An endless wait: Hope springs eternal | Sunday Observer

An endless wait: Hope springs eternal

As the International Day of the Disappeared fell on August 30, Sri Lanka’s Office of Missing Persons (OMP) marked the Day in Colombo along with families of the disappeared. As scores of families from across the country attended the event held for the second consecutive year, it was evident that despite coming from different walks of life they had all shared the same fate of loss. The perpetrators of enforced disappearances had spared no ethnicity or community in Sri Lanka.

Suffering from years of conflict and political instability it is believed that Sri Lanka, perhaps, has the highest number of human disappearances in the region. According to Amnesty International, nearly 60, 000 families today continue to await justice and answers. The cases received by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances have bestowed on Sri Lanka the claim of having the second-largest number of disappearances in the world.

Long journey

On the day, many families had taken the long journey to Colombo, in remembrance of their loved ones. But amongst the families that attended the event, an ageing B.L Pathiratne cut a lonely figure. As his ailing wife was not able to join him, the resident of Ihala Witiyala, Matara had travelled alone to Colombo.

For over two decades, Pathiratne has wondered what became of his son Krishantha. Just 22 years old at the time, B.L Krishantha, a soldier in the Sri Lanka Army had gone missing in the thick of the battle in Olumaduwa, Mannar on April 20, 1998.

“Back then when people would ask me questions about my son’s disappearance I would faint,” says the still-grieving father. But 21 years on he is more willing to talk about the tragic event. Bringing along the only photo he has of his son, Pathiratne put it up on the memorial wall at the commemoration event.

According to Pathiratne, he has little clue as to what had happened to his son on the battlefield. “Many years later, a colleague of his who survived that battle told us that Krishantha was taken away alive by the LTTE,” he said. Pathiratne says he has no use for compensation but merely wants to know what happened to his son.

In 2008, nearly 10 years after Krishantha’s disappearance Jeyakumari suffered a similar tragedy in her family. Her youngest son Balendran Mahindan aged just 15 was forcibly recruited to the LTTE. While he had escaped the war unscathed, Mahindan had then surrendered to the security forces in Mullaiwaikkal during the last stages of the war. There has been no trace of him since.

Child soldier rehabilitation

But much later it was by chance that Jeyakumari had recognised her son in a photograph featured in a report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). In the photograph, it appeared he was among other child soldiers who were being rehabilitated by the Sri Lankan government. Her questions have gone unanswered.

Still holding on to the hope that he will return, a short film depicting Jeyakumari’s pain and suffering at the loss of her child was screened in Negombo on Saturday by the ‘Vikalpa’ website as part of the numerous commemoration events organised islandwide.

As both Pathiratne and Jeyakumari along with thousands of other loved ones left behind have continued their fight for justice over the years, Manouri Muttetuwegama who once chaired the Disappearances Commission in 1994 giving the keynote address lauded the efforts of these families. “What we commemorate is an event of sadness, yet your courage and strength shown is a reason for happiness,” she said.

“It is the columns you created for the betterment of society that was made to collapse” she added.

Recalling the past disappearances, Muttetuwegama told those gathered how families told her of being chased away by the Police like dogs when they had attempted to lodge complaints about their missing loved ones. “They tried to push these enforced disappearances under the carpet,” she said adding that however these cases were kept alive through the courage of the families. “Governments were even toppled through this strength and unity shown and it has even led to legal reforms making enforced disappearances punishable by law,” she said.

OMP

Also addressing the gathering the Chairperson of the OMP, PC Saliya Peiris noted that this along with the establishment of the OMP has been a victory for the families of the missing.

However, according to Peiris, the Government has since failed to deliver. “What we expected has not been put into action,” he said noting the various bureaucratic red tape that had to be cleared for interim relief to be granted to the families. “Government services should be more efficient and empathetic to the plight of the families of the disappeared,” he said.

Peiris also noted that it is unfortunate that some continue to deny that enforced disappearances took place in the country’s past while highlighting the need to engage with these individuals to make them understand the reality. “We must not allow enforced disappearances to take place in this country once again” he added.

In a bid to make the event more productive the families were also given directions on how to obtain a Certificate of Absence by an officer of the Registrar General’s Department while OMP Commissioners also took questions from family members.

Answering one of the most common questions put forward about persons missing following being handed over to the forces, the Chairperson assured the OMP is committed to ascertaining the truth in this regard.

While the families then held a demonstration at the Lipton roundabout demanding for justice, a number of other protests were also held across the country in areas such as Omanthai and Kalmunai on the day.

In fact, for over 900 days the families of the disappeared in the North and East have kept vigil by the roadside, protesting against the enforced disappearances of their loved ones during the end stages of Sri Lanka’s long-drawn conflict. The protestors made up mostly of mothers and wives of those who had allegedly been taken away by the security forces have remained stoic and their demands have been unchanged over the years. Some have since unfortunately passed on, never knowing what fate had befallen their missing relative.

Despite offers of compensation with the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) pushing the Government to deliver, the families in the North and East have remained disinterested. Instead, they have continued to agitate for information on the whereabouts of their loved ones.

So when August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared came about it was yet another opportunity for the families to make their voices heard by taking part in a number of organised protests.

Frustration

Also forwarding an appeal to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the day, the families stressed that while a number of International Enforced Disappearances Days have passed they are frustrated with both the International Community and the United Nations. Noting that they have continuously demanded the Government to reveal information on their loved ones who were handed over to the forces at the end of the war, they alleged that the military had provided false promises of their return. With a possible government change in the near future which may bring those who perpetrated these atrocities against them into power, the families urged the international community and the UN to assist them in their quest for the truth while also demanding that the OMP refrains from opening any district offices going forward.

But according to Brito Fernando, President of the Families of the Disappeared Organization a change of government will not hinder their struggle. Expressing his views, Fernando says while the implementation of the OMP is commendable, however, not much has progressed since. Noting that providing compensations is a good move Fernando stressed that finding and revealing the truth should be its main duty. According to him it also appears that the current government has no political will to put the recommendations presented by the OMP into action. “But we also commend the steps taken by the Government albeit slow in the truth-seeking, justice and reparations process” he added.

Fernando also said the families would not allow any future governments to disregard these commitments. “Any leader or party who comes into power next will not be allowed to discard and ignore these promises to the families of the disappeared” he warned.

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