As barking strays announce our arrival at her humble home within a cadjan-fenced compound, she greets us with a smile tinged with sadness and an anxious question that she has asked and will keep asking any visitor who comes by. “Do you have news of my sons?” Although we are in the home of grey-haired [...]


The fate of their loved ones known only as “disappeared”

Families wait in vain with no answers after over 30 years of conflict

As barking strays announce our arrival at her humble home within a cadjan-fenced compound, she greets us with a smile tinged with sadness and an anxious question that she has asked and will keep asking any visitor who comes by.
“Do you have news of my sons?”

Although we are in the home of grey-haired Kumarini* in Chavakachcheri more than a month ago, this is also the agonised question being asked by numerous families across Sri Lanka about their loved ones for as long as 40 years or more. 

For Kumarini, who tosses and turns on her mat in her spartan cadjan-thatched home every night, no answers have been forthcoming. The world passes-by outside her home on the dusty by-roads, people hurrying to work and children to school, but her life and those closest to her are empty shells, bereft of contentment. There is only an overwhelming longing for voices not heard and glimpses of beloved faces not seen for a long while.

Will she carry her sorrow and anguish to her grave like many others, as the fate of loved ones is known only as “disappeared”.
Each heart-rending story about the disappeared is different, may be with regard to time, day, year and place, but at the same time hauntingly similar.

Life is at a standstill because a father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter has “disappeared”. In some cases it is not just one but a double blow on the families. These families attempt to go about their routines, but they too are “only half alive”. Deep within their very being, the uncertainty is slowly and surely taking a heavy toll, the Sunday Times understands.

All the stories we hear in Jaffna are echoes of what we have heard over the last 40 years – encompassing the first insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) of 1971 in the south of the country, followed by the ethnic conflict in the north and the east which had its beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the second JVP insurrection of 1988-89 in the south.
The insurrections and conflict have ended but the monumental issue of the disappeared comprising mostly men and some women, civilian and combatants, remains.

The vigil held in Colombo on August 30. Pic by Indika Handuwala

While 64-year-old widow, Pushparani*, is grappling with the trauma that comes with two “missing” sons, 60-year-old Kumarini is caught in a life of uncertainty over the fate of not only two of her sons but also a nephew.

Pushparani standing by her barred window in Jaffna town recalls how she had seen the name of her younger son on a list after the conflict ended. But visits to several areas in search of him have yielded only hardship, aggravated her sorrow and worsened the uncertainty. For Kumarini there has been only a family trail of death, disability and disappearances. Of her five sons, two have died in the conflict, one has lost his leg to a mine and the other two are missing.

The four women in Kumarini’s home – she lives with her aged and feeble mother, her daughter-in-law and her grand-daughter — are barely eking out a living and totally dependent on allowances and hand-outs. As smoke billows out not only through the cadjan-roof but also through their home, they have had only a little pittu leftover from the previous night with the remains of a brinjal curry that morning. With the three adults assailed by illness, Kumarini worries about her grand-daughter and her education. 

Neighbour Uma*, 34, who is visiting has her own tale of woe – her brother too is missing, while in Kondavil, Kamaladevi*, 55, has just brought her eight-year-old grandson back from school to a meagre meal. It’s her daughter-in-law who is missing. As grandmother and grandson lead an empty life, clinging to hope, their worldly possessions are in a few bundles, because their tiny home is on rent and they may have to leave it soon. Their economic status is obvious from the single crocodile-mouthed pair of shoes that the boy wears to school.

With not much money in hand and having taken her grandson under her wing, Kamaladevi’s future is bleak. The issue of the missing or the disappeared cuts across all religions, races and ethnicities, points out human rights activist Sherine Xavier, stressing that mothers and wives have the right to know where their sons and husbands are.

As Sri Lanka commemorated another International Day of the Disappeared on August 30 with a vigil at Independence Square, Colombo, Ms. Xavier has seen the anguish of women who, in tears, have told her that they are not ready to “kill” off their husbands by taking off their thali and wiping off their pottu. They are only seeking answers. 

If information is provided, these women can engage in the funeral rituals and let their loved ones go in peace. It is not justice that is being talked of, but humanism which goes beyond justice, she says. Ms. Xavier talks with emotion of another woman who wept and told her how every morning when she stares at her face in the mirror to place the bindhi (pottu), she asks herself whether she is worthy of it. “These women are alive, but not alive. They can’t live their lives. They too have feelings, wants and needs,” she says, adding that they have not only been persecuted by their loved ones being taken away, but society has also been allowed to persecute them, for they are at the butt end of stigma, etc.

Yes, the families, whether Hindu or Buddhist need to perform the rituals and give the alms-givings and at least in their minds lay to rest the person they have been weeping for. There is no need for finger-pointing; the need is for collective responsibility for the missing over the last 30-40 years, on the part of all leaders irrespective of their communities, is the view of many that the Sunday Times spoke to.

Here lies the crunch, another rights activist who wished to remain anonymous pointed out, because over the years Sri Lanka has had no “statespeople”. We have politicians but not statespeople who will take responsibility for all the actions of their institutions, whether positive or negative.

Some families have been awaiting information for 20-30 years. Is it fair, the activist asked, underscoring that the State has to provide the answers. It is the responsibility of the State as the guardian of the people to find those answers, whoever the perpetrators may have been. 

From 1971 up to now there have been “waves of missing people” but over the years no lessons have been learnt, reiterates Visaka Dharmadasa of the Parents of Servicemen Missing-in-Action. She herself still lives in hope that her missing son may walk in through the door at any time.

She puts the figure of the “missing” from 1971 up to now at around 68,000. This includes around 4,000 security forces personnel and about 12,000 missing civilians whose cases are unresolved, prior to 2002. 

There is a pattern in the way people go missing, according to Ms. Dharmadasa and she is frustrated that her group’s campaign to make abduction by itself a punishable offence has not made any headway. This is the legal remedy for people going missing, she says, adding that currently the punishable offence is if the abduction is with the intent to kill.

Lamenting about the unfortunate but “huge” issue of law and order that the country is facing today, which is “creeping into every segment of society”, she calls for a “chit” to be issued to kith and kin when the authorities take any person into custody from their homes, workplaces or elsewhere. 

Has anyone calculated how much it hurts the family when there is a missing person and how much it hurts the economy, asked Ms. Dharmadasa, adding that she is committed to working towards reducing and bringing to a halt “institutional disappearances” which are being used as a tool to intimidate and create a fear psychosis among a community.

Seeking action from President Mahinda Rajapaksa who himself, against all odds and challenges, took up the issue of the missing in Geneva a long time ago, she decries the “green Pajeros” and “white van” culture which has this country in its vice-like grip.

Very critical of the connotations of the verbal assault aimed at the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay by certain sections, she questioned what one could expect with regard to human rights of the people in such a scenario. She was also happy that they were able to meet Ms. Pillay on August 30 in Sri Lanka itself and “open out our hearts” to her.
The Dead and Missing Persons’ Parents’ Front, meanwhile, called for the appointment of a commission to investigate all atrocities committed during the 30-year war including those by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Spokesperson Ananda Jayamanne whose brother was in the Navy and went missing after a confrontation with the LTTE in 1996, said that the front has got 1,500 complaints from Jaffna, 700 from Kilinochchi, 1,000 from Batticaloa and 200 from Vavuniya, mostly from mothers and wives about missing persons. 

In the last 30 years, according to Mr. Jayamanne 3,569 soldiers, 448 from the Navy and 188 from the Air Force are missing, while between August 2001 and August 2005, the civilian number on record as missing is 899.

The plea of everyone, families of the missing as well as rights activists is that the leaders of all communities should take the collective responsibility of alleviating the agony of uncertainty.Their plea is: Give the families of the missing an answer, so that there is closure for this unbearable and festering wound of not knowing whether their loved one is alive or dead. 

(*Names have been changed to protect identities)

Commission to probe disappeared in 2nd Eelam War

Hopes have been raised once again of a lasting answer to the issue of the disappeared, with the appointment of a Commission on August 15 to inquire into the period from June 10, 1990 when the second Eelam War started to May 19, 2009 when the war ended.President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed Maxwell Parakrama Paranagama as Chairman of this three-member Commission which includes Dimingu Badathuruge Priyanthi Suranjana Vidyaratne and Mano Ramanathan.

The Commissioners have been tasked with inquiring into and reporting on:

  • whether any persons resident in the Northern and Eastern Provinces during this period have been abducted or have disappeared from their places of residence; 
  • evidence in proof of the fact that such persons have been abducted or have disappeared; 
  • who are those so abducted or have disappeared and their present whereabouts; 
  • cogent factors or evidence that would help form an idea about the person or persons responsible for the said abduction or disappearances; 
  • legal action that could be instituted against the person or persons who are found to be responsible; 
  • measures that should be taken to ensure that there will be no recurrence of such acts in the future; 
  • whether there is any reasonable relief to be granted as an obligation on the part of the Government to the parents, spouses and dependents of those alleged to have been so abducted or have disappeared.
HRC to inquire into missing persons after 2009
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) is inquiring into all the complaints received about missing people after 2009, said its Chairman Justice Priyantha Perera when contacted by the Sunday Times. 

When asked what the numbers were, he declined to comment, explaining that he needed to check with the 10 regional offices.
Referring to the missing persons before 2009, he said the HRC did not have access to any evidence as the area was under Prabhakaran then.

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