It is a small shed with cement brick walls and an asbestos roof facing a dusty street. Car horns blare and trucks rattle past. Outside on a weedy patch of grass three baby goats bleat as they play. The walls are lined with photographs. They are mostly young boys and girls, some even in crisp white school uniforms and ties. There is a girl in a bright pink saree and another with jasmine flowers entwined in her hair. One is an ID card photograph; another is a posed studio shot. Most are just photocopies; the originals are kept safely at home. There is even a whole family – father, mother and three young children – who got a bus bound for oblivion.
In the shed, Mariyasuresh Eswari and two other women speak of how their husbands and sons disappeared, stories they have repeated endlessly to numerous commissions, countless journalists and dismissive military and police personnel. They know the exact date and time, what the person of wearing and in one case, the faces of the perpetrators. Eswari tells her story time clearly, the occasional tears rolling down her cheeks. Ranjana Prabhakaran is matter of fact and stoic, displaying little emotion but Sulochana Wijedas clutches a framed, colour photograph of her 17 year old son and weeps bitterly.
For the past four years the three women have been part of a group participating in a continuous protest asking the simple question, “Where are they?” But to find the answer to the simple question is a very complex process fraught with evasion, denial and politics. While the previous government set up an Office on Missing Persons that has found no one yet nor brought any of the guilty to book, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government deny the very concept of the missing. They refuse to accept the possibility that some “war heroes” may in fact have flouted the rules of war. This is despite many eye witness accounts of enforced disappearances over the decades and especially during the end of the war. Enforced disappearances are continuing to this day; just recently groups of young men have been arrested under the PTA and their families are unable to gain access to them.
In order to keep up their cause alive and to bring it to the notice of their last hope – the international community – the mothers from eight districts in the north and east went on a protest march in Kilinochchi last week. This time, instead of shouting slogans or carrying posters, they bound their hands behind their backs and tied blindfolds to represent how their relatives were taken away. On their heads they carried pots of fire to symbolise their request for justice.
The persecution and intimidation of the mothers and wives have intensified under this government. Military intelligence officers visit their houses regularly warning them not to participate in protests. For some mothers is a stark choice – do I keep looking for my missing child and put my remaining children in danger or should I just give up?
For Eswari, who is the president of the Mullaithivu Association of Relations of Enforced Disappearances, the struggle to provide for her three children is never ending. They are still in school so she works an early morning job as a cleaner and takes in work mending clothes to supplement her income. The government assistance she was getting has been stopped. She is unable to get loans from banks when the officers know she is involved in the protest movement. Sometimes she is able to get help from neighbours.
Two years after her husband, Mariyadas Mariyasuresh, disappeared in 2009 after he was arrested by the navy during a fishing trip, Eswari was approached by a man claiming that he could bring her husband back if she deposited Rs. 75,000 in a bank account. She scraped the money together but of course it was to no avail.
Despite the harassment, Eswari is determined to continue her quest for justice. “The government wants us to stop because it is a disturbance for them. If families don’t participate in the protests the issue will be forgotten. That is why I am continuing.”
“I continue my search for my husband because I know he is alive. I will keep looking until I know he is dead. If he is dead, how did he die? We are not afraid of the army. We want to know what happened,” she says defiantly.
When the CID questions Eswari, they come to her house before 7 am or after 7 pm accusing her of trying to revive the LTTE. “They know it’s a lie,” she says scornfully. According to Eswari, there are 1,500 people missing from Mullaitivu. The Office on Missing Persons has a list of 524 who are mostly Tamils, many of whom went missing between 2007 and 2009.
Asked about the rumours that the missing are living overseas, Eswari is indignant. She maintains that people need passports to go abroad and these have to be obtained through government channels and there should be a record. “The government should inform us so we don’t have to roam around like this. They are trying to avoid telling the truth. If we are lying, the government should file a case against us and put us in prison. Why would we be walking in the rain and the hot sun looking for children who are living abroad?” she asks.
As Sri Lanka’s abandonment of truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law is being discussed at the 46th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, it has been announced that President Rajapaksa, who has referred to the missing as being “already dead”, will meet the families of the disappeared to “bring closure to this issue and give the families a solution.”
The President wanted to listen to them, identify their actual grievances, rather than what politicians might say, and give them a solution. It was going to happen very soon, according to Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Retd.) Admiral Jayanath Colombage.
Nearly 80 mothers have already died without knowing what has happened to their children, the last one week ago. Some mothers are too sick to join the protests, so attendance is low. But despite these adversities, they are determined to carry on.
Eswari is certain that the government will give them no redress so she has pinned her hopes on the international community, hoping that it can use its influence and power to make the government do the right thing.
“We only have them and also people like you to help us find justice and to keep our cause alive,” she says. But when she ask me what her chances are, I cannot meet her eyes or reply.
Watch excerpts from the conversation with Eswari below: