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Jayanthi Dandeniya

Seeking justice for the "disappeared"

"No human being should be killed - anytime, anywhere and for any reason." The voice sounds determined and the eyes, enthusiastic. Looks may betray personality, but not hers. Though petite and fragile looking, she had undergone immense hardship. The path she trod was never smooth, she says.

Jayanthi Dandeniya - 2003 winner of the 4th Gwang-Ju Human Rights Award of the Gwang-Ju Island of South Korea.

Most often it had been a case of "being beaten up by the police, remanded, bailed out and getting back to my work for the benefit of fellow sufferers," she says with a hint of a smile enlightening her eyes. And that's what she had been awarded for - her indomitable spirit and consistency in raging war against violence and injustice. She is Jayanthi Dandeniya, who pioneered the establishment of Family Members of the Disappeard (FMD) organization and Kalape Api Solidarity Centre.

Dandeniya was presented with the 'Gwang-Ju Human Rights Award' of the Gwang-Ju Island of South Korea recently. The award is presented to those who embody the 'Gwang-Ju spirit' which was shown at the uprising of the Gwang-Ju citizens against the military take over of their country in 1980.

Citizens numbering 240 laid down their lives for the cause. The May 18 Memorial Foundation, set up to honour the memory of the martyrs presents the Gwang-Ju Human Rights Award at the turn of the millennium. Dandeniya is the prestigious winner of 2003, 4th Gwang-Ju Prize for Human Rights.

Her vigil started at the darkest times of her life, with the loss of her fianc‚, due to the violence and terror that ravaged the country and claimed over 30,000 lives. "It was not my intention to come to the forefront and make representations for others. I scolded Ranjith, my fiance, when he did. An ardent member of the then ruling party, he used his political connections to get redress for those who had been wronged," says Dandeniya. Hers was a humble wish of earning enough for sustenance and starting a family life.

Hailing from a simple village down south, "I was not interested in what others did. All I wanted was to be independent without becoming a burden to any," she says. But, life had different plans for her.

Ranjith's enemies, those who did not like him supporting his fellow workers of the Free Trade Zone (FTZ), Katunayake connived to silence him. "All of a sudden he was interdicted. And the disciplinary inquiry was to be held on October 27, 1989. That morning, he dropped me at work." And that had been the last time she had seen him alive. His body was found burnt in half at the Raddoluwa junction, along with that of a friend, a representative of the Legal Aid Centre for the workers of the FTZ who had been traveling with him that night. The culprits did not rest with two killings.

Their next target was Dandeniya, who had practically visited all police stations of the area, in search of her fianc‚ and lodging complaints. Understanding that the death threats were serious, Dandeniya went into hiding. "I had to change my name, appearance and had to move from one house to another frequently, all because of the fear of death. But, my only motive was to have justice, and to bring honour to the dead" she says. The few friends who had been pillars of strength during strife, were the "epitome of inspiration in my life," she points out. "Friends such as Britto, Mangali and Freddie were living examples of how one could stand for ones own rights as well as become a representative of others."

During her fugitive years the organization for the Family Members of the Disappeared (FMD) was born. "I realized that thousands of others were suffering the same fate. However, we started to help those families in the Gampaha district, fulfilling their basic needs, such as milk-food and books for children. The legal aspects such as the recommendations of the Commission, which was appointed to look into the disappearances were taken up only later," says Dandeniya.

After three years of hiding, Dandeniya appeared in force, under the flagship of "Kalape Api" an organization which called for - a minimum wage of Rs. 3,000, the right for trade union membership, justice for those who were interdicted and killed and appropriate solutions for common problems including transport and accommodation.

Kalape Api was the "first organization which carried a successful campaign to breach the unofficial rule preventing the freedom of expression," says Dandeniya. "It was a strict 'no, no' to even distribute a pamphlet in front of the gates of the FTZ. It was more like a high security zone." However, with the assistance of 43 organizations, human rights associations, trade unions and political parties, they had organized civil disobedience campaigns against this rule.

In a decade of existence, Kalape Api had grown into an organization which provides assistance to the distressed of the FTZ and looks into the welfare of workers throughout Sri Lanka. It had carried out 36 campaigns in the FTZ-Katunayake and 22 islandwide. Carried out more than 200 awareness programmes on Human Rights and Labour Rights and had obtained compensation of about 35 million rupees, from 750 legal suits filed. And along with Family Members of the Disappeared and the Asian Human Rights Commission had built up a monument for the disappeared at the Raddoluwa junction, Seeduwa.

"We have to protect our future generations from violence and injustice. It is in our hands to decide whether we stay immobile, blaming others, or to start doing something to eliminate violence and injustice, even on a small scale, in our own niche" says Dandeniya. Isn't that something to think about?

- Vimukthi

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