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CHAPTER TWELVE - THE CLIMATE OF TERROR: ITS IMPACT ON SOCIETY

Nearly 10,000 witnesses appeared before this Commission to give evidence in respect of the disappearance of their family members. Their personal accounts of this period form a very rich source of information for the understanding of society at the time.

It was a crisis period. The functioning of society, its administration and law enforcement, were put to severe test. The merits and defects of a system can be better judged by its performance during a crisis situation. the evidence as a whole is a damning indictment of what happened during that dark era, whether it happened at the hands of the agents of the state, private persons who tried to take advantage of the situation to settle their personal grudges, or subversives. The evidence echoed the common yearning: "Never Again."

1. The Use of Violence

When one says that terrorism has to be countered even by resorting to violence, the rationale offered is that it is done "in good faith" to safeguard society and to save the country. When one says that excesses should be tolerated, the assumption is that they are unavoidable. Can you explain this logic to the affected families who have undergone the kind of experiences described below?

A. Hostage-taking-A group of army personnel had come in search of a youth who was alleged to have been involved in subversive activities. Since he was not at home that night, they had threatened to take somebody from the family as a hostage. When the father volunteered to go with them, they had ridiculed him by saying: "No use of old codgers, we want to take that girl." Another girl was also abducted from the same area, and it was later found that both girls had been raped, killed and their bodies burnt. The person who came to her house that night had been a well-built, tall person with a moustache. With eyes filled with tears, the mother said: "People know about this, so I have nothing to hide. She was so small and fragile. I don't know how they could do a thing like that to my little girl."

Some army personnel had come in search of a man, who was involved in subversive activities. Since he was in hiding, they had wanted to extract information from his wife as to his whereabouts. Not, only had they assaulted her but had also dug a whole in the ground and put her 10 month old daughter in it and covered her in soil up to her shoulders. They had also taken with them her 10 years old son as a hostage. Her husband was later abducted and killed but the ten-year old boy was never returned home and is still missing.

A young woman had been visiting her parents with her husband. At night a group of police officers had come to the house in search of her brother who was suspected of subversive activities. When they were told that the brother was staying at her place, they had taken her husband as a decoy to find him and subsequently, both of them had disappeared. When the family met the A.S.P. of the area, they were told: "At a time like this, we can't choose between good and bad people. Don't ask us. Go and ask the government. Don't pursue this matter any more because you are only making enemies in vain."

The evidence placed before this Commission has reveled that hostage-taking was a common practice in all the three provinces investigated by us. In some cases, hostages were released after the surrender of the suspects, but in many cases, hostages never returned.

B. Revenge Killings.- We came across many cases where women, little children, and elderly parents had to make the supreme sacrifice for the "sins" committed by their family members.

When a group of army personnel had come in search of an army deserter who was suspected of subversive activities, he had run away and escaped. Then they locked up his wife inside the house and set it on fire. They had also abducted his brother who is reported missing since then.

The person involved in this case had not been an active subversive but one who had expressed "leftist" ideas very critical of the government. He had used very abusive language when he got drunk and had antagonized people as a result. He had also been questioned several times by the army. One day at night a group of persons had come to his house and killed eight inmates and set the house on fire. Among the dead were an 89yr. old man, a woman, and five children.

In another case, a death squad had killed 8 persons (belonging to two families) and burnt the house. One girl escaped with stap injuries. Among the dead were three adults and six children (between the ages 3 and 10).

C. Indiscriminate Killings.- Reflecting on the indiscriminate and senseless nature of killings during this period, a witness told the Commission that people were treated like stray dogs. But he added: "Even a dog is killed only when it is mad."

Another said: "People in our area were scared even to go to town, because the army had abducted many boys at the time. Even 12-year old boys were arrested. Therefore, young boys did not go to town even to get their hair cut. That was all done at home." The father of a Muslim scholarship student at Ananda College recounted the loss of his son caught in the curfew on his return journey from the Maradana Mosque and disappeared since.

My son was not doing any kind of JVP politics. He can't even write One day he went with a crowd to do street decorations for a SLFP meeting. If it was thought that he was doing politics, that was the only political work he did. He went there not because he was a SLFP supporter but to earn a living. We have no time to engage in politics. For our day-to-day existence, he had to do odd jobs to earn a daily wage.

We did not do anything wrong, so we stayed at home. That's why we became an easy prey. The real subversives were in hiding, and now have returned to our villages.

When terrorist attacks took place, people around the area were taken in for questioning and subsequently some of them disappeared as a result of reprisal killings. In certain area, the security forces were looking for a person named "Shantha," and several youth in the area by the same name had been arrested and they never returned home. During this period, the subversives had made a habit of collecting identity cards from people. Therefore, some people found it difficult to prove their identity when they were arrested at road blocks or in search operation.

In a few cases, we found that people with mental and physical disabilities had also disappeared One mother said that her son who had a severe stammering problem was abducted by security forces at a bus stand and he never returned home. According to the mother, her son was not involved in any kind of subversive activity, but she suspected that her son would not have been able to prove his innocence due to his speech disability.

D. Corruption.- Some people tried to make money out of the misery of the family members of the disappeared. Using their contacts with police stations and army camps, some brokers had asked for money from families to secure the release of their lived ones. The were also allegations against police and army personnel for demanding money to release the suspects. A wife of an army lieutenant, nicknamed "Rose Madam," had allegedly taken large sums of money to secure the release of detainees. There were also several allegations against police and army personnel for soliciting sexual favours from the wives of disappeared persons, offering assistance to secure the release of their husbands.

E. Disappearances Due to Personal Animosities.- Personal jealousies, animosities, family disputes due to property-related issues, and even controversies surrounding love affairs, caused untold misery to people during this period. Caste rivalry also featured in a few cases of disappearances. As there was no proper investigation, even innocent people could be implicated in subversive activities. It happened in several ways: some provided false information to the authorities; some got the assistance of state agents to eliminate their opponents; some organized their own gangs to eliminate their enemies. This last category of cases simply amounts to private murder, but since the normal laws of the land were silent during this period, many such crimes were not properly investigated, and as a result, they were also passed off as political crimes. One more body burning on a tyre did not arouse any undue suspicion during this period.

We had several complaints where the controversies surrounding love affairs had led to disappearances of persons. One girl directly accused her father of being instrumental in the disappearance of her boy friend. In another case, a sister attributed the disappearance of her brother to a love affair he had with a girl of a wealthy family. He had received threats from this family to lay off the girl. On an earlier occasion too, they had tried to threaten him through the police. It was revealed in another case that a police officer in a clandestine love affair with a school girl had objected to another boy in the same school having a similar affair with this girl's sister. That boy and his friend who challenged the police officer's objections subsequently disappeared. The evidence revealed that this police officer had played a certain role in their abductions.

The kind of incidents described so far reflects a very dangerous situation in the sense that nobody is safe in a crisis situation. One cannot rest assured that he is safe just because he is a law-abiding citizen. In a normal situation, one can have recourse to the judicial process and other safeguards provided by the law, but it is quite different in a situation similar to the one that existed in the late 1980's. Usually a curfew is meant to keep people at home. But during the "reign of terror", curfews were very often used to "lift" people from their homes.

II. Breach of Public Trust and Disenchantment with Law Enforcement
During this period, many police stations had flatly refused to entertain complaints from persons whose family members were abducted by security forces. A common complaint was: "We were chased away like dogs." One mother described how an officer whom she knew by name had denied to her face that her son had been brought to the police station. "This was unbelievable. Only two hours prior to that my son had been removed from home by these very persons." Asked whether she had made a complaint to any other police station or state authority, she promptly replied: "No, it would have been like asking the thief's mother to catch the thief."

It was inevitable then, that the police functions of recording and investigating into complaints of the general public, so central to the effective administration of the criminal law, completely broke down. "The police drove me away. The Grama Sevaka said: go to the new Grama Sevaka. The New Grama Sevaka said: Go to the old," said a mother who had lost two sons. Another witness said: "I appealed to the IGP for assistance as the area—police refused to record my complaint of the abduction of my son. The IGP referred the matter for inquiry to the very same person who had refused in the first place. He is the A. S. P. of the area now."

In response to an appeal made by the government for those involved in subversive activities to surrender, a person had surrendered himself to the authorities, but had subsequently disappeared. On inquiring from the particular law enforcement officers to whom he had surrendered, the mother of the corpus had been told that her son had escaped from custody. The mother said: "I feel that we were fooled. We thought my son's life will be saved if he surrendered." Another witness said:

When my son, a Technical College Scholarship student was released on Amnesty after the 1988 Presidential Election, the police said: "don't think you have escaped", he was abducted soon afterwards and has since disappeared.

It was revealed in a number of cases that suspect, released from police/army custody , were abducted again no sooner they had left that place. In another set of cases, the police had produced the suspects before court reporting that there was no sufficient evidence for prosecution. When they were released from court, the victims had simply disappeared on their way back home.
Several witnesses complained that the real culprits referred to by them were not produced when identification parades were held. In one such case, our investigations revealed the following facts. The corpus was abducted by "X" (name given) attached to a certain police station in the South. On a complaint made by his father, an inquiry was held by another police station, and this matter was subsequently referred to the Magistrate. An identification parade was held in court. Twelve police constables attached to this particular police station had been produced at the parade. The P. C. referred to by the complainant was not produced at the parade although he had been attached to this particular police station when the abduction took place on 14.12.1990. There is no record at this particular police station regarding the arrest and detention of the corpus on the given date.

Many families believed that justice has not been meted out to the affected families. They lamented that those who were responsible for the disappearances of their children have not been punished; they have not even been transferred out of those areas; instead they have got promotions and are doing well. As one witness put it:

The Governor who imposed Marshal Law in 1915 was recalled by the British Government. But persons identifiable, who have been responsible for acts such as the enforced disappearance of my son are still at large.

I lived during the Second World War. There were even foreign soldiers on Sri Lankan soil at that time. But there was a law at that time. There was always some senior officer to whom one could make a complaint. But during 1988-89 there was no law. They just wanted to kill somebody.

III. The Destruction of the Democratic base of Society
The "reign of terror" was not simply a two-sided conflict between the government and the ruling party on the one side and the JVP movement on the other. Other oppositional parties also became targets of attack by both the government and the JVP. A systematic repression and general intolerance of the democratic opposition was spoken to by witnesses in the case after another.

As incidents of disappearances of candidates and active supporters occurred, and arson and murder of political opponents in the guise of anti-subversive activities increase, a disgust of elections was brought about in the people. "This is what happens a when you participate in elections", said the mother of a political activist who has disappeared.

The suppression of the freedom of speech association was also spoken of by petitioners giving evidence on the abduction and disappearance of journalists, of human rights activists, of trade unionists, and of NGO activists in these fields The following are some of the incidents that transpired in our evidence.

A mother spoke of her son, an undergraduate working as a journalist in human rights while the University was closed, who was abducted and has disappeared since.
Witnesses spoke of how a Habeas Corpus application had to be withdrawn due to threats to their lawyer; and of the actual murder of another lawyer who was appearing for them.
A brother of the then General Secretary of the SLFP Trade Union Federation, "disappeared without trace on a bus journey to Colombo."—wife
My mother, a trained family planning advisor, was an active member of the Mid-Wives Union. They came in the night and took her away while she was still in her night-dress; she has since disappeared.—daughter.
My husband was a supervisor at the Kotmale work site and was abducted when he formed a trade union there.—wife.
My husband tried to form a trade Union in the Free Trade Zone, Katunayake. He and four others were abducted on the same day and have disappeared since.—wife.

IV. The destruction of Community Initiatives
The for psychosis had gripped the entire society. In the face of the anxiety and uncertainty engendered, people became passive onlookers to the many tragic events of this period.

We who would move to a side the body of a dog found dead on the roadside saying "aney" were rendered passive spectators to the sight of young mutilated bodies burning at the cross-roads
.I didn't report the abduction and disappearance of my widowed sister's only son as I have a son and I feared for his safety should I do so.
The army took away my two sons as they were walking by the road. One of them has returned. We are rendered passive victims as regards the disappearance of the other through fear our surviving son too will be lost to us.
My heart wished to bring him (corpse) home no one would help me.
In a case where a woman was hostage instead of her husband, the neighbours refused to open their doors to her twelve year old son.

The temple, the hospital—the traditional symbols of refuge and help—became associated instead with the destroyer. "We had no one to turn to. Even our temple had been turned into an Army-Camp", said a sorrowing mother. "When we found my brother with gun-shot injuries, my husband took him to the Government Hospital, and remained in the ward with him. But the Army abducted my brother from the ward and there is no news of him since", said a sister, vividly describing how doctors and medical staff became passive by-standers.

V. Lost Hopes and Shattered Dreams
In Sri Lanka the free education system has provided the poor and the underprivileged majority with considerable opportunities for upward social mobility. They feel that it is only through education that they can surmount the barriers that keep them disadvantaged, whether these barriers are created by race, caste, creed, class, or other social and economic factors. In our survey on university students, we found that most of the disappeared students (even in the "prestigious" faculties such as Medicine and Engineering) came from very humble social backgrounds. Besides university students, a large number of school children had also disappeared during this period. Considering the meager income of these families, it is obvious that they would have made tremendous sacrifices to bring them up to that level. They were the ultimate hope of their parents for the security and social status of the family. Their disappearance shattered beyond repair all their hopes and dreams.

The potential that article 12 of our constitution carries in providing rights and opportunities to persons who would otherwise be subject to certain barriers was blighted in the guise of counter-subversive operations. Some incidents revealed in our inquiries were in relation to families who had suffered disadvantages on the ground apparently of caste and on account of being economically disadvantaged families

A witness giving evidence regarding the disappearance of his son, a second-year university student, said:

Anything can be robbed but not education. So we educated our child. But somebody has robbed him of his life. We can't understand this. My wife has become a mental patient thinking about our son all the time. Now she mutters nonsense. She was treated at Angoda and Mulleriyawa hospitals. She is still undergoing treatment.

A young woman who gave evidence before the Commission regarding the disappearance of her brother (third-year medical student) had subsequently sent a letter the Commission saying:

At the end of the inquiry, I realized that my brother is no more. I swear that the most painful moment I have experienced in my life was when I was told that I can get a death certificate for him. We wanted my brother to get a Medical degree certificate. We don't want a death certificate for him. My father died ten years ago, and my mother had to beat coconut husks by hand to obtain the fibre for the manufacture of coir rope in order to bring up nine children. When my brother disappeared, we had to spend a lot in our search for him and we got into a worse financial situation...

"My son was the only educated person my village had. If you suspect a person take him to courts; don't kill him" said a father, depressed caste, recounting the abduction and subsequent disappearance of his bright younger son. In his evidence he described how the older brother coming in from minding the cattle would ask eagerly "has malli (younger brother) been found" and how that son too committed suicide thereafter.

VI. Killings by subversives

779 killings by subversives were reported to this Commission. Among the victims were personnel of the security forces, their relations, grama niladharis, gramarakshakas, politicians, and ordinary citizens.

In one case, subversives had killed 9 inmates of a hours (belonging to two families) and also set the house on fire.

Among the dead were an old woman, two middle-aged women, two men, and four youths. The reason was that when subversives had come to collect money on a previous occasion, theyhad been assaulted by two members of this family.

The wife of a cultivator in the Sabaragamuwa province giving evidence before the Commission stated that in July 1989 subversives had come to her house and killed her husband. He had been first stabbed several times and later shot with a gun. She attributed this killing to the fact that her husband had worked for and was closely associated with a prominent politician of the ruling party at the time. Consequently, the state had paid her compensation for the loss of her husband. A couple of days later a gang of persons whom she suspected to be of the same group that had killed her husband had come home and looted money and provisions at home.

Killings by subversives led to reprisal killings by the agents of the state. At one of the monthly meetings of a certain Provincial Council, a member has said (the minutes of the meeting on 27.2.1992 was produced in evidence):

No other person has suffered from terror as much as I did. My eldest daughter was 17 years old. The other was only 5. Both of them were brutally murdered by JVPers…my 17 year old daughter was still a school gir1. What was the crime she committed to deserve such a death. They came in disguise to destroy us. Three JVPers were killed in my own house. Eleven others who killed my children were burnt on tyres. Karmic cycle has taken over. A few others are still in rehabilitation camps. Revenge will be taken on when they are released.

Some witnesses produced threatening letters that their families had received from subversives. In one case, a father of 9 children who had lost his wife two years back, had been abducted by subversives and tied to a lamp post and shot dead. A threatening note he had received reads as follows:

We know that J. R. Jayewardene, the murderer, will not conduct the Presidential Election scheduled to be held on December 19th in a free and fair manner as his aim is to extend the tenure of his regime. Therefore we have named the UNP, SLFP, and the USA as banned parties. It will be considered and unpatriotic and treacherous act to serve at any election center as a party representative or to give any support at the election. You are strictly warned not to participate as a party representative. If this order is defied, punishment will be death. (signed by Commanding Officer, Anadena Mulasthanaya, Deshapremi Sannaddha Balakaya, Kegalle.)

The person involved in the above case was a UNP supporter who was killed even before the election. Several supporters of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and the United Socialist Alliance (USA), also received equally brutal treatment at subversive hands. We also came across several cases where citizens were killed for exercising their right to vote at elections.
Most of the anti-government subversive activities during this period were carried out by an organization which called itself the "Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya" (Patriotic People's Movement). The JVP always claimed that the DJV was a separate organization notwithstanding the fact that both organizations shared common political views and their membership overlapped with each other. Mr. Tylvin Silv, presently the Secretary of the JVP, who gave evidence before the Commission reiterated this position and maintained that the JVP cannot take responsibility for the actions of the DJV. However, several special witnesses from political parties and other organizations who appeared before the Commission strongly believed that the DJV was only a front organization of the JVP. Some went to the extent of saying that the DJV had no separate existence and was an integral part of the JVP movement. What was the popular perception? Thousands of witnesses who came before us saw no difference between the two; they used the name "JVP" through out.

VII. A Society Caught Between Two Forces

Many witnesses said that, caught between two forces as they were, their life during this period was like a "nut in a nut-cracker" (girayatha ahu vechcha puwak gediyak vagei). They felt that there existed a kind of "dual-power" situation in the country. The state had lost its hegemony, and same referred to the authority of the JVP as Punci Aanduwa (small government). The JVP imposed its own curfews, organized island-wide hartals, and called for frequent strikes. Some joined these protest movements under JVP threats.

Many witnesses said that their families suffered at the hands of both the security forces and the JVP during this period.

In our area a group of JVP supporters went from house to house and asked people to assemble for a meeting. Later the army had raided the place and arrested people. My son was among those who were arrested, and he never came back home.

As a punishment for supporting the SLFP in the 1988 election. The JVP asked me to kneel down on the road for three hours. However, it was the security forces who abducted my brother on a later occasion.

The resultant sense of isolation was portrayed time and again in the evidence: "There was no one to complain to. two The government was deaf; the opposition absent; the police drove us away like dogs. The JVP killed, the army killed," said a mother who had lost three sons taken away in three different rounding-up operations never to return.

The police and armed forces are not alien institutions to this society. The affected families also had their own children and relatives serving in the police and armed forces. We came across several instances where one member of the family was killed by subversives as a punishment for serving in the police or in the army; another member of the same family was abducted by security forces for alleged subversive activities.

Batheegama Temple

" OUR TEMPLE BECAME AN ARMY CAMP "

 

Posted on 1999-01-01



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Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
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