I went to Mullivaikkal Church three days in advance to check the arrangements as I was in charge of organising the event. On the way there I could see that the situation was getting tense; policemen were deployed along the road that leads to Mullivaikkal – the place where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in 2009 – according to our Bishop of Mannar possibly as many as 146, 679 in seven months.
I realised that people thought the surveillance and police deployment would intensify as the day drew near, so I planned to arrive at the Church the day before the event. I went there with a Sinhala priest whom I hoped would be able to manage the situation with the security forces as I am not confident in my knowledge of the Sinhala language. To survive we have to learn Sinhala whereas the Sinhala officers who work in the Tamil-speaking North and Eastern provinces of the island are not expected to learn Tamil to communicate with us.
Having learnt that our vehicle was parked at the premises, the police and army intelligence officers quickly made their presence felt. As we left the place at dusk there were four officers from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and Military Intelligence who took photos of us. Even though I am a priest, I was frightened when they did this because of Sri Lanka’s history of abductions in unmarked white vans which we all know about.
The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) had organised a remembrance day in Mullivaiakkal for the same day that was banned by a court order which stated that the event would result in a disturbance of the peace. There was also a woman’s organisation which received a similar court order banning their planned event on 18th May.
A family came to see me to say that no one from Mullaivaikkal dared to participate in our religious service because officers from CIDs had visited some local people and instructed them not to attend the other events so they assumed they should not come to our’s either.
The people near the church gave me a call on the 18th May morning asking me to come as they were scared because of the unusual deployment of officers from the CID and military intelligence there. I had to ask the Sinhala priest to come with us. When the parish priest arrived, he was approached by a CID officer who inquired what he was organising. All day from morning until the end of the service in the evening, there were two men in plain clothes seated under a tree who recorded all the activity and passed messages to their superiors.
I admire the courage of the people from that area. In spite of their very real fear and the surveillance and monitoring they helped me organise the service. I could only imagine the struggle they face since even I as a priest had to go through so much.
There was a huge amount of uncertainty that day. In fact that was created on purpose to cause confusion and reduce the number of attendees. To my knowledge people from Mullaitivu and Kokkilai did not turn up because they received mixed messages about whether the event was going ahead or not and became very frightened.
I received a call from another parish priest informing me that the bus owner who was providing the transport to bring the mourners to the church had refused run the bus for the service because he’d been instructed by an anonymous call not to run any bus or he would face consequences in the future. The same parish priest approached seven other bus owners to provide transport and all of them refused to do so because of similar anonymous phone calls they had received. I had to organise an alternative means of transport but even then people did not turn up because the news of the bus owners receiving anonymous phone calls had spread everywhere.
Until the last moment we were in suspense, unsure whether or not our religious service would be obstructed like all the other mourning events that day. When five hundred people did come for the service from the neighbouring villages, most of them were women mourning their dead. I believe it was the first time they had the space to cry out loud in grief like this. Mothers and children wept for their lost ones and the scene was heart rending. Everyone in the crowd cried and I struggled to hold back tears myself when a group of girls who live in an orphanage started weeping while remembering and honouring their dead parents.
Uninvited guests from the security forces took photos of all the participants who were mostly women in terrible grief – hardly people who could be a security threat to the Sri Lankan state. For the first time I saw that people in the crowd were brave and began photographing those plain clothes intelligence officers who were photographing them. At the end of the service two foreign nationals who were present were questioned by the police as to why they were there.
In the South of the country the government organised, as it does every year, a military parade as part of what they call a “War Heroes Remembrance Day”. But in the north this was the first time after six long years of silent suffering that some Tamils from the war zone broke their silence and mourned their dead in public but they did so against the wishes of the security establishment.
I really salute them for their bravery and look forward to a day where they don’t have to be brave to mourn the dead.
(Father Elil Rajendram is the country director of Jesuit Refugee Service for Sri Lanka. Co-spokesperson for Tamil Civil Society Forum, Father Elil has worked with the internally displaced people (IDP’s) in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers in India, and on a residential project for ex-combatants. He is the producer of a documentary on Sri Lankan Refugees in India.)