20 October, 2017

The Unknown Fate Of Thousands In Sri Lanka

By Leena Manimekalai

Leena Manimekalai

By the wayside: This wreath/ with no name attached /is for you/who has no grave/ As the place of earth/ which embraced you/ could not be found/this wreath was placed by the wayside/Forgive me/ for placing a memorial for you/ by the roadside

writes Basil Fernando about the memorial constructed by families of disappeared  at Radoluwa Junction in Seeduwa, a town near the city of Negombo, Srilanka.  When I visited the memorial with lingering faces of the disappeared, it signified an important attempt to keep the memories alive, a yearning to prevent recurrence of mass disappearances and seek justice on behalf of the victims of disappearances and their families. Sri Lanka which has a deep and complex history of political violence is struggling to redeem the past with a frozen present and a black hole future. Communal riots, political assassinations and ethnic conflict have been an element of the socio political landscape of this tear nation for more than a century. Two heads of State, dozen national political leaders and numerous regional and local politicians, journalists, activists and artists have been assassinated by groups representing virtually every shade of political spectrum. Srilankan State deploys disappearances and extra judicial killings as an instrument of public policy in the name of State Emergencies, Prevention of Terrorism Act, Dubbing of persons as terrorists, unpatriotic, enemies of state. Brutal suppressions of two armed insurrections in the Sinhala South in 1971-72, 1987-89 led by Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) and an armed Tamil Separatist Movement  since 1970s led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in the Tamil North and East of the island had spotted Srilankan State guilty of horrific human rights abuses. Now the Nation is the world leader in number of disappeared crossing tens of thousands who have no date of death, no place of death, no body, and no grave or funeral rites. Obviously there is no shelling, no bombing in the island since 2009 and the State wants the world to believe that war is over but who will bring peace to the families who continue to lose their members to State Terror and also been denied their basic right to even open their mouth about the injustice.

What do you demand your government regarding your missing son? I asked Ilangairathinam of Iranapalai village near Mullivaickal, who is the mother of four children and whose elder son is missing since 2009. Her husband is paralysed by the shelling during the last phase of war in 2009 and she carries a piece of a bombshell in her chest, which is medically impossible to remove. Her daughter’s school got interrupted because of war and lack of finances did not let her continue. One of her son’s legs is amputated out of a shell attack and the other son is reportedly abnormal in his mental status, post war. Apparently the family lives in rambles with small maintenance money given by the government and the daily wages the mother is able to earn out of a cook’s job in the local school. She did not answer my question and gave me a cold look. I was clueless. My question might have been ridiculous in the hapless state she is currently in. Her son was forcefully recruited by LTTE in 2008 and sent to the warfront, where he ultimately surrendered to the army and there is no news after that. Mother is been searching all the detention camps and prisons and check posts and NGO offices and police stations and state offices  since her family relocated to their village after the horrendous displacement route from Iranapalai to Mullivaickal to Nandhikadal and then to Vavuniya camps since December 2008 for almost a year. Did her smile indicate the terror she is still captivated with, that never left her even after all these years? Or did she think that asking the government for anything was a useless exercise? Or she has lost hope in anything and everything? Or she wondered what will bring her by sharing her story with me?

I have read about disappearances, forced abductions, white van stories, detentions, killing and torture and my knowledge about it is only through news reports, literature and articles. My visit to the monument of the disappeared started haunting me and I had a strong calling on knowing more about the stories behind the photographs.  I wondered who want their loved ones to be a bronze or marble plaque at the end of the day. I had night mares about the trauma of mothers they would go through every day with all the wildest imaginations about their sons and daughters in camps and prisons or such dodgy places. I was intrigued to know how it is like for the families of the disappeared to lose a loved one under such horrendous circumstances. I wanted to know their fears, thoughts and their dreams of hope.

Vini, the mother of five children in Pesalai, Mannar sold the boat her husband had owned, to meet up with her emergency financial needs. She has no clues about why her husband was forcefully taken by Army in front of her eyes and whole family and people in the village being witness to it. She insists to show her, her husband and she doesn’t mind even if he is in prison undergoing the cruellest of punishments. She just wants to know if he is alive. She is struggling hard to save her sanity amidst newspaper reports about floating bodies of the disappeared down rivers, laid upon roads, burnt with tyres, exhibited beheaded in public, naked with bottles in their genitals and similar gruesome acts. Her children live with the barest of essentials and her inability to feed her children three meals is the most humiliating emotion she goes through. As the interview transpired, I could see how determined is she to have her husband alive in her memories and continue to believe that they will be reunited soon. Her eldest daughter showing symptoms of withdrawal and mental depression never leaves her room, while the second to elder most daughters has written notebooks of letters to her missing father. Vini has stopped her teenage son from school, fearing of any abduction.  She comes across the navy officials who took his husband away, every day in her village sentry points but they neither reveal any news nor engage legal complaints.

While the fate of the highest leadership of LTTE who surrendered in the last phase of the war faced the worst war crimes by the army such as brutal mass murders , few of the second level leadership detained in prison are found missing while in custody. Worst affected are the low level LTTE cadres. Immediately after the war ended in May 2009, the government began announcing in the IDP camps that anyone who had spent “even a minute” with the LTTE should surrender themselves to the Army. Fearing that worse would happen to them if they refused to surrender and were found out later, 11,982 Tamils surrendered. These were the ones who underwent worst of torture, disappearances and extra judicial killings. I met mothers and sisters of some young people who were forcibly recruited and spent only a few days or months with the LTTE were arbitrarily detained and found missing or reported brutally dead later in the newspapers. There were several other stories of individuals disappearing who had no field participation, but had been forced to work for a few months in the kitchen or building bunkers who then surrendered to army. Mothers from Mannar to Mullaitheevu, the area boxed in 2009 for ethnic cleansing repeatedly told me that, when the government detains their sons and daughters who were low-level cadres while reintegrating some of the LTTE’s most prominent leadership, it serves as a double betrayal – first, by the LTTE who forced civilians to fight for them, and second, by the government who is punishing those very same civilians with lengthy detentions and sham trials.

Initially, I was worried about my whole attempt of meeting and interviewing people will be prying into painful memories.  I was repeatedly cautioned that some of the families were wary of revealing information and sharing their story as they were still afraid. But I was moved by the warm welcome and smiles. I was offered tea and biscuits and it looked so alright with their welcoming gestures. But the moment, I started asking questions, there will be killing silence. Suddenly darkness creep in like it will swallow everyone and everything around. Then they will slowly unravel about their sleepless nights, mental agony and endless journeys in search of a son, daughter, husband, father or a brother. The heart wrenching voices I heard made me weep for hours and their tears swell in my memories. Though few of them openly admitted that having a heart pour helps their healing, I was awed by the sense of trust they develop with strangers like me while there is utter mistrust been built by the dirty war and aftermath, even with their own folks and neighbours. When a mother showed lungis and the purse of his son preserved in a box while they do not even have a roof to live under and when a mother shared with me how she still serves food in her daughter’s plate while serving meal to her family and when I met a father who became clinically obsessed with astrology spending all his time tracing his daughter, I could not stop myself shivering to the pages of deepest human emotions.

When I pursued with my questions on why religious and civil society leaders are silent about this human trial, I came to know that they met the same fate as that of the disappeared whenever they dared to speak out. Most of the affected do not know where to go and whom to ask justice when the State itself has given a free rein to the custodians of law to break the law. But still few of the families dared to appeal and fight their legal struggles. And they have their due of enforcement officials often visiting them, forcing them to accept death certificates and some paltry compensation. Families said they could not assess the value of their loved one in monetary terms and I met a mother who refused to accept certificate and money but demanded her right to the corpse of her son to fulfil the last rites. My understanding is disappearances caused by state sponsorship are the most difficult human right violation forms in getting redress. Impunity would be the order of the day when the State itself is involved in these heinous crimes.

My deepest experience is the day I spent with the mothers and fathers of the dead found in Mathalai Mass graves, discovered during last December(2012) with 115 bodies. Forensic reports declared that the bodies belong to the year 1989 to 1991. Families, searching for their wards who were believed disappearing for decades together, now appeal in the courts to find out if the mass graves had their sons or daughter’s dead bodies.  As I had mentioned earlier, large scale mass murders were made in the late eighties and the disappearances were explained as a consequence of a civil conflict between a group of insurgents known as Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) or People Liberation Front and the security forces. JVP was declared one of the instigators of the July 1983 riots against Tamils in the north(while the gravest 83 riots was a state sponsored pogram against Tamils) and is been forced underground and hunted down by what is called as State’s war against dissent. Irony is Sinhala JVP in the south and the Tamil LTTE in the north and east developed modes of brutal retaliations in terms of militancy. So, the State used it in its propaganda to disguise the extensive violence perpetrated by State in crushing them. And all the time, civilians were bombed, killed and butchered in the process. Fact is, in the name of dealing militancy, the Executive President of the State whoever held the position erased political opposition through the years with the help of draconian laws and military powers resulting in an unquestionable authoritarian regime. When I discussed with intellectuals who are still left alive in the island, they spared that the truth is in Lanka, there is no conceptual framework existing to resolve any of the major issues, including the issue of ethnicity. And looking for an isolated solution to the ethnic crisis is a constitutional illusion and the tragedy is that people paid in blood in life in history for such illusions.

The grim fact is number of disappearances in Lanka according to official records is nearing thirty thousands and out of this 15 percent are below the age of 19. Sadly many families today believe that the disappearances would continue in the island. The politicians, army officers and policemen who are responsible for the disappearances starting from 1980’s are still politicians with more power and the army officers and police now hold more powerful posts than the posts they held before. And the fear psyche still encompasses the landscape. War is still alive and kicking in the form of silencing and militarisation. Listening to stories of suffering, it is easy for anyone to lose hope in humanity. Families of the disappeared have remembered those no longer with them by seeking to reform a system rooted in violence, impunity and fear that robbed them forever of their loved ones. Their pain can never be erased but that’s the very important one to be transferred to the hearts of every decent citizen who can act against the State executing the gravest of crimes. At some stage national and international conscience, if there is such thing remaining, should prove capable of responding to their pain. I was in Jaffna when families of the disappeared gathered on July 27th behind Jaffna Library, craving Ms. Navi Pillai , the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s attention.  I was lost in tears and I felt my camera so powerless before the portraits of the missing mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and sons and daughters, their beloved were holding as deepest wounds caught in between frames. Ms. Navi Pillay did not meet them in Jaffna but in Colombo subsequently on august 30th. I sighed when I heard her saying “It is important everyone realizes that, although the fighting is over, the suffering is not. I have been extremely moved by the profound trauma I have seen among the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors, in all the places I have visited, as well as by their resilience. Wounds will not heal and reconciliation will not happen, without respect for those who grieve, and remembrance for the tens of thousands of Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and others who have been missing in the battlefield, in buses, on the street, in detention, or by forced abduction”

*Leena Manimekalai – Filmmaker, Poet could be reached at leenamanimekalai@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Thanks Leena for your article.
    Who tortured and killed this person in this article ? http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/05/hrw_releases_photo_evidence_of.html
    Who is this person? What happened to his body?

  • 0
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    History has shown us that dictatorships and despots dont last forever and neither do empires or dynasties. Hitlers thousand year Reich lasted a mere twelve years while communism was dismantled after around seventy years. The violent deaths of Saddam, Gaddafi, Prabahakaran, Bin Ladan and countless other terrorists and state terrorists has proven that nothing is permanent. One day the ruling family in this country too will get the fate they deserve…so until then have patience and faith. Justice will be done someday.

    • 0
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      Wow Pinochet reigned until he became too old. Saudi wre dictators as long as they oil and look after only what is theirs. the day try to expand they will be vanished.

      Saddam Hussein did not fulfill the US agenda. But he was US’s chosen man.

      Why do they want MUBARAK back again ? Do you think things will be as rosy as before ?

  • 0
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    This lady has talked to Maaveerar families. but, what she is writes is something else.

    those Tamils expected the Peelam to be a reality and moved with LTTE. Some Tamils, because they were maaveerar families and they expected luxury lived after winning the peelam,moved from govt controlled Jaffna to Wanni in order to be with LTTE.

    Now, these people gives a different identity to them.

    It is what Tamils did to tamils just came back.

    • 0
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      Totally agreed they fully supported LTTE to have mythical Peelam, and they sacrificed their life for that , now blame government for killing their loved terrorist , If Prabakaran’s wife alive she will go UN and tell Government put axe mark on my innocent husband forehead.

  • 0
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    They have either gone to Australia by boat or not reached Australia.

    More and more Tamils will be LOST this way. Without a trace!

    Good strategy by people smugglers.

    • 0
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      Fathima Fukshima:
      Is Jim Nutty licking your a__ h___ while you type comments?

    • 0
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      The Converted Christian and half Jew Jim, kk the black klu klux and the ever lasting who Fuk u Shima are all Thugs employed by MR to enforce Law and Order and continue the hate message. But fortunately we wont hear their voices after the elections to the Northern Assembly.

      Even Banki Bloody Moon has changed his tune and starting to admit that the UN ( on a payment of Bribe) allowed MR to get away with crimes against humanity. That means action at the next session of the UN

  • 0
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    I met these missing in France

    • 0
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      You are right that is what you CJ said about many missing Sinhalese.
      But they have all using Tamil names have successfully claimed asylum
      in the West

  • 0
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    Hello Leena,

    Do not be put off by comments from persons such as Jim Softly and Fathima Fukushima. They are paid agents of the Sri Lankan elite who are reaping bountiful harvests from the fields of despondency and tyranny.

    The tragedy for Sri Lanka is the fateful acceptance that tyranny is the price that they have to pay for the deliverance of the country from the equally brutal LTTE. Navi Pillay underestimated the situation when she said “Sri Lanka is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” Totalitarianism is here and now. My advice to you Leena is not to upset the apple cart in Sri Lanka. The white van may come your way – and one additional number to the tens of thousands who have disappeared makes no difference to those in power.

  • 0
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    You have an ancient name that stood and fought for justice Ms Manimekalai. What you may not have realised is that you visited
    a Failed Society – in its distilled form. It is because the earlier splendid Police system finds itself destroyed that complaints of families that lost their loved ones – dead or missing – are refused to be taken or, even in the few instances, they are taken – not acted upon. This was earlier the norm for Tamils – but it is now affecting the Sinhalese too, unsurprisingly. As to the many instances of degrading and gross HR violations you heard of or were witness to, that is because the utterly disproportionate army in the Tamil North. It is estimated there is a soldier or policeman for every 4 civilians today. These uniformed “men” take the Tamils for granted and dismiss complaints in their insistance “the subjugated Tamils do not matter anymore” By this it is meant HR rights do not apply to them. Do you know any country in the region whose Police refuse to take complaints down from the public. This is why I describe them as a Failed Society.

    But this shared punishment of the Tamils must come to an end – sooner than later. Tamils are an ancient race and have survived worst fates. That belief and that of in their deities are that makes the Lankan Tamils endure their imposed sufferings. Our hope is in the UN and a just world. In this regard our debt to India – and Tamilnadu, in particular – is eternal. That is our strongest instrument of protection and defence. You are not alone in your sincere tears for us when you say “I could not stop myself shivering to the pages of deepest human emotions” We are touched, my dear, by your kindness.

    The current Tamil Nation will be soon set free from their six decades of neglect, discrimination, horror and injustice. As you see, the Rajapakses, through their sheer short-sightedness and thievery – aided by their savage army and racial and un-Buddhistic clergy – ensure the final break inevitable. Please rest assured this is not something between the decent majority Sinhalese and the Tamil Nation. It is one between a smaller of Sinhala degenerates in the regime, the army and the clergy. There were better Buddhists in the old undivided Lanka-Tamil India such as the historical Manimekalai, whose namesake you are, who eventually became a devoted Bhikkuni in those days when Buddhism was at its height in Tamilnadu. We respect good Buddhism today as we did then.

    Nettabomman

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    Dear Leena Manimekalai –

    “writes Basil Fernando about the memorial constructed by families of disappeared at Radoluwa Junction in Seeduwa, a town near the city of Negombo, Srilanka. …Communal riots, political assassinations and ethnic conflict have been an element of the socio political landscape of this tear nation for more than a century”

    Well, Sri Lanka is Sinhala Theraveda Buddist Country.

    In Buddhism, there is Sansara, Rebirth, and then Nirvana= Nibbana = Extinction= Disappearance.

    So it is the Sri Lanka Buddhist Way of Life, Courtesy of the Third Gem, the Sangha. One monk burned himself to disappear, a former prime minister was shot by a monk so that he would disappear after cremation.

    So that purpose of Buddhist life is to disappear= Nibbana = Extinction.

    Then you are saved from the cycle of rebirth.

    Read the Tipitaka.

  • 0
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    “The politicians, army officers and policemen who are responsible for the disappearances starting from 1980’s …. … “. No mention of genocidal, racist LTTE terrorists in that list! No mention of Tamil politicians who advocated separatism with armed violence.

    Who should we cry for? Those who glorified war and took up arms to kill innocent civilians or the killers who perished in the process? The writer needs to have her faculties examined!

    • 0
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      Lal You moron,

      Cry for thousands of Tamils you slaughtered since independence. But that is soon to end after the Elections for the Northern Assembly. Except for those who chose to remain in Sinhala South.

  • 0
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    This article sites, for the most part uncorroborated, anecdotes and grossly generalises them to promote the typically subversive agenda of the author. Its a clever trick, almost poetic ;) I might add. Nevertheless, its just another grand exercise in duplicity. But I guess, this is the staple diet of the the milk sop puppies who call themselves “liberals” and “free thinkers” in Colombo.

    Its a little tedious wading through all the manure, but I will draw attention to the following:

    Fearing that worse would happen to them if they refused to surrender and were found out later, 11,982 Tamils surrendered. These were the ones who underwent worst of torture, disappearances and extra judicial killings.

    This is preposterous. For all its flaws and lack of transparency, the Government’s rehabilitation program has been transparent and altogether commendable. The rehabilitation of those 12,000 adults and 600 odd child soldiers were very well documented. Information on rehabilitation can be found all over the local news papers over the past couple of years. Don’t take my word for this, go to bcgr.gov.lk and check under archives.

    Far cry from being brutalized by the government, these people were well taken care of and are now returning to society, with many of the child soldiers now in school or Uni. I’ll put down one statistic, the government has apparently spent 2.5 billion on rehabilitation. I find it quite strange that the government spent that kind of money on the people who were subjected to the ‘worst torture’. If you go through old news archives there is a lot more evidence support my point.

    So please, stop with the bullshit!

  • 0
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    Very incomplete and biased article. As a poet, she can exaggerate and lie in romantic matters, but when States are concerned, she should be accurate in accounting. After meeting five or ten families of ex-tigers she is trying to paint a picture internationally that in Sri Lanka every Tamil is tortured and killed. Her generalization that the tigers who surrendered were mass murdered contrasts to the fact that over 10,000 of them were rehabilitated and reintegrated into the society. These bankrupt Tamil Nadu psychos are still trying to make a living through Sri Lanka issue. They never look at positive sides. If so much State terror and impunity prevail in Sri Lanka, how did she manage to visit the North with a camera and write like this? Can a Sri Lankan visit Kashmir like this and interview the families?

    • 0
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      No wonder you are getting it from BBS. You deserve every bit and much more. No Halal no Extremism and they are right you know as they no you much better than us because you are Thoppy Piratty

  • 0
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    Anpu,
    War is a cruel business and killing and torture are part of the job description. No army in this world will treat its captives with biscuits and tea atleast until they get the beans spilled and satisfied there’s no more. It is true for Sinhala army against Sinhala,Sinhala army Against Tamil,Tamil army against Sinhala or Tamil army against Tamil.
    It is vital that they do it as theirs,their colleagues and ordinary citizens lives are at stake.
    Rules of war and all that sort are for the victors to sort out later. The armies of rich and powerful countries never care for these rules anyway and they are there only to punish poor countries who get out of line.
    But it is important that they do it strictly for the afore said purpose only and the only army so far that do this for fun is the devils army of the US of A.

    • 0
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      Very correct. The answer is not to start a war. The aggressor is responsible for what follows.

      I am curios to know whether Manimekhala (named after a revered Buddhist disciple)_made the same complaint on the atrocities committed by the IPKF.

      • 0
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        Is Vichara aware over 1,000 Indian soldiers laid their lives in
        their solicited mis-adventure here to save the popularly-elected JRJ Govt in 1987 from two separate serious insurrections in two different parts of the country. Equally, Indian troops came here
        and protected the airport and offered safety to the much scared
        Mrs. B (more from the Chinese, North Koreans than the JVP) in 1971. An influential Deputy Minister at that time Ratne Deshapriya Senanayake had to fly and seek asylum in Peking then where he remained for many years. To whom should the Indians lodge their complaints for Sri Lanka’s perfidious action.

        Backlash

  • 0
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    They have either gone to Australia by boat or not reached Australia.

    More and more Tamils will be LOST this way. Without a trace!

    Good strategy for people smugglers. Without a trace. No war crimes evidence!!

  • 0
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    You sound very desperate for an encounter with the Sinhala Race.
    If you ask BBS might be prepared to Fuk U Shima provided you wash yourself in Acid and get rid of the Halal Stench

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