hear and heard, I have seen in the videos and all. But there are people, you know, who have seen this huge massacre. They are still under trauma here in this country. A huge amount of people have – after 2009 – have come to Western countries, including Canada, America, and all. If you go and talk to them, you will see the stories. They haven’t still recovered from what they have seen. Because in front of them, people were massacred, killed, women were raped, no food for weeks and weeks and all. No water, no toilets. These things happenned. So this is a sad story of what happened, the Tamils, and of the war. And even if you get all these recovered and all the reconciliation and all, I don’t think people are going to forget these memories. It’s very difficult, very difficult. I have hundreds of friends who can relate, a lot of stories about these things, what happened to them. Even in their detention they were tortured, tortured in the sense… Severe torture. They are still here! They are fighting about the refugee cases and all, a lot of people are here in this country. And how does that make you feel? Does it make you feel sad or rather angry? No, no, there’s no point of getting angry with the government. We must work diplomatically. So this all make us sad sometimes. Of course sometimes we used to have gatherings to have a vigil about the people killed in riots, in 2018. We meet in certain place and light the candles and think of them. Certain, certain days we have vigil, certain meetings that take place in Republic Square. So yeah, even though we are angry with Sri Lankan government, there is no point of keeping on angry with them, but we’ll have to work diplomatically with the international community to find a proper solution to this.
Thanks very much Kirupa. It was a great interview.
Thank you, Mirza.
Yeah, I just wanted to know, because you said you were working in computers, with computers before, and then you became a human rights defender, so I just wanted to know why did you choose to become a human rights defender and how did you do so?
Well, the situation in Sri Lanka inside. And I came from Sri Lanka and… I am… I came as a political refugee because of the human rights violations in Sri Lanka. So this made me… And also other reason is, you see, when you grow older, in computer system you become… You see, you can’t adapt yourself to the way the computer was going. So that is another reason, that’s the hidden reason, because the younger generations are very efficient, very sophisticated in the computer field and we can’t compete with them, the new generation. So these are the reasons. And the premier, the first reason is that I wanted to contribute myself to the people who suffer human rights violations, especially in our country, and also generally, universally. So these are the two reasons made me to become a human rights defender.
Great. Thank you very much.