the curse of the forebears
“Because my father is pro-Tamil. He supports the LTTE…and because Charith's from the force my father hates him. My dad’s another double-headed snake.
This interview took place on
It’s early afternoon on a warm summer day when Priya arrives with the kids. She’s wearing tracksuit pants, t-shirt and has her hair is tied back. Charith strides in a few minutes later. He’s dressed sportily, in runners, shorts and singlet. He looks fit and muscular, with closely cropped hair and a beard trimmed neatly around his mouth. They sit in the open kitchen area, upstairs at the Intercultural Centre, while I finish my conversation with Sara. The kids, Irene and Aaron, still in their school clothes, restlessly tramp all over the upper level.
When we start talking Charith asks if we can go somewhere quieter so I lead them downstairs into the Asylum Seeker Welcome Lounge. I show the kids the children’s books stacked on the shelf, offer tea to Priya and Charith, which they politely refuse, and begin the conversation.
Let’s talk about what you were doing in Sri Lanka.
I was in Malaysia. He was in Sri Lanka.
[Priya lets Charith lead with his story]
I born in Sri Lanka. You know [removed] [a town in the central district]? [Names nearby towns] [removed]?
I’ve heard of those places.
People know about gemstones and all that [found there], very popular place. So, I born in 198[removed], July. I got two elder brothers. I got no sister, nothing. I’m the youngest in the family.
My mum, my dad, both from government.
What did they do?
My mum is schoolteacher. My father was [in the] [removed] Department. Then he let go of that. He resigned. And government say, ‘no you cannot resign. You have to take pension.’ Because something happened to him. Because he’s a very strict person.
His name was Victor [removed] but people called him Hitler [removed]. So, what kind of person, you can imagine.
He had girlfriend everywhere.
What did you think of that?
I can’t change him. Because he’s living in…okay if I live in twenty-one century, he’s living hundred years back. So he’s think his way, everything totally different than me.
What did your mum think?
Mum, she’s very innocent.
If you open mouth, don’t know where, where, where…so it’s no point talking to him [Dad]. So, both of them separated.
How old were you when that happened?
My age twelve years old.
Elder brother is six years elder than me. He joined the armed force because at that time had financial problems. This was during Advanced level [VCE equivalent]. He got no choice. Because father took loan, bank loan, under my mother’s name. She’s the one end up problem.
He’s not supporting family, anything.
So he went away with someone else?
Yeah. He said he just wanted to meditate but he’s not meditating. He’s doing some other thing. He just make up his story. The reason he want to resign from the job because he had affair with the reception lady. This kind of thing. Because he holding high post in the department, place.
He had some power?
Yes. Anyway, he left already from the house. And my brother is the one – everything for me. He’s like my father, brother, everything.
Mother just doing my education side only – but more than that, nothing. She’s also like, depressed. Because, father left one side, she also has to think of my second brother he’s studying [removed] college, and she has to spend lot of money for him also. Not easy.
My [eldest] brother, he join armed force, he’s eighteen. But he want to do everything following like, army. Time to time get up, time to time go to school, come back – all with the timetable.
He kept to a schedule?
Yes. Must be on time.
“Police, it can be constable or whatever, the person got twenty-four-hours power to arrest anyone – it’s a law. Even I can arrest my own brother...”
He was also strict, like your father, then?
He automatically became. He worse. That time, at small age I got depressed. Following all military background. But he don’t bother about my second brother because both of them are two years different. So not much difference. They talk each other like friends. But with me six year difference so more control.
So first brother had some problem in the army. That time having war also. He run away from the army…not run away, chase him from the army – like that. Couldn’t control him. He’s in a different branch – doing this, that, not in the war side.
He came back home doing everything time to time [on time] – this, this, this – like torturing me. ‘You must join army, army, army.’ His main target put me that thing only. My second brother also [removed] [rank]. Both of them giving me much trouble. ‘You have to get Advanced Level good [VCE equivalent] marks, then you have to join the army.’
What did you study for A-levels?
Maths and Science only. If you want to join second-lieutenant, just pass enough.
What I did, without inform anybody – I applied police. Thought this is the only way I can escape – so they can’t do anything.
Because I know police is nothing to do with the terrorist involving or anything. Police, it can be constable or whatever, the person got twenty-four-hours power to arrest anyone – it’s a law. Even I can arrest my own brother also, whoever, if I can prove anything.
And did you get in?
DEATH OF INNOCENCE
“He came and told, ‘bro, I’m going for route clearing, just feed me from your hand. I got no time to take off my gloves.’ I fed him...and he went for the operation. Just twenty minutes only I heard bomb blast.
After that I got the best mark firing, everything. They said to join [removed] [special police unit]. They send to Eastern Area. During worktime my brother calling and telling me, you go and apply this, apply that, I can talk to a commander, put you in a sub-inspector.
I said, please don’t disturb me. I didn’t want to involve any politics. I just want to go what I got, what I can do – that way. He came until the camp [wearing] full uniform, to see me. That time I’m doing some ambush. I have to withdraw everything and come back to camp and see him.
During worktime everything fine but after that, I don’t know what happened. They know my family background and think some other way. They send me few places, purposely punish me. I don’t know why.
Is that why you left?
Then, one of my friend, he’s not supposed to die. He died on my lap. A bomb blast.
I came back from home and report to the camp and, my mum [had packed] some rice and all that. I was about to eat. He came and told, ‘bro, I’m going for route clearing, just feed me from your hand. I got no time to take off my gloves.’
I fed him. After that he say, ‘Okay, bro. Bye.’ And he went for the operation. Just twenty minutes only I heard bomb blast. I don’t know who died.
So it wasn’t far from the camp?
No, just one kilometre. We have to go and face to the situation because we’re the only people standby in the camp.
Then the moment I go there whatever I feed – rice – all came out through his stomach [through the wound].
I went and totally check – what duty he did last night. He shouldn’t go that one. He have to take at least twelve hours rest. There’s no such thing. Twenty-four hours alert means this, this, this. Lot of people saying why this fellow only sent? I talk back with the commander. He want to punish me. So he send me certain camps.
Then they asked me to do things I didn’t want to do.
“I saw these two fellows and know they are not terrorists. But tomorrow these idiots going to die. I know and really pity them. ”
What sort of things? Did you do them?
No. When they ask you to do something illegal, if you don’t do that, they will come after you. Because they worried I will let go the secret.
Like two fellow arrested. They are not terrorist. That day I was guard commander. Have to check all the guard point, get the report. I saw these two fellows and know they are not terrorists. But tomorrow these idiots going to die. I know and really pity them.
They crying, crying, one fellow’s wife pregnant. Other one’s child pass away. What I did? At night I open the gate.
You freed them? Do you know why they were brought in?
Just to question. Suspicious. Because we keep one LTTE person, a terrorist, cover his face, anyone come through, this is the person telling [identifying] – ‘This one LTTE.’ Because if he have problem with that guy, he give wrong information.
With my experience, I know these two is not terrorist.
Did you get into trouble?
I went through until court martial but no evidence. Cannot prove anything. After that can’t take it – too much torture inside. I know very soon they’re going to do something to me.
By the time my brother torturing me. One side he called my commander, put me in the sub-inspector.
Fed up everything, in 200[removed], I took three-days leave, went back home. I know one of the guy who’s sending people overseas. I told him this is my IC [Identity Card], this is my birth certificate – within one week I want to leave the country.
He say, ‘Okay. This one my price. You don’t need to come to Colombo. I will do the passport.’ I don’t need to go to collect immigration. Within twenty-four hours he went and did everything.
You know, Sri Lanka can do anything. That time, during wartime, anything can do. Now, systematic. That time – not systematic.
Then I send a letter: ‘I’m sick, I will report on this day,’ like that. They don’t put on me to check at airport like that – because I already send a letter to them telling that.
Did you tell anyone you were going? Your mother? Your brothers?
Nobody knows. Nobody. Parents also I cannot trust. When you are in that situation you will never trust anybody.
They didn’t suspect you would escape?
No. So, [removed] 26th, 200[removed] I straight into Malaysia. After that I don’t know where the hell am I.
I supposed to go Canada, but that guy [person who arranged passport etc.], he cheated me. By the time I’m depress with my work. I already escape from death, more enough, so I didn’t worry about that.
After I was working as a security guard, worked as a horse trainer, this, that, places by places…
“That was Internet love. You know the time when IRC [Internet Relay Chat] was in the late nineties, you know all this cyber love. ”
We’re getting to where Charith and Priya’s stories intersect. Priya, who’s been waiting patiently, occasionally clarifying Charith’s story or shushing the kids, starts at her beginning.
I was born in 198[removed], [removed] in Malaysia. Near the border between Thailand and Malaysia.
I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil because my grandparents were all born in Sri Lanka. Jaffna or wherever.
When did they leave?
Not recently. They left during British times. They all migrated to Singapore. So my dad’s got half Singapore. My mom’s side are Malaysian.
My dad, he was a contractor actually. Building contractor. More on civil engineering. My mum’s a nurse. So they met, got married and had two of us. Two daughters. I’m older. Everything was going good. We were a very happy family.
I went to further my studies in Singapore. That’s when I met my ex-husband. Got married.
Was that an arranged marriage?
That was Internet love. You know the time when IRC [Internet Relay Chat] was [popular] in the late nineties you know all this cyber love. People got shocked actually, we married because we met through IRC.
He’s a regional engineer for Asia for contact lenses. Do you know [removed] [names a couple of contact lens manufacturers]?
I think so, yeah.
That’s where he was working.
So, she [pointing at her daughter, Irene] was born in 200[removed]. I was like working, stuff…
What were you doing?
I was doing more on zoology and things. I used to train wild animals. I was more interested in that.
So did you work in a zoo?
Yeah, in a zoo.
So, I was expecting this little fellow [Aaron], and we moved to Indonesia. My ex had a job offer in [removed].
When he [Aaron] was nearly one, I found out that he [the ex] had an affair with an Indonesian girl. Then things started going really messy.
This guy [the ex], he likes to drink, you know, gets abusive and stuff. I can’t do anything much. I had to depend on him. Having two kids and I…I fought my way through. Came out of the marriage.
So I came back to Malaysia. Back to my dad’s place. My dad was married to another Thai girl who’s younger than me.
Sounds like all the dads are a bit messed up.
They’re messed up, yeah.
This guy [the ex] came up to KL and he wanted to kidnap the kids. We had big fights over that. It was a big police case and everything. I managed to get the kids away.
Then I filed for divorce. In that moment I met him [points to Charith].
love in a time of war
“He said, ‘Hey, Sister.’ He told me like that. He call me, ‘Sisterrr.’ So, that’s when suddenly I was thinking, ‘This guy can talk. He’s alright.’”
How did you meet?
He was in Malaysia. The same area as my dad’s place.
We lived in a big apartment. My dad’s house is a villa. So it’s high up in the hill. They have units – block A, block B, block C. He [Charith] used to live in block B, I used to live in block A. We have a swimming pool, we have tennis court, we have restaurant – everything inside that whole area itself.
It’s a private area where no one can come in and everything is card access.
Did you know everyone living there?
Basically everyone knows each other. Even the grocery shop is just meant for all of us – you know?
He [Charith] was, at that moment, traumatised with death. Don’t know what to do. He had nobody. Then he met this group of Indian guys, a few Sinhalese guys. And they were making use of him. They feel great by bringing him along [because] he’s from the force. They have fights and they ask him to join.
First day, I’ll never forget I met him. I was actually sending my stepbrother, my father’s son with the Thai lady, downstairs, and waiting for the car to come pick him up. I was standing there and just smoking and looking, you know. All of a sudden this guy walks past and my stepbrother says [Priya imitates her stepbrother in a loud, high pitched voice], ‘Hi uncle!’
I said, ‘Who’s that? Is that your grandfather you’re calling uncle?’
He said, ‘Nononono. I know this uncle. He lives here.’
And he [Charith] gave me a very…[frowns theatrically] that kind of look, you know? And I gave him a one kind of look. Still don’t know where this monkey came from. Where is he from and which country?
No, the way I dress up, no one can find out I’m from Sri Lanka. I’ve totally changed to Malaysian way.
Malaysian way of dressing and everything.
How is it different?
You dress up more like here. It’s more casual and really nice. [Unlike], in Sri Lanka [where] everyone is – white sport shoes, jeans and shirts are all yellow…weird weird colours, yeah?
One day I ask like, ‘Who’s this fella, you know?’
And my dad’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a Sri Lankan Sinhalese guy. Don’t mix with him. This fellow’s all dangerous.’
Because I already spoken to her father before I met her.
Because my father is pro-Tamil. He supports the LTTE. He always has this high thing…and because he’s [Charith] from the force my father hates him.
But he talks to me very nice.
[Priya puts on a deep voice] ‘Oh yes, Charith, yes.’
‘How are you?’ This. That.
My dad’s another double-headed snake.
One fine day, I was inside the cyber café, inside our area itself. It’s a small area so I went for a swim and changed and went to the cyber café and was checking my mails. And then – there were three PCs – I was in the middle and Charith’s friend, that guy, came and sat beside me and Charith was standing like a bodyguard for that fellow. These are all useless fellows who don’t even have money. They were looking at bikes.
They crazy about bikes. I was on a rider team there [in Sri Lanka] also. Still…
Even today he just walked into the Cash Converter when he saw a bike.
[Charith laughs, names a bike] R1. I was showing on the way.
So in the cyber café I said, I said, ‘Hey, what bike is that?’
This guy answered. He said, ‘Hey, Sister.’ [she rolls the R]. He told me like that. He call me, ‘Sisterrr.’ So, that’s when suddenly I was thinking, ‘This guy can talk. He’s alright.’
“He went around telling people, ‘My daughter’s so stupid, having two kids, now separated from the husband, talking to this stupid fellow. I think they’re having an affair.'”
We started our conversation there. We just talked about motorbikes. So both of us were discussing about bikes, talking about––
Cigarettes, because both of us smoke. I’m a chain smoker. I smoke about fourteen packets a day. And he was a smoker.
I used to give him cigarettes sometimes because he had no money. I’d say,‘Brother, don’t worry, brother. Whatever you eat in that shop…’ because we know everyone from the counter to the kitchenhand to the chef, so I said, ‘Just give him any food, I’ll pay for it.’
So, it was a very good friendship we had. Never had anything dirty in our minds, nothing. [But] my dad became so angry with us. He went around telling people, ‘My daughter’s so stupid, having two kids, now separated from the husband, talking to this stupid fellow. I think they’re having an affair.’
People won’t stop talking. The security guards all coming and saying ‘You’re having an affair with Charith?’
I was like, ‘What are you talking? He’s a friend. Do you’ll see us hugging each other or talking like guys to guys? Even you see me dressed up like a guy.’ My hair used to be short. Do you think a man would fall in love with a girl with that kind of hair?
Um, my girlfriend has short hair.
Is she a tomboy?
Maybe not quite a tomboy…
Well, I’m like that.
So, impossible for me [because of the rumours]. We were so close. Months and months. My dad had a big fight with me in the house. ‘You shouldn’t be talking to that guy. You shouldn’t be doing this. You shouldn’t let the children talk to him.’
Man, one day we went to the waterfall and my dad’s asking, ‘Did you go to the hotel to sleep?’
Then my own friend, he manipulate, to whack me like that.
My father manipulated Charith’s friend to go and hit him.
Father like that, clever to manipulate people.
[Luckily] I was there. These guys would never go past by me. I had the courage, ever since I had this husband of mine. Why didn’t I be this strong when I was with the first one? I was thinking that. I was so stupid. And I saved him from all his friends. But he had to leave his house.
And my dad chased me out of the house. He said I was having an affair.
My dad’s friend who was staying in Block C, a Malay man, a divorcee, he supported me and the kids and Charith to come and move in to the house. Even in that house we stayed as friends, you know?
You know when people say something, people talk and talk and talk and talk, you know it really happens? [Brings her hands together with a sense of finality] It happened.
“His brother didn’t agree with us. His parents didn’t agree. His brother said, ‘If I catch this lady with the kids and you, I’ll kill all of you.’ ”
That time I lost my passport also. You know how much of trouble, hassle I went through?
So no going back to Sri Lanka?
Charith went to Sri Lanka in [removed], 201[removed]. Because I managed to get for him emergency passport. He was illegal, right?
[In Malaysia] I went up to the head of the immigration director – I went so many places, man. Just walked into any director’s office and talked to them. And I made sure that the Malaysian government did not ban him. So that he can come back to the country again.
When he wants to come back, I have to be the person to guarantee him, coming to Malaysia and nothing happens. I had to go to Sri Lanka, two months later, to go to the Malaysian embassy, sign a document, I have to show US$1000 travellers check to get him a visa.
Two months later my divorce was finalised, and both the kids I had full custody. Three months later we got married.
After I got married I didn’t tell my parents she’s Tamil or anything.
You told earlier itself.
Didn’t say I married. Girlfriend. After that big problem. Come back home, my brother inform airport, everywhere. He’s a high ranked army officer. He can do lot of things. Lot of people know.
His brother [Charith’s] didn’t agree with us. His parents didn’t agree, he didn’t agree. His brother said, ‘If I catch this lady with the kids and you, I’ll kill all of you.’ But we went [to Sri Lanka].
I had to stay in all kinds of different, different places there. I was asking, can you bring me to your house area. Take me in a bus where no-one sees me. He said, ‘I’m not taking any chances, man.’
For what you want to dig [your own] grave? Then, after I went back Sri Lanka I thought I can settle down everything. They make up lot of stories – I didn’t hand over my things…now they already know – I already got marry with a Tamil.
I shouldn’t marry foreigner, especially because government secret go through some other government. And my police unit shouldn’t marry Tamil. Foreigner, Tamil – two things.
Is that a rule?
Depends on what force you are. You see, there was a time when IGP was Tamil. He tried to put Tamil’s in my department. Even under him, still mmm-hmm – cannot do. Even mother Tamil, father Sinhalese – still can’t. Just imagine what kind of force?
So after you two got married?
I started working as a Private Investigator. I got my own place to stay, and then we lived really nice. Then the trouble started again.
“He couldn’t even recognise me because I was exactly like a guy. I had two prostitutes holding me, trying to kiss me and asking me to make love with them.”
Did you need a qualification to be a PI? Or did they just find you?
It was about how you talk. They actually test you in so many ways.
Like an interview?
Why did you think of applying for that job? Did you have an interest in it?
That’s how I caught my ex-husband. He didn’t even know I was sitting in the opposite table of him. He couldn’t even recognise me because I was exactly like a guy. I had two prostitutes holding me, trying to kiss me and asking me to make love with them.
So you did that by yourself, when you caught him?
Yeah. I caught him red handed.
What sort of cases did you get as a Private Investigator?
We didn’t do the cheating spouse. We did cases which are really sensitive. Political cases.
This kind of things, and then it started with my work. My boss wants me to do a hitman job for him. He wanted to offer me money. Because I carry firearms.
He was the witness for our wedding. He wanted Charith to work as a bodyguard for one of his clients. The client was a multi, multi-millionaire. A Malay guy. He’s like, all linked. Charith was employed as a bodyguard with a spouse visa.
Then things started to go really bad. Because now, we’re interconnected. I work with [removed] [Priya’s boss]. Client is [removed]. And [removed] is Charith’s boss. All the things tangled together.
We had hit-men coming after me.
I did an investigation and the surveillance camera that I used, instead of editing it there was a video of me.
You know what we do? We use pinhole cameras. Just a tiny dot – you can’t even notice it. What’s happening here, nothing knows. This video conversation was taken with me sitting with the target itself. Sent to the target to show as evidence.
So the person wasn’t arrested?
I don’t think so. Came after me.
My boss got lot of enemies because he’s doing…I think he’s doing black money also. Suddenly he’s go to Laos, suddenly he’s China. He booked one of the very expensive hotel in Malaysia. ‘Two days you stay here and his wife called, “I’m in meeting.” Anyone else called, “I’m in meeting.”’
If he want to cover up a case he will do anything. ‘I’ll give you two girls to stay in the hotel.’ He’s like that type. He will do. But direct I told. ‘Your way and my way different, sir. You do anything but I can be loyal. But don’t bring up my name. I don’t bring out your name.’
I’m the bodyguard, I didn’t know anything. We met same place in one of the golf ground. My boss asking me to go and give someone dirty look. So I don’t know who’s that. I give him look. This guy got four five bodyguard. They all came and took photos on me. After that they send people to kill me.
Ah man, we had big big trouble. Twelve o’clock in the night people coming to attack him in the shop, in the house…
In the public. Malaysia no such thing. If you’re foreigner, nothing you can do.
Six guys came to attack him – but he gave nice…nice ones to all the six. All of them broke their jaw, broke their hand. He one person he gave everything. I was just standing, clapping. He gave maximum.
After that one day I was going to work, two people came. I thought police. But no. ‘You got wife, you got kids?’ They know. They know everything. ‘If you love your family, stop work for Kamarul.’ But I didn’t tell my boss this thing. If I tell him, he’ll ask me to go and do something again that fellow.
To hurt him?
Yeah. No need to dig my own grave, so I shut up. I told her, don’t do anything. Becoming worse now. Go to some other country.
“I couldn’t show the Australian embassy that he’s a bodyguard. They asked, ‘What is he working as?’ I said, ‘He’s unemployed. He’s doing martial arts and giving lessons.’”
Because my mom and my sister lives here [Australia].
By the same time, our luck or something I don’t know, her sister engagement going on. No choice.
Sri Lankans coming here it’s not easy. I had to show our payslips and everything. My mum sponsored. I couldn’t show the Australian embassy that he’s a bodyguard. They asked, ‘What is he working as?’ I said, ‘He’s unemployed. He’s doing martial arts and giving lessons.’
I’m doing that also.
But I can’t tell them he’s a bodyguard. If we say bodyguard, the Australian embassy will say we want to call the employer. And the employer will definitely know he’s leaving to Australia so, we had to do all this kind of thing.
Even mine, I didn’t give the office number. What’s the point? I’m giving payslip and everything.
You know facebook? We don’t even keep contact with anybody form Malaysia. Not even my dad.
Nobody from Sri Lanka.
So you just got your visa sorted and flew down?
We took the tourist visa. We came here.
NOTHING TO MAKE UP
“It’s okay. You know the life we had was different. The life we have now is different. ”
So how are things now? Better or worse?
Not better. We had our own place, we had our own things – everything was scheduled.
If anyone thinks we came here because of money purpose – it’s bullshit because we had money. We had good jobs. We had everything.
Because of our screwed luck, everything has been screwed.
You know, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, they’re coming to Australia, refugee, asylum seeker, coming for money. They open their doors for the refugees and blah and blah…’ For me, I will say, I’m not shy to tell anyone that I’m an asylum seeker.
If I was to say I’m an asylum seeker, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, when you came by boat?’ That’s the first thing in their mind. No-one thinks that they can come by plane.
We came with a tourist visa. The moment we came here, we applied for the protection visa. Went and paid and then we got our bridging. Within a month – exactly – we got our bridging visa.
So now you’re staying with your mother?
People who come here, I’m not blaming them. They have to make up story, happen like this. I got nothing to make up. Happen like this. Real problem.
“I just escaped. I didn’t have time to apply for student visa. I could come as a student to Australia if I wanted. But I didn’t want it. I wanted to stay and try to build a better country [in Iran] but I couldn’t.”
Running out of places to go
“I don’t have a country. Burma don’t take me as their people. Bangladesh is not taking me as their people. I don’t have anywhere I can say, ‘I’m from this country.’”