Atrocity by Atrocity, a priest chronicles a war | Sunday Observer

Atrocity by Atrocity, a priest chronicles a war

This was how Rev. Fr. Harry Miller’s life had been during the war-torn years, as The New York Times journalist Edward A Gargan recorded and published on September 3, 1991. Leading a life committed to human rights and peace, he had documented over 8,000 disappearances of persons from Batticaloa since the early 1990s, the fate of whom their loved ones are yet to find.

The other day, Rev. Fr. Harry Miller walked into the parched scrub land outside this war-weary town. He walked until a couple of young men with automatic rifles materialised from the landscape to escort him to their camp.

It was the local headquarters of the guerrilla army of ethnic Tamils -- the so-called Tamil Tigers -- who are fighting to establish a separate state on this island.

“They had kidnapped this guy,” Father Miller said, his native Louisiana lilt skewed by a South Asian cadence nurtured over the past 43 years here. “They wanted him to provide them with Rs.75,000, about $1,875”. “He’s a pensioner working on our Peace Committee. I told them, ‘You’re not going to get any money from him even if you kill him.’ Finally, I gave them Rs. 10,000 and he’s back.”

For Father Miller, it was a routine day, perhaps a bit better than routine because for the first time in a while he had saved a life. More often in the last year, though, it has been chronicling the deaths and disappearances of thousands of local people that has consumed the New Orleans Jesuit.

Grim statistics

In a corner turret of the high school he once ran, Father Miller records each death, each disappearance, each buried body, each pile of ashes, all the final product, he says, of arrests and roundups of Tamils by the Sri Lankan army and police. He tells the tale of what happened to the Kockkadicholai village in July.

“There was this army tractor going along hauling some things and the Tigers blew it up and killed the soldiers,” he said. “The army came back and massacred the people of this village, 123 dead and 40 in the hospital. They burned 350 cadjan houses, coconut leaf houses.

They just shot the people. Fifty-six of the bodies were burned, 67 were buried. It was the army. No doubt about it.” “They feel free to burn bodies at the roadside because nobody will testify against them. They feel free to throw boys in wells because nobody will testify against them.

They feel free to kick boys in the head because nobody will testify against them. They feel free to dispose of 2,700 citizens of Batticaloa.” Behind his battered wooden desk, Father Miller flips through page after page listing the names of people who are no longer found in Batticaloa, names a small group called the Peace Committee have compiled and sent to the local army and police commanders seeking information.

The committee, a group of local people put together by Father Miller, badger the army and police for explanations. Rarely do they get any; more often than not it is subtle threats of violence that filter their way.

“Already, two presidents of the Peace Committee have resigned,” Father Miller said. “They were afraid for their families.”

Rebels rule by night

For nearly a decade now, the Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces have battled for control of this eastern part of this island.

The Tigers say they fight for the rights of the Tamil ethnic minority, for years discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese; the Sri Lankan Forces battle to preserve national unity.

In daylight hours, the army controls the single 50-mile stretch of road between government-controlled areas to the west and Batticaloa. But when the sun settles into the mountains, the countryside, and the road, return to the Tigers.

The Tigers tax the local population in gold, as they do elsewhere in the territory they control, and while the practice of requiring families to give up one of their sons to the movement has not become widespread here, there is a mixture of resentment and ambivalence toward the guerrillas among the people of this shrinking town.

“They presume to talk for us,” Father Miller said, “but nobody asked us. We didn’t choose them. But they have the guns.”

When he came here in 1948 as a fresh-faced missionary, Sri Lanka was a drowsy place of farmers and fishermen. “It was like 1890s America, like the Louisiana my grandfather grew up in.” recalled Father Miller, who is 65-years-old. “It’s changed a bit and changed for the worse. In those days, there was never any violence, except on the football field.”

Last year, a fellow Jesuit from Louisiana, Eugene J. Herbert, disappeared while riding his scooter back to Batticaloa from an outlying convent. “I went to the army and the police,” said Father Miller, “and no investigation was ever done.” It was last year, he said, that the killing here reached a crescendo and the work of the Peace Committee began in earnest.

“Last July we started to keep a record of the people taken into custody by the army. As of this month, we have 2,700 disappeared people. Some came back. Most of those who didn’t come back are probably dead. In the early days last year, we saw piles of burning bodies. People continue to disappear, up until this week.”

So gruesome has the situation become that the local police chief talks of his police camp as Belsen, a reference to the Nazi death camp.

“That’s where they take young boys to question them,” Father Miller said. “They tie them up, drop them in a well. ‘Are you a Tiger?’ ‘No.’ Drop them again. ‘Are you a Tiger?’ ‘No.’ Eventually they get a confession.”

Father Miller shook his head. “There’s no resolution. Neither side has lost. Neither side can win.” But still, he insisted, he will remain here to document the brutality that has overcome his once peaceful town.

“If I find I have no work, I’ll go back to Louisiana,” he said. “If peace comes, maybe my work will be finished.”

(Courtesy: New York Times)