Brian and I stayed at the Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims for ten days. They may have been the longest ten days of our lives. At the time, the power grid in southern Tamil Nadu was a mess, ensuring that we had less than three hours of electricity per night. Without lights and running fans, we usually sat motionless in our beds most evenings, chatting occasionally as sweat poured off our brows. Whenever we got up to fetch water or go to the bathroom, we tripped over our excessively large suitcases, which lined the thick concrete walls of our compact room. And as we went to sleep each night, we reminded ourselves of one simple truth. This was a place that housed victims of rape, domestic violence, and severe police torture. And from September 9th to the 19th in 2012, People’s Watch’s RCTV was hosting two mildly overwhelmed Americans who wished for a space to call their own.
Last week, the Executive Committee of People’s Watch made the painful decision to close the RCTV. (However, calling it a “decision” requires a stretch of the imagination.) The center will be vacated by the end of the month.
Brian and I were stunned and deeply saddened when our mentor made the announcement. Yes, our time at the RCTV was a bit rocky. Yes, we lacked electricity and certain creature comforts that we had become used to in our lives. But in retrospect, we view our time at the center as an opportunity. We witnessed human rights work at its finest. The RCTV’s facilities and services were making a direct impact on the lives of people who stayed in rooms adjacent to our own. We got to know these residents, many of whom work and volunteer at People’s Watch. Their initial shyness (undoubtedly triggered by our foreignness) evolved into friendliness. As we found our footing in People’s Watch over the past six months, we’d like to think that this initial friendliness morphed once again. We’ve developed relationships.
Through our friends and colleagues, we heard stories. These were stories of former residents, some of who stayed in the center when it opened in the late 1990s. These stories were revered, almost as a form of history… almost as a form of RCTV folklore. There were stories of Balammal, who, like dozens of women in her district, was brutally gang raped by senior police officers of the Joint Special Task Force on border of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. After becoming the first woman to speak publically speak of this abuse, she sought refuge at the RCTV, fearing violent repercussions for her brave testimony. We heard stories of Kumar, a nine-year-old boy who was kidnapped by local thugs to prevent his parents from testifying in a murder case. After he was returned to his parents, they all moved from their village home to the RCTV, where People’s Watch staff found a school for Kumar and jobs for his parents. We know stories of Aruna, who, while divorcing her abusive husband, only asked for a place to lay her head at night and a hand to hold while in the courtroom. These were stories of lives saved and livelihoods rehabilitated. Stories of gratitude and stories of fear. Some stories were not conducive to happily-ever-afters. But each pointed to the power of the RCTV as both an institution for and symbol of human rights in Madurai. They showed that the RCTV wasn’t a building. It was a lifeline. It was a support system. It was a family.
I cannot go into all the specifics as to why People’s Watch has been forced to shut down the center. To give simplistic finance-related explanations – focusing on factors like the high costs of rent, electricity, and food for residents – would undermine the deep political pressures that People’s Watch faces.
I can, however, share one lesson that I’ve learned during my time here. Fighting on behalf of the vulnerable requires one to take on the powerful. When taking on the powerful, organizations, communities, and individuals risk severe retribution. Defending human rights is a daunting task. It can be painful and incredibly frustrating. And, especially in times like these, it can induce a profound sense of hopelessness.
Hopelessness is a terrible feeling. It’s one that I try to avoid. So I will continue to force optimism in this grave situation. I will hope that the unjust situation plaguing People’s Watch will end and that the RCTV will be reopened. I hope that within months, more residents can seek out medical care, psychological rehabilitation, and even an education through the RCTV’s services. I hope the center will continue to serve as a refuge and support system for victims of rape, domestic violence, and severe police torture.
And I hope that in the future, many overwhelmed Americans will have a chance to stay at the RCTV. After all, it’s a rare opportunity to see human rights work at its finest.
(The names of former RCTV residents have been changed and minor details of their stories omitted and to protect their identities.)