Featured image by Kannan Arunasalam
As the New Year dawned in 2019, I received the news that Father Harry Miller had died. Members of the Batticaloa Peace Committee had been visiting him in recent weeks, and had shared that he had stopped eating and drinking and was slowly fading away. Even so, it was deeply saddening to hear the news. I kept thinking of the Maya Angelo Poem…When Great Trees Fall.…particularly the last lines…
’They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed’.
I heard the poem last at a memorial lecture for Neelan Tiruchelvam in 2001.
I got to know Father Miller when I became a part of the Batticaloa Peace Committee (BPC). I cannot remember the exact year, but it was sometime after the 2004 tsunami disaster. I remember the power of his personality and the invisible but very real shield of protection his presence gave all of us who were witnessing, visiting, supporting and documenting the stories of abductions, disappearances, killings, arrests, child recruitment, forced displacements, communal tensions, violence and rape in Batticaloa. At each check point we were questioned at, we would say we work with Father Miller of the Batticaloa Peace Committee. We would give the Peace Committee address when we were asked where we were from. We would inform Father Miller over the phone about where we were going as our own protection strategy.
This is how we visited houses where children had been forcibly recruited by different armed groups, even as those armed groups were still moving around the villages, watching if outsiders were visiting.
During those years, we would regularly meet each incoming local head of Police and introduce ourselves as the Batticaloa Peace Committee, so we had some connection to the Police when people were arrested, abducted, detained or killed. Father Miller would be at the centre of our team in his white cassock, introducing us, and sharing the history of the work of the Peace Committee.
In 2008, five men had been taken from a shop in Batticaloa town and were being held at the Batticaloa Town Police station. One was the husband of one of my colleagues from the Suriya Women’s Development Centre. She was terrified that her husband and the others would be disappeared from custody and was staying at the station for as long each day as she was allowed. Then we heard that indeed two of the men had gone missing from the Police station one night. There was terrible fear about what might happened to them and urgency to find out where they were. Father Miller immediately agreed to come with some of us and the family members to meet the local head of Police. He demanded that the Police tell us where they were. The head of Police assured us they were alive at another location. Later that day, the bodies of the two men washed up on the nearby beach. Father Miller also later came with us to the courts, as we sat with the families who were devastated by the killing of their loved ones.
In his last years at the BPC, Father Miller expressed a sense of hopelessness as he felt there was great impunity and no political commitment towards truth and justice. He made a submission on behalf of the Batticaloa Peace Committee to the LLRC, appealing strongly again, for the government to investigate the 8000 complaints of disappearances and deaths that had been documented by the Batticaloa Peace Committee.
Father Miller was awarded the Citizen’s Peace Award in 2014 by the National Peace Council for his lifetime of work and commitment to human rights and peace. In the citation for the award it notes “In recognition of its non-partisan role, the security forces gave PBC the role of conduit to hand over released prisoners….During the period of ceasefire in 2002 and until its breakdown, the government appointment Father Miller to be its nominee for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission for Batticaloa. As the founder member of the BPC, Father Miller showed himself to be a fearless human rights activist who encouraged and strengthened civil society in Batticaloa to take up the cause of the victims of human rights abuses.” (p.5)
My daughter and Father Miller share a birthday. Since she was 5 years old, I have taken her each year to celebrate Father Miller’s birthday. I wanted her to know this man, the history and commitment of his work, and the importance of what he did. In simple ways, I have tried to explain this to her and how precious it was that she celebrated her birthday with him. This year too, we went together and they blew out each others’ birthday candles on a cake.
On the evening of the 1st of January 2019, as we sat in a beautiful quiet space at the St Michael’s church where Father Miller’s body lay, his oldest fellow priest Father Lorio sat quietly beside him, many different groups of people came to pay their last respects to this remarkable man – from the Muslim community, Catholic community, students, and friends – a testament to his work and life towards peace and human rights. My twelve year old daughter sat next to me quietly, sad that her fellow birthday friend had passed on.
The loss of Father Harry Miller feels like the end of an era. My grief is about losing a remarkably courageous and generous elder in our community. But its also about the loss of history, of the stories of people who lived bravely in dark times. Who will now tell their stories? Will we remember their humour, their warmth, their humanity in the face of unspeakable violence, as we strive to continue the work they did so valiantly?
Sarala Emmanuel is a member of the Batticaloa Peace Committee
Watch a short video on Father Miller, filmed and edited by Kannan Arunasalam, directly on Vimeo here or embedded below.
Editors Note: Also read ‘The Story of One: On some lives erased and others that give hope‘
View a compilation of tweets remembering Father Miller here.