It would be 30 years to date on 5th September 1990, when 158 inmates were taken from the refugee camp at Vantharumoolai by Sri Lankan army which I was also compelled to be in. Search by the families had not gained any fruit except for the grant of the ‘certificate of missing’ to them by the government. Government had started “OMPs” many times and in many forms but have not had any significant results. Different terms are used at each time.
Transitional justice is the current fad. A recent meeting organized by the former Governor for Northern Province Dr Suren Raghavan too had the same result. He, a recent entrant to the game, was suggesting that they have blocked the time scales into different decades and they would start from the recent. Was it meant that the others (the earlier blocks of time) have been shelved? He also stated that doing the translations and documentations have taken a long time. Long seems very l..o..n..g. Too long. He also gave a scheme for a “1000 day plan” (another three years in reality). Perhaps we would have another government by that time to start again.
At that same meeting the Honorable Minister of Justice Mr Ali Sabry was explaining that many had though that these commissions would be abolished with the new government but it did not and the government is committed to the cause and continues with the OMP. Seems to be that the operation is a success but the patient dead, and it is a matter of your opinion from which side you look at.
I was the OIC of the Vantharumoolai refugee camp at the Eastern University at the time the army entered it. It had 10,000 families around 40,000 persons as inmates in September 1990 who had been there since July 1990. I was at the gates of Eastern University, unable to do anything, when all these people were loaded to the buses and zipped away towards Valaichchenai. Their ages ranged from 11 year to 56 years old sifted from the males paraded in front of around 10 “goni billas” (head covered) whose heads shook for them to be taken away.
This was reported to Major General Gerry de Siva (later army commander) who visited the camp on 8th and to members of the Munasinghe commission later that week. These facts with names of those who were arrested and those Army officers who were present at the ‘round up’ was submitted to the Presidential commission lead by Mr Palakidnar. These are reported in black and white in the commission report and had been endorsed by the Presidential commission of inquiries.
I am not aware of any of the officers being inquired to ascertain the truth of the missing and their fate. Even now the families prays from their return in hope. Many of those who complained have been buried themselves over the 30 year period and it is the next generation that leads the search now. It is like Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali where he portrays the children, they empty the sea (take water from the sea) on the beach with shells and may not have any intention of draining the sea, but they continue tireless. Will these kith and kin of the missing find an answer one day?
Recently, I see with a heavy heart born of bitter experience, the same in the Easter Sunday Bombings. There is blame …blame on every one but none seem to be making any progress. Recently there had been news that there will be a special court for the hearing soon and I sincerely wish that it would not have the fate of the presidential commissions and of the OMP in our case.
The venerable Buddhist clergy who was at the OMP meeting was suggesting that we should seek for a general apology from the government and grant a general forgiveness to all and take life ahead as brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. The relatives of the missing have not asked for millions and even punishment for those responsible but wanted the truth only and this was explained clearly to the more recent Presidential commission which visited Batticaloa recently (five years ago). One lady said, if I know the truth then I will complete the rituals and go on with my life but this is torture not knowing of the status of my husband for decades and I do not want to lose hope instead.
Is it not enough evidence from the Presidential commission to further seek the truth and provide relief to the people? It has been the same all over like the LLRC commission which had a high profile in starting but the implementation of its recommendations faces issues… issues and issues…
It does not seem that the government is serious in the OMP producing relief at least knowing the truth or that they know the truth and would not like to have it declared. I say this from following one case for 30 years and none adds up. When the next commission comes to look at the Eastern University case of missing persons, I do not think there would be any witness but those of the third generation who would relate the stories of their grandparents to the ‘grand children’ committees who would look at them mechanically and probably conclude that any relief is not possible as truth cannot be established for those charges cannot be verified. However history has many examples that the truth catches up with all in time and we see across the world countries claiming for ‘wrong doings’ in history. I wish we do not subscribe to that but to more noble ‘confessions’ which all local religions preach.
Unfortunately, I only hear ‘Reparation’ (even to all claimants without verifications) and ‘avoid in future’ at the OMP and never the word TRUTH which is fundamental. Alternatively I only heard ‘TRUTH’ as a need from the families of the missing persons. May be it will be another 30 years for Truth and Reparation to meet! It was the great leadership and honesty that led the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ of South Africa which dealt with the issues of almost a century. It was the great leadership and honesty that led to reconciliation in South Africa which may be too much to ask in Sri Lanka. But the development what had been seen in South Africa thereafter is so high and would also be too far from us, realistically. It may be too much to ask in Sri Lanka.
*The Author is a Retired Professor of Botany and Former Vice Chancellor of Eastern University and was the Officer in Charge of the Eastern University Refugee camps at vanthrumoolai in 1990.