It takes a lot of courage to live in despair. Emotional despair gets even worse, when a loved one is dead or not to be found. Speaking about the latter,
Sri Lanka once had a record for the second highest number of missing persons as reported by the UN in a study done back in 1999. As the war became tense, the numbers increased and by 2016 the number has exceeded 65,000 persons.
Many of the disappearances happened during the ethnic conflict and the JVP Insurrection where thousands of people were kidnapped by armed men without a trace.
Several years later, when the Good Governance regime came into power, the Office of Missing Persons was proposed and signed. However the physical establishment of this office is still in limbo.
During a recent visit to Kilinochchi, the Daily Mirror met the families of disappeared persons in the area. Inside their tent, hundreds of photos of missing family members have been mounted on its sides, some faded and some still in good condition. A few chairs dispersed here and there and a few bed sheets on the ground coupled with their levels of hopelessness made us realise what they were going through. Although they were reluctant to speak to us at first, a few mothers came to us with signs of hope in their faces and related their stories as follows :
Daughter was handed over to the Army near the Vattuval Bridge
Kulasingham Saundalai’s daughter was handed over to the Army near the Vattuval Bridge in Omanthai on May 21, 2009.
“That was the last time I saw,” says Saundalai as she sat down to share her story with the Daily Mirror.
"As soon as the war ended I was asked to hand her over to the Army"
“As soon as the war ended I was asked to hand her over to the Army and I was promised that she would return. But to date I’m still waiting for her. I didn’t get any compensation and no ‘Missing Certificate’ or anything. I only have her photo. I don’t know what her value is, so giving money wouldn’t make me satisfied unless I see her again. We staged this protest a few days back and we will continue until some sort of action is taken. In an earlier instance we also voiced our sorrows to the President himself, when he visited Kilinochchi but so far nothing has been done. I remember him telling us that he will probe into the matter but there’s no solution as yet. If you look around, we all are catching up with age and one day when we all die, who will be there to voice out against those who went missing?”
Son missing since March 25, 2009.
Kalyaranjani Yogarajah’s son has gone missing on March 25, 2009.
“He was in the Pulmodai hospital and was recovering from injuries. So I went and met him that day but I never knew that was the last day I got to see him. I searched in all the camps for the past eight years but had no luck. Sometime back, some people claiming to be from the Police came to my house and got his details including the NIC number, address and phone number. They said that they are getting these details because my son is still alive. If so they could show them to us.
At least if we could see them and guarantee that they are safe, we can be happy. We started this protest from May 23 this year and as a result we were able to meet the President. When we met him he concluded the meeting by promising us that he would get a name list of all missing person, that he would allow us to visit the detention camps, that he will release all those who have been imprisoned for political reasons and that we would provide the infrastructure during resettlement. But have these promises been fulfilled? Not at all.
"So I went and met him that day but I never knew that was the last day I got to see him. "
What we want is to spend at least one day with our children and make sure that they are alive and safe. The President accepted the fact that our children have been enforced to disappear but the office is only for missing persons.
We even tried to get the attention of the international community but it was just a waste of time. We neither want money or a death certificate, but just send our children whom we handed over to the Army back then.”
Father weeping for his lost child
"He was injured at the time. I took him to hospital on June 22, 2008 and that was the last day I saw him although we searched we had no luck.."
Among the mothers we also came across a father who was weeping for his lost child. M. Theiventhiram is also a resident in Kilinochchi whose son was taken away by the Army while he was in the LTTE.
“He was injured at the time. I took him to hospital on June 22, 2008 and that was the last day I saw him. My son-in-law was an ambulance driver and I asked him to check if my son was in the hospital. He returned with a bad news and although we searched we had no luck.
Why do I need money or a piece of paper when I very well know that my son is alive? Nothing can replace him.” He then pulled out a heap of letters addressed to various authorities including the Prime Minister and the President, requesting the release of his son. “I have submitted enough and more letters to all commissions and authorities,” said Theiventhiram, showing us all the letters one by one. None of these attempts succeeded. But I still have some faith and I know that one day I will be able to see him.”
Four family members are still missing
The story of Kandasamy Ponnamma is even more heart-wrenching as four of her family members are still missing
“My son-in-law was working with the LTTE but on May 18, 2009 they asked me to hand over him as well as son, daughter and granddaughter. On two occasions they came and showed me my son-in-law while in Vavuniya but I never saw the rest of them to date. As far as I know they were sent to the Chettikulam refugee camp.
"Our children and spouses went missing after we handed them over to the forces. It’s not like they went missing during the war."
They did give some compensation but I refused to take it because my family members are priceless and they just can’t get away with showing us some money. It’s alright if they want to keep the LTTE person with them but why did they take my two children and the granddaughter? They deserve to live. Our children and spouses went missing after we handed them over to the forces.
It’s not like they went missing during the war. When we met the President three months ago he asked the authorities to publish a list of names of those who were missing but that too fell on deaf ears. When he was coming into power, this was one of the promises he made.
But what has he done so far? There’s no point setting up an office because by the time it’s setup this will be a lost cause. I always remember my children and please tell how a mother could simply forget their children or even assume that they are dead?”
Handed over son at Puthumathalan Camp
"He was sent to the Chettikulam refugee camp but that was the last day I saw him. Some families of missing persons were resettled..."
Holding an almost faded photograph of her son was T. Mangaleshwari from Kilinochchi.
“My son used to work in the Paranthan LTTE camp and on March 27, 2009 he was handed over to the Puthumathalan Army camp. Thereafter I was told that he was sent to the Chettikulam refugee camp but that was the last day I saw him. Some families of missing persons were resettled, some were given compensation but that will not end their long-lasting sorrows. It has been eight years and still we live in hope.” With tearing eyes, Mangaleshwari said that she doesn’t need money or anything else.
“I only need my son. Once we were told that one day our children will return but when will that day come? Various commissions were setup but none of them work independently. The President gave us many promises but how many of them have been fulfilled? If they are so worried about us creating issues, they can dump our children at a kovil or a nearby place and leave. We won’t create any trouble.”
The debate on ICPAPED Bill should be taken out of Parliamentary Agenda
-G. L Pieris
Recently the debate on the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons of Enforced Disappearances (ICPAPED) Bill was postponed as several factions including the Joint Opposition (JO) protested against it. Speaking to the Daily Mirror Prof. G. L Pieris former minister said that they the Joint Opposition strongly opposed the Bill.
“The countries that insist that we sign the Bill have themselves not signed it. The claim by the PM that it doesn’t apply to the past should be rejected. There are reasonable grounds that Sri Lanka’s armed forces should be held responsible for the disappearances. Hence there’s nothing to do with a hypothetical war in future. Action has already been filed against Jagath Jayasuriya for what he has allegedly done in the past and not in the future. Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka admitted that war crimes have happened and in these circumstances we will have to fight for an international judicial tribunal. Therefore we suggest that the debate of this Bill should be taken out of the Parliamentary Agenda because those who are hunted down are those who have saved the country from terrorists.”
The media and public should look at the brighter side of things as well
In his comments to the Daily Mirror, Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan said that they are very concerned over the establishment of the OMP.
“The OMP Bill has been passed and it has been gazetted. We are now awaiting the physical establishment of the office. There’s a reaction for the postponement of the ICPAPED Bill but in practice, the Government too has several issues to address.” When asked about the link between NGOs and these families he said that NGOs have been playing various roles during the post-war period and even before.
“We need their support because they are members of the civil society and they are giving us a hand because they have realised the change. While criticising us on what we haven’t done, we would like to ask from the media as well as the public to look at the brighter side of things as well. We have achieved a lot when compared to where we were and we still have a long way to go.”
It is a gross misinterpretation to say that they are being paid
-Dr. Jehan Perera
When we visited the families who were protesting at the Kilinochchi town, we realised that they were giving information to various individuals claiming to be representatives of various NGOs. But what information these individuals require and for what purposes remain a question. The Daily Mirror also learned that several NGOs allegedly have financially supported protesters as means of encouraging them to continue it. On one occasion we were told that each individual is paid Rs. 1,000 per day for sacrificing their day in the scorching heat inside a dust-filled tent.
According to Dr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, the families were eagerly waiting to see the response from the government.
“They know about the Office and that it has been signed but I think that the immediate thing that should happen is to appoint a Commission. They should then appoint commissioners who have confidence in the matter.
“I would like to see at least one or two people representing the victim community being appointed as commissioners because they know the issues well. If so, the victims will also have some confidence in the process. We also need a public education campaign to explain to the masses that this is something that should be done. People think that the setting up of the OMP would lead to a war crimes trial. The Army Commander himself has set a good standard and if anyone has violated human rights, then it becomes a crime. There’s nothing to be whitewashed and therefore the standards need to be followed up. Therefore it is important to setup a commission as quickly as possible and also send out a message of care for these families. They should be given compensation because even if they refuse to take it, if that’s what the government could do best, then they should do it.”
When asked about the allegations vested upon NGOs, Dr. Perera further said that the people who protest are very poor and there’s no one to support them.
“Therefore someone has to take the initiative to support these families. They too have children who need to survive. So, if someone is giving them money, that is only to sustain them and not to make them rich. It is not fun to be sitting in the sun and voicing out their concerns all day. Therefore it is a gross misinterpretation to say that they are being paid, but actually they are being supported to do what they really want to do and seek justice.”