All photos by the author. See full set of photos here.
Snippets from hearings of the Presidential Commission to investigate into complaints regarding missing persons
Q: Who is the missing person?
A: Father, mother, brother, grandmother, grandfather, younger sister, older sister and her three children.
An eerie silence followed these words that was only broken by the panicking cameramen rushing to record the story about to unfold.
The complainant recalled escaping the large round up that took place around 5pm.
There was a lot of commotion that night, tyre-burning smells engulfed the area. I know the person responsible because I went to the Sathurukondan army camp to find out what became of all the people who were taken for an “inquiry”. He told me they had vanished into thin air! That’s 10 from my family alone- into thin air!
Reports of the incident have the total number of persons rounded up that day at 184.
Q: How did he go missing?
A: He was on his way to Kalmunai from Kattankudy for business. His van was stopped at Kurukkalmadam junction where the LTTE was checking vehicles. I haven’t heard from him since. There were others who went like my husband, but some returned. It was like they were picking some and letting others go- to get the story out to all the Muslims.
Around 50 complainants repeated this exact same story. I couldn’t comprehend the horror, let alone understand the sheer arbitrariness of the exercise. Over 150, at least, went missing after being picked at random- like eeny, meeny, miny, moe- you shall live and you shall die.
The families seemed to have come to terms with the fact that they were probably massacred on the beach, even though their bodies have not been found or even been excavated yet from where they are suspected to be. 24 long years have passed, and loved ones still come before a Commission, like they have in the past, to provide testimony. They want their stories recorded, for history, for posterity.
At the Batticaloa sittings of the Presidential Commission to investigate into complaints regarding missing persons, I made an attempt to categorise the cases of disappearances in the Eastern province from the late 80s and early 90s, purely to get my head around the incidents and numbers; Eastern University, Sathurukondan, Kurukkalmadam, a group that went sea fishing in 1992, groups that went missing while lagoon fishing in Kallady in 1990, another incident at a rice mill in 1987. The list went on.
Two women giving testimonies then said some things so precious that reality struck me right across the face with a side of shame.
I remember he had a cold bath that morning before leaving for school. He didn’t reach school and I haven’t seen him since. This mother remembered everything about her son and the day he went missing- including that fact that he had bathed that fateful morning, over two decades ago. It was a mother’s love. Simple and pure.
I usually get a call from him during lunchtime. That day he didn’t call. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what to do. I could relate to her, at some level. Having pulled through almost a year of a long distance relationship, I had some indication of how she must’ve felt- helpless at a time of need. But I could only speculate the entirety of her emotions, as if the whole world had been pulled out from right under her feet.
The stories I was attempting to categorise were of real people. These were real stories of how someone’s father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, sister or brother went missing. Unfortunately media reports don’t do them justice. Hundreds of stories reduced to numbers appearing as mere statistics on paper. The human element of the hearings- the memories, grief, pain, suffering and in some cases hope- is not represented in the numbers that have so far gone before the Commission and placed their trust in it, or in the blame game of who is responsible. Something to remember the next time you see a report on how many complaints have been heard, is that there’s a face behind each and every one of these complaints and a story that a grieving loved one is yearning to tell in the hope that they will find them.
Uniformed men abducted my husband in Vantharamoolai. When I went searching for him at the army camp one man said that there’s a body burning in the bushes and asked me if I’d like to see it! These words still give me the chills. Who in their right mind could say something so crass?
We live in a society that has dehumanized and desensitized to human emotion such as losses of our fellow man. What would you do if your loved ones were snatched from you in the blink of an eye? What would you do if the only reason for having lost them was because they were at the wrong place, at the wrong time?
The ‘othering’ culture is so deeply embedded in our society that the problems facing those affected by the conflict in the North pales in comparison to a water cut in Colombo! #FirstWorldProblems.
I suppose three decades of war can have this effect on society.
The Mullaitivu sittings of the Commission took a different tone altogether. Given that a majority of the cases were from 2007-2009, here memories were still fresh. The tears still rolling. Wounds still healing.
The LTTE took one from each house- they already took our son. During the last phase they were desperate and they didn’t care, so they took my daughter too! We were crossing the Nandikadal lagoon when I lost my youngest to shelling. The woman bellowed. She had lost all her children.
The army said that anyone and everyone who was involved in the movement- even if it was for just one day- should surrender before they are taken to displacement camps. They said they would make inquiries and release them. When I surrendered my husband to a responsible army of a responsible Government, it’s their duty under humanitarian law to return him!
I can’t begin to conceive the courage it must’ve taken a mother to surrender her son, or the fortitude of a wife to surrender her love she wrongly assumed had returned to her when the guns fell silent. They placed their everything in the hands of the army when they forced their loved ones to surrender, hoping they will either be exonerated or held to account for their crimes, by law. Five years since the end of the war, they are still pleading after officers at detention centers and the ICRC in hopes of finding them.
If you go to the camp today I can show you the man who abducted my son! He still works there!
The absolute impunity that pervades leaves hardly any space for reconciliation. What is reconciliation for families of the disappeared?
Reconciliation is no more about truth seeking and justice for those who’ve gone missing. Reconciliation today is about barring families from commemorating the dead. Reconciliation today is about having the event where families of the disappeared are meant to share experiences of their search for loved ones, be disrupted by a violent group inclusive of monks. Hope is running slim for them.
Q: Was there shelling when you were crossing over to army controlled area?
A: Yes, there was severe shelling and there were dead bodies everywhere.
Q: From which side were you being attacked?
A: Sir, it wasn’t from just one side. It felt like we were being attacked from all four sides! We suffered heavily in this war. We don’t want anything except please find me my son.
The Commission is their last ray of hope. Families of the disappeared have once more come forward to a Presidential Commission to give evidence. So far over 19,000 persons have made written complaints to the Commission. Over the past 7 months hearings have been held in the districts of Kilinochchi, Jaffna, Batticaloa and this week the Commission will commence its first hearings in Mannar. Although progress has been slow and there have been a number of shortcomings and concerns regarding the proceedings, the Commission has been making some progress into the mammoth task of carrying out its mandate- much unlike a number of commissions of inquiry appointed in the past.
This is all now at the risk of changing in the wake of the Commission’s mandate expansion. As a political gimmick and a counter narrative to the UN OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka that kicked off this month, a seemingly rushed Council has been appointed on an advisory capacity to assist the Commission with matters of the expanded mandate. The new mandate includes inquiring into issues ranging from international human rights and humanitarian law violations to international criminal activities of the LTTE. While these remain important issues that warrant independent investigations, combining them with the current workload of the disappearances commission runs the risk of side-lining the intended purpose of the Commission. This is already illustrated by the very fact that the missing persons commission has overnight turned into a war crimes commission in the media.
How disappointed would the families of the disappeared feel flipping through the papers to find what became of their testimonies, to find that the specific issue of missing persons has been now blown out of the water? What fate awaits the thousands of missing persons and their families who placed their faith with the Commission? The Commission was appointed on the basis that the issue of disappearances is a matter so delicate that needs resolving, that there is justice owed to the families, that reconciliation is a non-starter for the war affected who have been in a state of limbo for decades searching for their loved ones. The matter left unresolved has a detrimental impact on long-term reconciliation.
But alas, when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?