18th April 1999
Who weeps for the fishermen?
By Frederica Jansz
Her comely face etched in anguish and tears coursing down her cheeks, twenty-six- year- old Lakshmi, in a trembling voice detailed yet another tragedy of this endless conflict- that of the missing fishermen.
Carrying her three year old daughter, Lakshmi said how her husband Sujith went missing two years ago, in April while deep sea fishing off the waters at Trincomalee.
The dawn of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year brought no relief or happiness to Lakshmi and her three children.
Her seven -year-old son Shulan and six year old daughter fought hard to control their grief as they partook the first meal at the auspicious time. They kept asking why their father was not present.
"He has gone abroad," Lakshmi said while disbelief was written on the faces of the older two, who were puzzled as to why there were no letters or "nice things" sent from abroad.
Lakshmi and her children, from the deep south live at Gandara, in Matara.
Saying her family receives no relief from the Government since her husband went missing, Lakshmi even measured the distance of her home from Matara by the amount it costs by bus."It is four rupees," she said.
Lakshmi waited 20 days after her husband left, before raising the alarm that he had not returned together with the rest of the crew.
Her husband, T H Sujith had been among a five-member crew on "Rumesh Putha" that went missing on April 27 1997.
Yet another boat "Deshan Putha" with a four-member crew also from Gandara, had gone missing the same day.
This boat too had been deep sea fishing off the waters at Trincomalee.
About 20 deep-sea fishing boats and over 80 fishermen are missing from the southern coast of Devinuwara and Gandara.
Most of the boats are believed to have been intercepted and captured by the LTTE whilst fishing off the East coast.
At least seven of these boats went missing this year.On March 7 this year, a crew of five went missing at Mullaitivu.
"Titus 2" had left Devinuwara with Jayathissa Lathula as skipper.
This boat is alleged to have been captured by the LTTE around 5.30 p.m. on March 7, according to radio reports from the skipper. A nearby boat in radio contact with "Titus 2" was heard asking the boat to stop, as it did not have sufficient speed to escape the high speed vessel close on its tail.
Before losing radio contact yet another message from "Titus 2" said that the crew of "Mariamma" speaking in Tamil had tossed a rope into their boat.
A gloom has now settled over the fishing villages of Devinuwara and Gandara, as not one but more than 80 fishermen have gone missing without a trace over the last two years.
All in their late twenties, these young fishermen have left behind equally young wives and little children who gaze at the sea trying to comprehend what could have befallen their husbands and fathers.
Only tales of disjointed radio messages, which tell of LTTE attacks are what some of these families have to go by.
In February this year,'Deepa 3' left Devinuwara and was attacked by an unknown vessel on March 6, off the seas at Mullaitivu.
Deepa 3 was in radio contact with other deep-sea boats when it apparently came into contact with a large ship.
This large vessel apparently asked them to surrender, after which the man at the radio was heard to describe a vessel with a blue stripe on the hull and a white cabin following their boat.
He was suddenly heard to utter a fateful "Buddhu Ammay" and gun shots were heard before the line went dead.
During the attack one boat was apparently captured while four others were reported lost.
All these fishing boats had left from Trincomalee.
There were four crew members on board "Deepa 3" whose whereabouts are not yet known. On February 17, another boat "Sujith" also from Devinuwara went missing off Trincomalee with a four member crew on board.
A day later "Dulaj Putha" suffered the same fate with five on board.
This boat too had left Trincomalee that day. In this instance pieces of the boat and some dead fish still in its net were later found by other fishing boats in the area.
But the crew is still missing.
Six days later on the 24th, "Samaya" with four crew on board experienced mechanical problems and had been unable to report to port.
On March 5, the Navy reported that a fishing boat had been seen adrift at Karainagar.
Two Navy patrols were sent to investigate, along with two fishing boats, but found no crew on board.
Siril Nanayakkara, Priyantha, D. Y. Chandrasena and D. K. Chitrananda (skipper) who made up the crew on the "Samaya" have all disappeared without a trace.
On March 1 again off the seas at Trincomalee P. B. Ajith Kumara, Dilan Devapriya, Nishantha Lal and Balage Bandulasena of "Tharangi No. 79" went missing.
The "Asanka Putha" with a crew of four disappeared after having left Trincomalee in February last year.
It is suspected the boat together with the crew was inercepted by the LTTE off the coast at Mullaitivu.
To date there is no trace of their whereabouts. A month later the "Madhu Kumari" followed suit after having left Trincomalee with a crew of four on board.
It is suspected that this boat too met the same fate.
On September 24 that year, the "Chanputha" vanished.
It had a crew of four on board. On October 11 last year the "Rani Putha" went missing with R. P. Thilakaratne and others on board.
The "Lakmali Duwa" went missing after it left Tangalle in December 1997. There have been no reports of arrest in the Maldives or India and the whereabouts of the crew and the boat remain unknown.
It was in the same year the "Deshan Putha" the "Rumesh Putha" and "Jeggaya" all with a minimum crew of four each, disappeared without a trace.
As far back as April 1991 the "Redson" with a crew of eight was taken captive apparently by the LTTE. Several fishing boats were captured near Sampur light house in this attack.
Some who escaped reported that the crew of "Redson" were taken into the jungle by the LTTE. A subsequent search by the Navy and Police in the area found a pair of shorts belonging to Albert, a crew member on board.
The Sunday Times was told that the Sri Lanka Navy have demarcated boundaries for deep sea fishing but often the local fishermen stray.
Apart from the Northern and Eastern waters, boundaries have also been demarcated for security reasons where fishing boats cannot sail on the waters from Wellawatte to Modera.
Minister for Fisheries, Mahinda Rajapakse told The Sunday Times that despite these precautions fishermen continue to stray into uncontrolled territory.(see box) The Sunday Times was told by the Ministry that since January this year nine deep-sea fishing boats have gone missing.
Each boat had a crew of at least four, and none have been found yet.
Sunil Sarath Perera, Director, Monitoring and Surveillance, Ministry for Fishery and Aquatic Resources, said only the pieces of one boat, the Dulaj Putha was found.
He said on March 7 this year, a distress radio message from "Titus 2" was picked up by radio rooms set up by the Fisheries Ministry. "We heard them saying a vessel named "Mariamma" was chasing them. Soon after, the line went dead.
A search for the boat and the fishermen was fruitless," he said.
Mr. Perera said of these nine boats, three are from Devinuwara and the rest from Trincomalee.
He said many of these boats do not have radio equipment which leaves them vulnerable during an emergency situation.
He said the Ministry is working on issuing radio licenses to all deep sea fishermen that will lend them access to communication equipment. Three new radio communication rooms which will help assist local fishermen are to be set up at Kirinde, Mirissa and Trincomalee.
At present there are eight radio stations in the South-Kalpitiya, Wennappuwa and Negombo.
The Ministry for Fisheries has also negotiated with the Maldives for local fishing vessels to bypass Maldivian waters provided the skipper informs them 40 hours prior to departure, giving all details of the boat and its crew.
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