A quarter century since it began, the issue of missing persons is still a problem, that has left more questions than answers. As the website of the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons itself states, 23,249 complaints have been made regarding disappearances as at October 23, 2015; 18,249 by civilians and 5,000 by security forces. That’s a minimum of 0.11% of the total population of Sri Lanka having disappeared. Take a minute and think of the fact that a minimum of 23,249 people have disappeared in Sri Lanka; disappeared from their homes without a trace. The scarier fact is that since June 10, 1990 no solution has been found to the problem.
“What sins have we committed at this young age?” asked Gaujiyan whose father is part of those who have vanished without a trace.
These sentiments were expressed at the 25th Annual Commemoration of the Disappeared held on the October 27 at the BMICH in Colombo.
Several families of the disappeared were in attendance at the function, which was held to mark the anniversary of the day Ranjith Herath and his friend M. Lionel were abducted and found dead on October 27, 1989 at the Raddoluwa Junction, Seeduwa.
I got married with so much of hope
“We eat tears not rice and curry,” said Mrs. S. Selvarani. She said that she had been waiting for the last eight years for any news regarding her husband. “We handed them over to the security forces with our own hands” she said in despair. “That would be the last that she saw of him,” she said.
Her husband had promised to look after her forever and she had kept her thali intact.
She had got married with immense hopes but now she had lost everything. She related a story of a mother who was six months into pregnant when her husband had been ‘taken’. The son now asks what his father looks like.“Why do we need the international community if our President is sincere?” she asked. She has nobody else to go to other than the government and pleaded for the release of her husband so as not to pass on the sufferings she was enduring to the future generations.
I will accept my son even if he is disabled. I just want him found
Mr. Palaminadhan from Vavuniya placed the duty and ability of ensuring peace in the country with the Members of Parliament and religious leaders.
“They (Members of Parliament) are elected by the people so that they can fight for us,” he said. However, a positive reply hasn’t been given yet to their grievances. He had asked God for help and had paid his respects to Churches and Temples irrespective of his religion.
He had even appealed to the former President and the Defence Secretary who had done nothing.
Who else could he complain to? he asked helplessly. “Why should we expose our country negatively due to mistakes of former leaders of the regime?”
Mr. Manoharan from Moneragala explained how Tamil people suffered at the height of the war with Tamil youth being abducted and shot at.
His own uncle was shot dead in 2009 and requested the current President and the Prime Minister to tell him what had happened to the disappeared people.
I could have ‘disappeared’
Dr. T. Jayasingham, who was in charge of a refugee camp in 1990 said that it was not only the families of the disappeared that were traumatized, but all those who worked around them as well.
“On the 5th of September 1990, 158 people were taken in my presence”.
Living in Batticaloa, he said he got at least five calls from his family, whenever he made a trip to Colombo and in this light he said that it was definitely not an easy task, when people were in search of their loved ones for twenty five years and were not given answers to their questions.
“This suffering, therefore, has to come to an end. Answers have to be provided. The truth has to come out and people have to reconcile. This is not just for those who have to deal with the trauma of not knowing where a loved one is but also for the millions of people who don’t want their loved ones to go missing in future,” he said.
Mrs. Cruz from Negombo was in the North, when the war broke out. Her father later took her to Kalpitiya where she got married and raised two children.
She said that one day a white van with Policemen arrived at her home and took her husband forcibly. After this incident the neighbours started asking her whether her husband was in the LTTE.
“He was Sinhalese and hasn’t even seen an LTTE cadre,” she said.
In addition to this, their child of 20 years of age is sick, faints frequently and needs continuual supervision.
“I come here always. Whenever I come here I get scolded from the place I work at and I lose my allowance. When I come here I can’t look after my children but if I stay with my children I can’t look for my husband,” she said breaking into tears.
She asked the current President to either find her husband or, if he was killed, to say that he has been killed so that she can resolve her mind.
The duty of civil society to force the Government to take action – Brito Fernando
This was just a handful of the stories. As Human Rights activist Brito Fernando said.
Even though we could easily watch heart wrenching films for more than three hours at a time it is not that easy to listen to other peoples’ sorrows in real life.
These are just five stories out of the 23,249 complaints. And these are just the stories. People had to live through these events within around 350 kilometres away from us.
A resounding idea that was expressed was the duty of civil society to force the Government to take action.
In order to do this society needs to understand and empathise with the sufferings that many have had to endure.
They need to understand and empathise with the feeling of despair when all efforts of finding answers are met with a dead end. They need to understand and empathise with a state of affairs where for 25 years one’s loved one is deemed to have disappeared and the highest authority vested with the power to find them has not yielded any results yet.”
Committed crimes under the pretext of war – Dr. Mahesan Ganesan
Dr. Mahesan Ganesan is a practising psychiatrist who has worked in Batticaloa and has seen the damage done during the war including the disappearances.
“The problem is that we were using the war as an excuse to get many things done including committing crimes under the pretext of war,” he said.
“When losses to life and property happen in a systematic manner then this becomes a problem. We have failed to see the distinction between harm that is a consequence of war and harm that is committed for the sake of causing harm.
“The government of that time felt that they had to give space to allow people to commit crimes in the hope that this would hasten the war. The effects of this can be seen in society today as the damage is not limited to just those involved in the war.
“This is the path that we need to follow for reconciliation and nation building. For this, the truth is imperative. Without truth there can be no justice and without both there can be no healing.
“As a mental health specialist I know a large number of people who need this healing since they are suffering psychologically due to these disappearances. However, what we can do is very limited, since we are waiting for ‘truth and justice to happen’.
“There is no way that we can bypass truth and justice and jump straight to healing. However, some people in the present government seem to believe that this is possible.
“This is unethical, cruel and won’t work. The problem is that the government is not taking responsibility for this process of truth and justice and it is only when the government takes responsibility that people feel that they are part of the country.
“The governments have so far failed miserably to demonstrate that it could do anything about this over the last six years and this is why people want international intervention. This has also led people to take it upon themselves to dispense justice and this was seen over the last few months where people wanted the suspects of certain crimes, to beat them up themselves. This was because they have lost faith in the justice process. This is very dangerous. The government is forgetting that and ignoring the truth and justice is impacting the greater society. Sri Lanka has failed in bringing about any truth or justice.”
“Several Commissions were set up but this was due to external pressures and not because the Government itself wanted justice. As soon as these Commissions were set up the Commissioners themselves and the public knew that they were sham Commissions. This defeats the whole process. There have been hundreds of instances where people have been threatened by State officials not to appear before these Commissions. People have been threatened after giving evidence to the commissions. Therefore families are not in a position to trust the government. When justice is denied due to ethnicity and gender then the whole of society is alienated. Let me give you an example of this. My parents support the Sri Lanka cricket team. So do I. However, when it comes to my son’s generation, his Tamil friends do not support the team. The nation is broken even to that extent.”
“The process of truth itself is traumatic; when people come forward to give evidence and even afterwards. None of the Commissions considered this aspect. Some inquiries were like interrogations. There was no sensitivity to the psychological state of the witnesses. There needs to be adequate psychological support for people coming forward to give evidence.
“This should be considered as an important component in the next Commission. The Health and Social Services Ministries will have to take on the burden of providing psycho-social support but they don’t have the capacity to do so, there is a lack of human resource in the war affected districts.
Specific funding has to be set aside to develop capacity and organise services. What has the Health Sector done in the past six years to help families and victims of the war? Hardly anything. With regards to counselling services the Social Services Sector itself admitted in the past that they were doing this so as to show the UN that they were doing something. There is a huge need to build the capacity of the psycho-social sector.”
“Why is the Government sacrificing the whole country for the sake of protecting a few criminals in the Army and the Police? This is not only affecting the families of the disappeared but the whole country itself. There is a need for a huge investment in human resources. We need civil society to apply pressure and get the Government to actually face issues without whitewashing them. With regards to healing, Ministers speak about forgiveness by religious leaders, even before the Commissions are set-up. What is the message this sends out to the public? Forgiveness without Justice. We are therefore still stuck in the same paradigm of protecting criminals”.
What the Commission says…
The primary institution tasked with the duty of investigating into the cases of missing persons is the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons (PCICMP). Under this mandate the Commission had published an interim report titled as the ‘First Mandate’ which focuses on these enforced disappearances. The Dailymirror contacted the Commission with regards to a few questions regarding the process.
What is the status of the report and the process so far?
Other than the report is there any support that the Commission has given to the families?
What is the Commission’s response to the issues that have been raised with regard to effectiveness of the Commission?
Many people are construing this report in wrong ways without reading the full contents of it.