The last time I saw Sunila Abeysekera was almost three years ago, over breakfast on one of her very occasional visits to New York. Some people, myself included, were trying to talk her into applying for my old job at Human Rights Watch, a post I thought far too small for her. She politely demurred, in different terms: “My life is enough of a problem,” she said, “and the last thing I need in it is a large organization.” She talked about the dangers of having your work commodified and separated from the people it’s about – either by a bureaucracy, or by the kinds of personality cults that thrive around those who get called (as she was: often, unwillingly, and accurately) “heroes.” Both distract from the simple realities of the stories you try to tell, and the stories, she said, were what counted.
At the same time, she was at one of those points (they came quite frequently) where her life was in serious danger in Sri Lanka. People were threatened enough by the stories for which she was witness and messenger that they wanted to kill her. Her friends urged her to get out, and she herself said she needed a quiet place somewhere, to rest and think. She said that kind of thing much more often than she meant it. The resting part was something of which she was utterly incapable. She never did it, not till the very last.
Sunila died today, back in Colombo, at 61, after a long battle with cancer. I knew her much less well than many did, but I thought of her as a role model as well as friend. She was scholar, activist, intellectual, feminist, and listener. Others will have more and better things to say about her. I’ll just remember this: while always subordinating herself to the stories she had to tell – – horrible stories, many of them, about rape, torture, murder in the long Sri Lankan civil war – her passion for truth and her personal compassion were always part of them. Without being that kind of person, a kind you instantly recognize but can’t possibly describe, she would never have heard them, would never have won trust or become a witness. A lot of august philosophers these days write and theorize about the role of the witness in contemporary politics and ethics, but the writing was unnecessary as long as she was alive. You could point at Sunila, and understand.
I would say “rest in peace,” but wherever she is, she isn’t resting.