The Unknown Fate of Thousands in Sri Lanka: Leena Manimekalai


‘By the wayside’

“This wreath/ with no name attached /is for you/who has no grave/ As the place of earth/ which embraced you/ could not be found/this wreath was placed by the wayside/Forgive me/ for placing a memorial for you/ by the roadside.”

…writes Basil Fernando about the memorial constructed by families of disappeared  at Radoluwa Junction in Seeduwa, a town near the city of Negombo, Srilanka.  When I visited the memorial with lingering faces of the disappeared, it signified an important attempt to keep the memories alive, a yearning to prevent recurrence of mass disappearances and seek justice on behalf of the victims of disappearances and their families. Srilanka which has a deep and complex history of political violence is struggling to redeem the past with a frozen present and a black hole future. Communal riots, political assassinations and ethnic conflict have been an element of the socio-political landscape of this tear nation for more than a century. Two heads of State, dozen national political leaders and numerous regional and local politicians, journalists, activists and artists have been assassinated by groups representing virtually every shade of political spectrum. The Srilankan state deploys disappearances and extra judicial killings as an instrument of public policy in the name of State Emergencies, Prevention of Terrorism Act, dubbing of persons as terrorists, unpatriotic, enemies of state. Brutal suppression of two armed insurrections in the Sinhala South in 1971-72, 1987-89 led by Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) and an armed Tamil Separatist Movement  since 1970s led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Tamil North and East of the island had spotted Srilankan state guilty of horrific human rights abuses. Now the nation is the world leader in number of disappeared crossing millions who have no date of death, no place of death, no body, and no grave or funeral rites. Obviously there is no shelling, no bombing in the island since 2009 and the State wants the world to believe that war is over but who will bring peace to the families who continue to lose their members to State Terror and also been denied their basic right to even open their mouth about the injustice.

What do you demand of your government regarding your missing son? I asked Ilangairathinam of Iranapalai village near Mullivaickal, who is the mother of four children and whose elder son is missing since 2009. Her husband is paralysed by the shelling during the last phase of war in 2009 and she carries a piece of a bombshell in her chest, which is medically impossible to remove. Her daughter’s school got interrupted because of war and lack of finances did not let her continue. One of her son’s legs is amputated out of a shell attack and the other son is reportedly abnormal in his mental status, post war. The family lives in shambles with small maintenance money given by the government and the daily wages the mother is able to earn out of a cook’s job in the local school. She did not answer my question and gave me a cold look. I was clueless. My question might have been ridiculous, given the hapless state she is currently in. Her son was forcefully recruited by LTTE in 2008 and sent to the warfront, where he ultimately surrendered to the army and there is no news after that. The mother has been searching all the detention camps and prisons and check posts and NGO offices and police stations and state offices  since her family relocated to their village after the horrendous displacement route from Iranapalai to Mullivaickal to Nandhikadal and then to Vavuniya camps since December 2008 for almost a year. Did her smile indicate the terror she is still captivated with, that never left her even after all these years? Or did she think that asking the government for anything was a useless exercise? Or has she lost hope in anything and everything? Or did she wonder sharing her story with me bring upon her?

I have read about disappearances, forced abductions, white van stories, detentions, killing and torture and my knowledge about it is only through news reports, literature and articles. My visit to the monument of the disappeared started haunting me and I had a strong urge to know more about the stories behind the photographs.  I wondered who want their loved ones to be a bronze or marble plaque at the end of the day. I had nightmares about the trauma of mothers who would go through every day with imagination running wild about their sons and daughters in camps and prisons or such dodgy places. I was intrigued to know how it is like for the families of the disappeared to lose a loved one under such horrendous circumstances. I wanted to know their fears, thoughts and their dreams of hope.

Vini, the mother of five children in Pesalai, Mannar sold the boat her husband had owned, to meet up with her emergency financial needs. She has no clue about why her husband was forcefully taken by Army in front of her eyes, with the whole family and people in the village being witness to it. She insists on showing her anguish for her husband and she doesn’t mind even if he is in prison undergoing the cruellest of punishments. She just wants to know if he is alive. She is struggling hard to save her sanity amidst newspaper reports about floating bodies of the disappeared down rivers, laid upon roads, burnt with tyres, exhibited beheaded in public, naked with bottles in their genitals and similar gruesome acts. Her children live with the barest of essentials and her inability to feed her children three meals is the most humiliating emotion she goes through. As the interview progressed, I could see how determined is she to have her husband alive in her memories and continue to believe that they will be reunited soon. Her eldest daughter showing symptoms of withdrawal and mental depression never leaves her room, while the second to elder most daughter has written notebooks of letters to her missing father. Vini has stopped her teenage son from school, fearing abduction.  She comes across the navy officials who took her husband away.

While the fate of the highest leadership of LTTE who surrendered in the last phase of the war faced the worst war crimes by the army such as brutal mass murders , few of the second level leadership detained in prison are found missing while in custody. The worst affected are the low level LTTE cadres. Immediately after the war ended in May 2009, the government began announcing in the IDP camps that anyone who had spent “even a minute” with the LTTE should surrender themselves to the Army. Fearing that worse would happen to them if they refused to surrender and were found out later, 11,982 Tamils surrendered. These were the ones who underwent worst of torture, disappearances and extra judicial killings. I met mothers and sisters of some young people who were forcibly recruited and spent only a few days or months with the LTTE were arbitrarily detained and found missing or reported brutally killed later in the newspapers. There were several other stories of individuals disappearing who had no field participation, but had been forced to work for a few months in the kitchen or building bunkers who then surrendered to army. Mothers from Mannar to Mullaitheevu, the area boxed in 2009 for ethnic cleansing repeatedly told me that, when the government detains their sons and daughters who were low-level cadres while reintegrating some of the LTTE’s most prominent leadership, it serves as a double betrayal – first, by the LTTE who forced civilians to fight for them, and second, by the government who is punishing those very same civilians with lengthy detentions and sham trials.

Initially, I was worried that my whole attempt of meeting and interviewing people will be prying into painful memories.  I was repeatedly cautioned that some of the families were wary of revealing information and sharing their story as they were still afraid. But I was moved by the warm welcome and smiles. I was offered tea and biscuits and it looked so alright with their welcoming gestures. But the moment, I started asking questions, there would be killing silence. Suddenly darkness would creep in like it will swallow everyone and everything around. Then they will slowly unravel about their sleepless nights, mental agony and endless journeys in search of a son, daughter, husband, father or a brother. The heart wrenching voices I heard made me weep for hours and their tears swell in my memories. Though few of them openly admitted that having the heart pour out helps their healing, I was awed by the sense of trust they develop with strangers like me in a situation where utter mistrust has been built by the dirty war and its aftermath, even with their own folks and neighbours. When a mother showed lungis and the purse of her son preserved in a box while they do not even have a roof to live under and when a mother shared with me how she still serves food in her daughter’s plate while serving meal to her family and when I met a father who became clinically obsessed with astrology spending all his time tracing his daughter, I could not stop a shiver going down my spine.

When I pursued with my questions on why religious and civil society leaders are silent about this human trial, I came to know that they met the same fate as that of the disappeared whenever they dared to speak out. Most of the affected do not know where to go and whom to ask for justice when the State itself has given a free rein to the custodians of law to break the law. But still few of the families dared to appeal and fight their legal struggles. And they have their due of enforcement officials often visiting them, forcing them to accept death certificates and some paltry compensation. Families said they could not assess the value of their loved ones in monetary terms and I met a mother who refused to accept certificate and money but demanded her right to the corpse of her son to fulfil the last rites. My understanding is disappearances caused by state sponsorship are the most difficult human right violation forms in getting redress. Impunity would be the order of the day when the State itself is involved in these heinous crimes.

My deepest experience is the day I spent with the mothers and fathers of the dead found in Mathalai mass graves, discovered during last December(2012) with 115 bodies. Forensic reports declared that the bodies belong to the year 1989 to 1991. Families, searching for their wards who were believed to have disappeared for decades together, now appeal in the courts to find out if the mass graves had their sons or daughter’s dead bodies.  As I had mentioned earlier, large scale mass murders were made in the late eighties and the disappearances were explained as a consequence of a civil conflict between a group of insurgents known as Janatha Vimukthi Peramunan (JVP) or People Liberation Front and the security forces. JVP was declared one of the instigators of the July 1983 riots against Tamils in the north and has been forced underground and hunted down by what is called as State’s war against dissent. The irony is that the Sinhala JVP in the south and the Tamil LTTE in the north and east developed similar modes of brutal retaliations in terms of militancy. So, the State used it in its propaganda to disguise the extensive violence perpetrated by State in crushing them. And all the time, civilians were bombed, killed and butchered in the process. The fact is that in the name of dealing militancy, the Executive President of the state – whoever held the position – erased political opposition through the years with the help of draconian laws and military powers resulting in an unquestionable authoritarian regime. When I discussed with intellectuals who are still left alive in the island, they said that the truth is in Lanka, there is no conceptual framework existing to resolve any of the major issues, including the issue of ethnicity. And looking for an isolated solution to the ethnic crisis is a constitutional illusion and the tragedy is that people paid in blood in life in history for such illusions.

The grim fact is number of disappearances in Lanka according to official records is nearing thirty thousands and out of this 15 percent are below the age of 19. Sadly many families today believe that the disappearances would continue in the island. The politicians, army officers and policemen who are responsible for the disappearances starting from 1980’s are still politicians with more power and the army officers and police now hold more powerful posts than the posts they held before. And the fear psyche still encompasses the landscape. War is still alive and kicking in the form of silencing and militarisation. Listening to stories of suffering, it is easy for anyone to lose hope in humanity. Families of the disappeared have remembered those no longer with them by seeking to reform a system rooted in violence, impunity and fear that robbed them forever of their loved ones. Their pain can never be erased but that’s the very important one to be transferred to the hearts of every decent citizen who can act against the state executing the gravest of crimes. At some stage national and international conscience, if there is such thing remaining, should prove capable of responding to their pain. I sigh as I hear,  Navi Pillai , the United Nationa High Commissioner for Human rights while paying her historical visit to Srilanka, in the last week of August has scheduled a meeting with the families of the disappeared on the 30th, that is supposed to be the World Disappearances Day.

Leena Manimekalai is a filmmaker and poet. She can be reached at

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