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Friday, September 17, 2021

Fr. Jim Brown and Mr. Vimalathas: Five years after disappearance, where are they and what’s happened to the investigation?

Fr. Jim Brown

Ruki Fernando
Fr. Jim Brown, a Catholic Priest from diocese of Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka and his associate, Mr. Vimalathas, a father of five people, seem to be just two names and statistics in the long list of disappeared in Sri Lanka, particularly after the escalation of violence and war in the North since 2006.
I didn’t know either before they disappeared, but had got to know about them and the families after they disappeared. I remember the empty and distraught looks on the children of Vimalathas in their small house, who had not realized they will not see and hear from their father again for so long. I remember the hope the parents of Fr. Jim Brown always shares whenever I meet them that their beloved son will return.

Background to the disappearance:

Fr Jim Brown and Vimalathas went missing on 20 August 2006 amid escalated warfare between the security forces and separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They were last seen on a motorcycle at a checkpoint in Allaipiddy, an area tightly controlled by the security forces.

Fr. Jim Brown was a young priest who had loved and served the people of the Allaipiddy parish selflessly. In the face of intense shelling on the night of 12th August 2006, he had offered the church as a place of refuge to people. However, breaking international humanitarian norms, the church had also been shelled in the early hours of 13th August, and more than 20 were reported as killed that night and many more injured. Having miraculously escaped death and injury himself, Fr. Jim Brown was at the forefront in trying to lead the people, particularly the injured, to safety. He pleaded with the Navy to let the people leave. According to Catholics priests in Jaffna, Fr. Jim Brown had been threatened by the Navy officers of the area as being LTTE supporter, due to his relentless efforts to protect and support the civilians of his parish. Based on all accounts I had heard from people of Allaipiddy and priests in Jaffna in the last 5 years, Fr. Jim Brown’s disappearance is linked to his efforts to intervene with the Navy to safeguard and assist people affected by the shelling in the area.

 Memories of Fr. Jim Brown:

All the people of Allaipiddy were displaced in this incident and when I met some of them in Jaffna some months after the displacement, I remember what one elderly gentleman told me “If not for Fr. Jim Brown, many more of us would have been killed, he sacrificed himself to save us”.

Later, when the first group of displaced people was allowed to return to Allaipiddy, I went to visit them. Access was highly restricted to outsiders, but thanks to pleas of the priest who took me and goodwill of an officer at the check point, we were given a “one hour visa” by the officers at the same check point that Fr. Jim Brown was last seen. The priest taking me had warned me not to say the word “Fr. Jim Brown”. We proceeded to the church that was destroyed and abandoned. We were apprehensive, noting that we were followed by officers from the checkpoint, and remembering that Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas were probably also followed from the check point. But despite military presence, the few people who were staying in broken houses and tents flocked to the destroyed church as we entered. Although me and the priest deliberately didn’t say or ask anything about Fr. Jim Brown, the people had a lot to say about him. The lasting memory of that one hour in Allaipiddy was the testimony of several people that some of them would not be alive if not for Fr. Jim Brown’s willingness to provide them with shelter and pleading with the Navy.

The search for Fr. Jim Brown and investigations:

Appeals by church leaders and local and international human rights groups have also not yielded any response. The Commission of Inquiry established by the President in November 2006 listed this case as one of the 16 cases. During the 1st year commemoration of Fr. Jim Brown’s disappearance in Colombo, and in front of his family and the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, one of the Commissioners mentioned that the case not yet been taken up for inquiry.

 Fr. Jim Brown is not the only Catholic Priest who disappeared. Now, it is more than two years, since the disappearance of another Tamil Catholic Priest from the North, Fr. Franis Joseph, who had tried to negotiate the safe surrender of several LTTE leaders in the last days of the war. Several eye witnesses had seen him with the Army just before he disappeared.

 Both these cases have also been raised at the hearings in Colombo and North, of the latest Commission appointed by the President – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).  After one priest in North raised this at a LLRC hearing, he got a threatening call the next day, asking him whether he knew Fr. Jim Brown and whether he would like the same thing to happen to him.

Priests are amongst the 25 persons in humanitarian service that have been reported as disappeared between 2006-2009 in Sri Lanka. Thousands of civilians have also disappeared. It is not known how many have been found, and whether justice has been done for even one case.

 Fr. Jim Brown’s family is also amongst the families of disappeared who faced threats, intimidation and harassments.

 Amongst the principles lesson I learnt (or re-learnt) from LLRC hearings is that it is very easy to make people disappear in Sri Lanka, and that it is also equally easy to make investigations and justice disappear! And related lesson is that those who look for those disappeared and justice, will be threatened and also face risk of disappearing!

Do we need to remember the disappeared?

I remember Fr. Jim Brown’s parents question to the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, “We entrusted our son to your care to serve the Lord and his peoples, what has happened to him?” Sinhalese Catholics – laity, youth, women, priests, sisters, Bishops – who often claim that they can play a important role in reconciliation by building better relations with Tamil Catholics, appear to have forgotten about Fr. Jim Brown, Vimalathas and others, or perhaps they don’t care.

Every year, a few friends together with parents, brother and sister of Fr. Jim Brown, have tried to faithfully remember Fr. Jim Brown. From the hundreds that attended the first commemoration we organized, we had seen over the years that interest had declined. Perhaps there are so many disappeared to be commemorated. But can we afford to forget them?

 Will we ever know what happened to Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas and thousands of others who have disappeared? And will those responsible be ever identified and brought to justice?

 Can we really have reconciliation without acknowledging what has happened to Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas and the thousands like them? Could we even have reconciliation within the Catholic Church? What does reconciliation mean to their families and friends of Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas and countless other families of disappeared people?

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