For families of the missing: A long search for answers | Sunday Observer

For families of the missing: A long search for answers

The Office of Missing Persons will commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared by releasing its interim report at  the J.R. Jayewardene Centre in Colombo on August 30 at 3 p.m.   The keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Deepika Udugama, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.  Families of the disappeared and missing persons will also participate.
The Office of Missing Persons will commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared by releasing its interim report at the J.R. Jayewardene Centre in Colombo on August 30 at 3 p.m. The keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Deepika Udugama, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Families of the disappeared and missing persons will also participate.

On September 2, 2013 Mayuri Jayasena who was six months pregnant had fallen asleep on her chair while talking with her husband after having lunch together. Her husband Madushka Herath de Silva had got up, careful not to wake Mayuri to get dressed and go to his fruit stall located in the Anuradhapura town.

Mayuri remembers being sad that her husband did not wake her up because she used to help him get ready, and that was a memory she always cherished. Before he left, Madushka placed a kiss on Mayuri’s stomach and another on her forehead. It was 2.30 in the afternoon, and little did the young couple know that Madushka was leaving on a journey where his whereabouts will not be known to date.

On August 30, Sri Lankan disappearance activists, this time joined by the permanent office to trace and investigate missing people, will mark the International Day of the Disappeared. Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International estimates a ‘backlog of 60,000 to 100,000 alleged disappearances’ in the country since late 1980s.

“Sinhalese young people suspected of affiliation with the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were killed or forcibly disappeared by government- operated death squads in 1989 and 1990. Tamils suspected of links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were forcibly disappeared by police, military and paramilitary operatives in the course of the armed conflict between 1983 and 2009, a pattern that continued for several years after the conflict ended. The LTTE took prisoners and abducted adults and children to serve as fighters,” a report by Amnesty states.

Several attempts were made by governments to launch ‘transparent’ investigations into the cases of disappearances. These included the LLRC, Manouri Muttetuwegama Commission and Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints regarding Missing Persons, which was chaired by former Judge Maxwell P. Paranagama.

It was in this setting the current government established the Office on Missing Persons (OMP). The primary task of the OMP is to search and trace missing persons, identifying suitable methods to do so, and to find out how they had gone missing. Making recommendations to relevant authorities to address the issue, protecting the rights and interests of the missing and their relatives, identifying ways of redress and creating and maintaining a centralised database of the missing persons are the other tasks mandated to the office under article 10 of the Office on Missing Persons (Establishment, Administration and Discharge of Functions) Act, No. 14 of 2016.

The OMP, which estimates the number of missing persons across the island starts from 16,000, has held outreach consultations with around 2,000 families in areas such as Jaffna, Trincomalee, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mullativu to formulate an interim report.

“Sri Lanka is one of the countries with the highest rates of disappearances in Asia, and also the world,” Chairperson of OMP, President’s Counsel Saliya Peiris told the Sunday Observer.

He added that there are several statistics relating to the number of persons who have gone missing or disappeared. International Committee of Red Cross points out that around 16,000 people, which include 5,100 military and police personnel have gone missing, while the Paranagama Commission states that 21,000 people were missing.

The Interim report by the OMP that consists of recommendations for the Government regarding the safety of families with missing family members and also shedding light on the truth of what happened to these persons, is due to be presented later this month to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and also released to the public.

Meanwhile, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana – Regional Researcher, Amnesty International opined that the sheer number of Commissions of Inquiry set up by consecutive governments in the past serve as a form of State acknowledgement of the gravity of the issue of disappearances in Sri Lanka. But, the steps taken so far are not enough, she said.

Setting up the OMP, signing the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances and criminalising disappearances have been major achievements. However, “the continuous protests in the North demanding answers for well over 500 days shows that the Government’s steps are insufficient and that they have not brought any discernible results to their demand for justice” said Ruwanpathirana. Answers that the Government alone can provide, have been withheld- be it in the court room or by the President himself as the Chairperson of the National Security Council.

No civil government can just ‘disappear’ its citizens. The LTTE also abducted many children to use as child soldiers. The Government “must provide answers through its security apparatus and hold perpetrators- whether it’s the armed forces, political parties, the LTTE or paramilitary groups- to account,” Ruwanpathirana commented.

Non-accountability has been a major obstacle in the quest to bring justice to the families of the missing. State agents obstructing justice sought through the domestic legal system; aiding and abetting the perpetrators; the Justice Department and law enforcement not having sufficient impetus to hold them to account had instigated persons who are alleged to be responsible to involve in politics without any fear of prosecution.

The recent arrest of a former Navy personnel, who is a suspect connected to a case of disappearance of 11 youth in the late 2000s revealed he was sheltered at the Navy HQ at a time when the CID was on a manhunt for him. The case of Prageeth Ekneligoda also shows that state actors were key to finding answers to his whereabouts and fate. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, she said.

The OMP Chair said it is important that Sri Lanka comes to terms and acknowledge there has been disappearances, and that families need closure to know what happened in order to peacefully move on.

Perhaps, this is even more reason for the authorities to pay attention to the mass graves appearing around the country be it the North, East or South.

More than 300 families who lost their loved ones claim that the remains of their loved ones could be at the recently discovered mass grave in the Mannar town at the CWE (Sathosa) premises, said V. S. Niranchan, Attorney at Law representing families of the disappeared in Mannar.

Though these families have no faith that local investigation mechanism and legal systems would mete out justice they go through the arduous legal process, only because of the love they have for their lost family members, he pointed out. “It is very difficult to make them understand that their loved ones may never come back. Some are still clinging to the last threads of hope, expecting their people to be back.”

Having a missing person in the family can be a huge trauma, President’s Counsel Peiris says, and Sri Lanka has to make sure incidents such as these does not happen again.

The journey to seek truth and justice is taking a heavy toll on the lives of family members still awaiting the return of their loved ones.

Mayuri, who later learnt her husband was handcuffed and taken by a group of army personnel on his way to their fruit stall, is still demanding answers from the Government. She started protests with her twins, now five, on the road, next to various government institutions. Her next move is to stage another protest on September 3 until she meets President Sirisena and is promised a solution.

Five years since his disappearance, Mayuri refuses to believe that her husband is no more. She keeps his clothes in their wardrobe, still hoping that he would someday return.

As the twins and Mayuri look through a collection of newspaper articles written about their story, her son points at a photograph of Madushka and says ‘thaththa’. “Ow putha, thaththa. Eya enawa ne apiwa balanna.” “Yes son, that is your father. He will come to see us,” Mayuri says as she strokes her boy’s head.

What is the International Day of the Disappeared (Missing Persons)?

Each year on August 30, the global community commemorates the ‘International Day of the Disappeared’. It is the day the world focuses mainly on the impact of enforced disappearances on the society. Enforced disappearances generally occur in armed conflict, within dictatorships, military or criminal regimes. It is used as a powerful way to discriminate vulnerable communities and cull opposition or exposure of criminal activities. Disappearance is regarded ‘one of the most complex, challenging and under-reported humanitarian problems in the world’ today. Around the world thousands and hundreds of thousands have gone ‘missing’ due to war, civil conflict, natural disasters, and even migration. Sri Lanka is regarded as one of the countries with the highest number of disappeared persons.