The 2,000-day struggle by Tamil mothers of the “disappeared”

Wednesday, 17 August 2022 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is this audacious hope, which makes the mothers, spouses, sisters and daughters of the disappeared in the north and east persist with their search for the truth about their loved ones


The people’s protest mass movement known as the “Aragalaya” or struggle has concluded after 124 days. The “Gota Go Home” protest launched at Galle Face Green on 9 April 2022 came to an end on 11 August 2022. The Aragalaya that captured huge media attention during its peak did succeed in its original objective of compelling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit. Gota who resigned as president, has been shuttling from country to country after fleeing Sri Lanka – first to the Maldives, then Singapore and currently Thailand.

The well-known struggle in the south may have ended for the time being but another less known struggle in the north continues. This struggle known as “Poaraattam” in Tamil is waged by the kith and kin of persons who have been made to “disappear” over the past years. The lengthy secessionist war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan armed forces as well as the brutal suppression of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprisings have created the “enforced disappearances” phenomenon in Sri Lanka. So much so that at one time Sri Lanka enjoyed the dubious distinction of being second only to Iraq in the case of disappearances. 

People from all communities in the Island nation have been made to disappear in the past but the bulk of the victim tally has been Tamil. It is against this backdrop that family members, relatives and friends of those victimised by the evil known as “enforced disappearances” have been conducting a continuous campaign for 2,000 days. It is undertaken without break by groups of volunteers on a rotational basis. The participants are mainly women. Unlike the short lived “Aragalaya” struggle that blazed across the political skies like a shooting star, the long drawn out “poaraattam” struggle of 2,000 day duration is yet unfinished.


Kilinochchi, Mullaitheevu and Vavuniya

This relentless struggle seeking truth and justice by parents, siblings, spouses and offspring for their nearest and dearest who have been forcibly made to disappear completed 2,000 days on Friday, 12 August 2022. This “poaraattam” commenced first in Kilinochchi on 20 February 2017. It expanded four days later to Vavuniya on 24 February 2017. The struggle began in Mullaitheevu on 24 March 2017. The Kilinochchi, Mullaitheevu and Vavuniya districts were the three districts most affected during and immediately after the war ended.

The struggle’s 2,000-day milepost achievement was observed by a demonstration in Vavuniya and a rally in Kilinochchi. In Vavuniya protesters lined up along the main A-9 highway with placards chanting slogans. They also held up portraits of their loved ones classified as “disappeared”. Flags of the US and EU were also waved in a desperate attempt to draw international attention to their ongoing search for justice and truth.

In Kilinochchi, hundreds of women comprising mainly mothers along with wives, sisters and daughters of disappeared loved ones launched a protest march and rally. Women clad in black sarees and wearing black headbands went in procession from the Kandaswamy (Lord Muruga) temple premises to the bus depot junction waving placards and repeating slogans. 

Many civil society representatives, religious leaders and members of the public accompanied them in solidarity. Among those from the south at the rally were prominent trade union leader Joseph Stalin and Sandhya Eknaligoda the wife of “disappeared” journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda. Signatures were obtained at the culmination of the rally for a mass petition to be sent to UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.


News report in “The Hindu”

“We’ve been agitating for 2,000 days now, but justice has not been served. We want to draw attention to our struggle and highlight this long-pending issue before the Human Rights Council session meets in Geneva next month,” Kadirgamanathan Kohilavani, leader of a Kilinochchi-based group of families of disappeared told “The Hindu” correspondent Meera Srinivasan. “We really hope they [Council] will do something to ensure justice for us,” she said.

“Many of the mothers of these disappeared children, especially those depending on a daily wage job, are facing enormous hardships while continuing to agitate for justice. Some of them are eating only one or two meals instead of three because of the current situation,” Kohilavani told The Hindu, pointing to the impact of the island’s harrowing economic crisis on the women. “No matter how hard things get, we will not stop demanding justice for our children,” she said.

The Hindu report filed by its Colombo Correspondent Meera Srinivasan further stated as follows: “Enforced disappearances have been among the chief concerns of thousands of Tamil families in the north and east lingering for over 13 years since the war ended. Families are relentlessly seeking information on the whereabouts of those who surrendered to the army during the last stages of the war when former President Gotabaya was Defence Secretary. Their ongoing struggle, led by women, is among the longest agitations seen in Sri Lanka.”

“Several groups of families, spread across Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern districts that were the site of the nearly three-decade war, have been persisting with their agitations, braving frequent intimidation by the military and apparent insensitivity from political leaders. The groups have at times had differences, in their demands and as well as the strategy for their struggle, but are bound by a shared resolve to continue seeking answers to the troubling questions that haunt them every day. At least 138 people, mostly mothers of these disappeared children, have died during the struggle, according to the women involved in the demonstrations.”


War has its distinct fall-out

I have been writing as a journalist on the politics of Sri Lanka for many decades. The island’s politics has for long been overshadowed and even overwhelmed by the three-decade-long armed conflict. War has its own consequences and its distinct fall-out. Very often the original causes of war are forgotten and even replaced by new problems and grievances.

When I was young and read about war in other countries especially the middle-east in newspapers and saw battle scenes of the two world wars on screen, I had a romanticised outlook towards war. I regarded war as a noble adventure and fighting as heroic.

All such illusions were shattered when the horror of war came to Sri Lanka. War is nothing but nasty, brutal destruction. There is nothing laudable in it except perhaps the individual bravery of those courting death for what they thought was a just cause. 

The war in Sri Lanka was a dirty war. It was not fought by soldiers carrying the UN Human Rights Charter in one hand and love in their hearts as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa once stated. The Tigers and other militant fighters were no saints either.


Enforced disappearances

An inevitable consequence of the war was the phenomenon known as enforced disappearances. A very large number of people in Sri Lanka disappeared or were made to disappear or went missing involuntarily as a result of the conflict regarded at one time as South Asia’s longest war.


Human Rights Watch statement

The well-known Human Rights Organization, “Human Rights Watch” (HRW) observed thus in a statement made a decade ago: “Tens of thousands of people were forcibly disappeared in Sri Lanka since the 1980s, including during the last months of the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009… The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances ranks Sri Lanka as the country with the second highest number of disappearances in the history of its tenure.”

“Most of those reported disappeared during the three-decade-long conflict between government forces and the LTTE were ethnic Tamils. A short-lived but violent insurgency with a majority Sinhala militant group in the country’s south in the late 1980s also led to many enforced disappearances and other abuses by both sides. Various Commissions of Inquiry established by successive Sri Lankan Governments in response to pressure from victims’ groups and others have produced reports that have largely remained unpublished and have not resulted in criminal prosecutions of those responsible.”


Writing about disappearances

 In my professional capacity as a journalist writing on politics and war in Sri Lanka, I had to write about missing persons too. Very few Sri Lankan journalists wrote about disappearances and irked the powers that be in those days. I was one of the few exceptions. There were some disappearances like those of Fr. Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown the Allaippiddy Parish Priest and Eastern University Vice-Chancellor Prof. S. Raveendranath about which I wrote extensively.

There were other disappearances about which I could not write in very great detail. Time, media space and scanty information being the reasons. There were many disappearances about which nothing was written. They have become part of official and unofficial statistics.


A heart-rending story

Yet every single case of a missing person has a heart-rending story behind it. A missing person may be treated by officialdom as a mere statistic but he or she has a family and many loved ones who yearn for some reliable information about what has happened to him or her.

For people whose loved ones pass away tragically in an accident or are killed through violence, the struggle to cope is more painful. The worst, however, is for those whose loved ones are made to disappear or have gone missing involuntarily. 

For them, the lack of knowledge and uncertainty is sheer agony. There is no closure after death for them because they are not sure whether their loved ones are among the dead or the living. All that they need or want is some official pronouncement of what had really happened. 

Reason tells them that persons gone missing for so long cannot be among the living but their hearts – full of love for the lost loved ones – refuse to accept the loss as permanent. The heart has reasons which reason itself may not understand. Humans are not systems of intellect alone. They are bundles of emotion too. They mourn and they yearn. They grieve and they hope.

The audacity of hope

It is this “audacity of hope” (borrowing the title of Barack Obama’s book) that sustains these loved ones of the missing persons to pursue with their quest of seeking the truth about their loved ones. It is this audacity of hope which compels someone like Sandya Priyangani Eknaligoda to prolong her search for the truth about what really happened to her husband Prageeth, the well-known cartoonist and journalist.

It is this audacious hope, which makes the mothers, spouses, sisters and daughters of the disappeared in the north and east persist with their search for the truth about their loved ones. They demonstrate with placards, go on protest fasts, walk-in processions, sign numerous petitions and above all observe regular religious rites seeking the truth about their loved ones. In the process, they are at times exploited by some crafty politicians, misguided priests, mercenary NGO operatives, so-called civil society activists and publicity seekers.

Regardless, they go on motivated only by their love and devotion to their loved ones. Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Cicero stated, “Dum Spiri Spero” (While I breathe, I hope).


An old mother’s quest

I once asked an old mother why she continued in her quest to find out about her son who went missing decades ago. She answered me thus in Tamil, “Moaney (son), nee kaanaamap poanaa, undai ‘Komma’ (Mother) unnai ippadi theda maattavey?” (If you go missing won’t your mother search for you like this?).

She went on to say, “Avanukku enna nadanthathendu theriyealleiye. Unmai theriya vaenum, avan irukkiraanaa? illaiyaa? endu. Illaiyendu thelivaaichchonnal enakku kavalai endaalum nimmathi.” (I don’t know what has happened to him. I must know the truth about him, whether he is alive or dead? If I am told clearly that he is no more then I will be sad but would be at peace).

And then she said wistfully, “Aetho enakkoru nambikkai. Avan engeyo irukkiraan. Avanaik kandupidichidalaam endu.” (Somehow, I have a belief that he is there somewhere. I feel he can be found). This then is the audacity of hope.


“Bleeding heart liberal”

As a journalist, it has been my duty to interact with a cross-section of people from all walks of life. This has resulted in my keeping in touch with those in power and authority as well as being accessible to the powerless, ordinary people. It goes with the territory. The challenge is to know the “truth” through interacting with the common people and then speak that “truth” to power. There are many, many sad moments for journalists who feel and empathise. As a safety mechanism, you construct a cocoon around yourself because if you are what is termed as a “bleeding heart liberal” you may very well bleed to death.


Helpless to help find out

 For me, some of the most poignant moments in my journalistic vocation were when those dear and near to the missing persons sought my aid to find out information about their loved ones. They approached me directly or someone approached me on their behalf and wanted my help to find out about their missing loved ones. It was very painful and emotionally debilitating to have replied that I could not help because I was helpless in this. There was no one to ask or seek reliable information from, in this regard. I have tried several times in the past to find out about people taken away without a trace or made to disappear but always came up against a stonewall of silence from those in power. 

As journalists we are supposed to seek the truth but what does one do in situations like this? What is the definite reply one can give to these families about their missing loved ones? More importantly what is the response of the State or those in power to these questions?


Mangala Samaraweera’s statement

The late Mangala Samaraweera when serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe aptly described the predicament of the people in this situation and the dilemma faced by those in authority in a statement tabled in Parliament on 11 August, 2016. Here are excerpts from what Mangala said in his statement then:

“As you know, there is no corner of this blessed and beloved country of ours, that has not been drenched by the tears of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children who have wept and continue to weep, not knowing where their loved ones are, or what happened to them. They only know that they are missing. They don’t know whether they are dead or alive.”

“Tears and pain have no ethnicity, no religion, no race, no caste: All their tears are the same. The grief they feel, their anguish, their pain is personal, but the same. Their suffering cannot be explained in words. Every day, there are people in this country who go to sleep at night, praying that their loved ones will return. There are mothers who are paralysed with grief; they are lost in time; unable to continue with their day-to-day lives, worrying whether their sons, wherever they may be, have enough food to eat, or whether they are being treated alright; wondering how much they may have grown, or how much they may have changed since they last saw them. These people are torn between hope and despair, and are unable to live meaningful lives.”

“When one sees a dead body, no matter how unbearable the pain of loss may be, there is closure, because there is a knowledge that one’s loved one is no more. But how can one find closure, and how can one be expected to find closure when there is no knowledge of what has happened to someone?”

“As a responsible State, can we continue to ignore their tears and their pleas? Can we just say to them that we don’t know what happened to their loved ones, and ask them to accept that they are dead? Can we expect them to take whatever few thousand rupees that is given to them as compensation and lead normal lives?”

“Can we, as a responsible State, just tell them that all the people who are missing – and this includes soldiers, policemen, and other security forces personnel – have all probably gone overseas and are now leading new lives under new identities, and so, they are best forgotten? 

“These are our citizens: those who went missing are our citizens; those who grieve are also our citizens. Don’t we, as a responsible State, have a duty to try to alleviate their agony? Try to at least help them find an answer; or try to help them find closure?

“If this is not the compassion that Gautama Buddha has taught us, then, what is? It certainly cannot be the symbolic chanting of Gathas, or offering of flowers, or building new statues and temples. We have to be able to reach out to our fellow citizens who are suffering; who have been suffering for years and years, and alleviate their pain.”


Not a mere numbers game

“For some, this emotive and heart-wrenching issue is a mere numbers game. They try to justify the numbers by saying such and such a number is overseas and accuse countries for not sharing information. This is not the way to approach this issue. It is not a matter of numbers. It is a matter of individuals. It is a matter of human beings. It is a matter concerning our citizens.” 

(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)


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