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Surprisingly, the most difficult interviews we conducted were not the stories of torture at the end of the conflict at the hands of the government soldiers. Although it was difficult to listen to detailed accounts of being hanged upside down, burned with cigarettes and electric wire, many reports of sexual violence, and weeks of solitary confinement in dark cells, the harder stories focused on seeking asylum in the UK. The process of seeking asylum for an individual whose life is in serious jeopardy if he or she fails the process and is returned to his or her country is deeply problematic. One testimony of a young man we recorded, who had failed the asylum process and was being returned to Sri Lanka, made a deep impression on me. The individual jumped off a balcony with a sheet around his neck but failed to kill himself, ending up in the hospital with a twisted spine. The sheer desperation of returning to further torture and potential problems for family members led this educated, fit, and healthy twenty-seven-year-old to try and take his own life. The long and inhumane process of seeking asylum, of not being able to progress with life, forever waiting with a question mark of being sent back, is a mental torture that many individuals find too much to bear. The story I wanted to tell is not so much about conflict but more about the rippling effects that conflict has on families that can last for years, even generations. Respondents whom we have worked with have found the process of developing The Vanni therapeutic, and everyone involved has been supportive. Firstly, they are happy that someone actually cares about their underreported stories; and secondly, because of the medium of sequential art, the stories are completely anonymous. By positioning the protagonist, Antoni, as an asylum seeker in London, I hoped that a Western audience would identify more with his character as someone they sit next to on the bus, rather than a refugee in a jungle on the other side of the world. Presenting The Vanni as a graphic novel has attracted the attention from various organizations, so we developed a company called PositiveNegatives Ltd that develops affective communications through sequential art and multimedia. We are now producing a project on Somali migrant communities in Europe for the Open Society Foundation, and I’m currently collecting stories in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan for an illustrated project for the BBC.

Harvard South Asia Institute 53

Health and South Asia  

Harvard South Asia Institute's inaugural publication about health. Released January 2014.

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