My visit to Puthukudiyiruppu today (11 March 2017) as the UNHRC debates Sri Lanka was coincidental. The Election Commission had received from Australia packages of books, pencils, pens and miscellaneous items for indigent refugee children and I took a boxful to the survivors at Puthukudiyiruppu. Through Rev. Fr. Joseph H. Jeyaceelan of the Jaffna diocese I identified Kunakunthammah, meaning the Virtuous Mother, that is the Virgin Mary. Her son-in-law John Bosco and daughter Dijana were running The John Education Center where about 250 children come after school for coaching in cadjanned classrooms. A good 30 of them were orphans with about 20 on scholarships and the remaining supported by their friends and relations.
What I found was a pious, apolitical family that has suffered immensely and yet remains cheerful, and grateful to God that they survived. The simple homely meal they served us was so tasty that I cannot forget it ever.
That they were apolitical is seen in Kunakunthammah Francis’ birth certificate name – Kunawardene, a name given to her by her father after his friend Kunawardene despite that being a male Sinhalese name. As trouble brewed, saying she needed a Tamil Catholic name, her name was changed to Kunakunthammah after Mary the Mother of Jesus.
It was a time when the army was raining shells on civilians and the desperate LTTE was keeping Tamils as hostages and forcing them to carry arms or serve in labor gangs. John Bosco therefore hid in the CARE office where he worked without going out for almost two years. The Tigers intensified their forced recruitment and press-ganging in Dec. 2007. However on 9 Nov. 2008 as he recalls, the government asked all INGOs to leave and he lost his hiding place. As he tried to move across to the government side, he was press-ganged by the Tigers for their labour force. His mother Ritammah got a nervous breakdown over being unable to get John back and then a heart attack and passed away. While cycling back, an army shell blew out John’s entrails on 27.03.2009. He had the presence of mind to push them back in and tie them in with a sarong. Bicycling away he lost consciousness. When he awoke, he was in a pile of bodies with three on top of him, given up for dead. From there he saw a girl who studied with him and called out to her before fainting again. He was found when he moved, rescued and now survives after four surgeries.
During the army’s wild and arbitrary shelling a shell fell on the shelter they had dug and six people died at once together on 09.02.2009 – John’s father Mathias Alles who had had a heart attack after hearing that john’s body had been taken away for disposal and died without knowing John was alive, John’s brother’s father-in-law Victor Gnanapragasam, and four other relations.
Kunakunthammah’s daughter Dimala was taken by the LTTE in 2008 while studying for the AL exams. She was aged 22. She was allowed to visit home for her father Mathias Alles’ funeral. The family found she had been tortured and mentally disturbed. At the time they were in Matalan waiting to cross to the government side but the Tigers caught her and took her away but brought her back three days later saying she had pneumonia. On the way to the ship carrying refugees she died. She was buried by the family at the beach without the required Christian funeral rites.
There had been only seven priests serving the large Roman Catholic population. Father Michael Joseph Francis, former Rector of St. Patrick’s College whom I knew, had led a band of sixty regional LTTE commanders to surrender during the last days. The army had asked him to help write down all the ir names for the army. At the end, he too was asked to join the 60 in a bus in which they were taken. He was never heard of again, nor the 60 who surrendered. Father Sarath Jheevan was badly malnourished after pastoring his flock in the Vanni where according to Red Cross workers the government deliberately starved the population. When he surrendered he was punched in the chest by a soldier. He walked a few paces and fell dead according to Fr. Jayaceelan. The remaining five survive.
John, his wife and child were given passage out on an ICRC ship and sent to Vavuniya because of his injuries. Kunakunthammah without papers was moving from camp to camp. The others were locked up for a year by the government behind barbed wire fences and then released. They returned to find their houses fully flattened by bombs.
After seeing this experience, Kunakunthammah Francis lost her faith in God. She kept away from Church. Then Father Jeyaceelan discovered her at the Chettikulam Ramanathan Camp and brought her back to God. Now she says nothing can keep her away from God and His Church.
If the President is truly ignorant of what our army did to Tamils, he merely needs to ask the SSO (I believe for Social Service Officer) under each Divisional Secretary. They know all the sordid details.
What happened is a crime against humanity. Kunakunthammah and family were noncombatant civilians. They were Sri Lankans to whom was owed the protection of the state. Instead, our government murdered them all.
Our government cosponsored a resolution at the UNHRC in 2015 promising war crime tribunals that stressed the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators.
After doing nothing for two years, the government is now cosponsoring a new resolution calling for an extension of two years to “fully implement” measures that are “outstanding” from the 2015 UN resolution. However, locally the President and PM have promised that foreign judges will never be allowed and the President has boasted that he has the backbone to reject hybrid courts to try war crimes.
Clearly, the government’s intentions lack bona fides. The President is prevaricating locally and abroad in committing to fully implement outstanding measures which include war crimes tribunals; while at the same time making the statement that that “military commanders who led the successful campaign to crush separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 should not be humiliated by bringing them to court” (EconomyNext,17.10.2016). The government’s promises at UNHRC cannot be trusted.
No extension should be given by the UNHRC without concrete measures to force the government to honour its promises. It is time to refer our government to the International Criminal Court if it fails to give justice to the hundreds of Tamils like Kunakunthammah Francis who have suffered much.
Kunakunthammah confessed privately to my wife that she is scared of another war, and her only prayer is that her remaining child, a son, and two grandchildren should not see the carnage she has seen and not suffer the loss of dear ones as she has. The government owes it to her and many other mothers like her whom I saw protesting at the Killinichchi junction on my way back, to prosecute all soldiers who engaged in war crimes to the full extent of the law and mete out the punishments prescribed in law.