Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons





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A country may go through a period of utter chaos and destruction, but at the end, it can also embark on a period of rapid recovery in terms of physical growth. Society in general may also tend to have short memories, and some may even say: "let's forget the past."

Those who cannot forget the past that easily are the immediate family members of the victims. This Commission became a forum for thousands of such affected families whose children or spouses had been abducted and disappeared during the "reign of terror" in Southern Sri Lanka in the late 1980's. They related to us with their own experience the pain and misery they have been undergoing for the last seven or eight years. It appears that the mere passage of time has not significantly helped the healing process.

I. Economic Problems of the Affected Families

Death is a disaster to any family whether it is rich or poor. But the poor have the added problem of not having the means even to satisfy the basic needs of the family. We found that this is the case with an overwhelming majority of the affected families of the disappeared persons. The disastrous consequences of their economic backwardness, further aggravated by the loss of their main breadwinners, had an impact on many aspects of their lives.

(i) Women Left Behind

The plight of the women left behind has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this report (see the section on "Women" in Chapter Eleven). As discussed in that section, women were suddenly thrust into the role of primary breadwinner of the family due to the disappearances of their husbands. There are very few employment opportunities for women in the communities they live, and as such, they have been engaged in very in law-paid employment. However, we have observed that many of the women, although initially uncomfortable with the role, seem to have responded positively to this additional challenge to their survival. The disappearances have affected a transformation of the role of women as an economic force at local level. This phenomenon of female-headed households needs to be addressed in the formulation of development plans both at the centre and at the periphery.

(ii) The Trauma of Children

It's very difficult to explain to a child the absence of a father.

Help me by helping to educate my twins.

What we need is not compensation. Please find a job for my daughter. She has passed her A/L examination.

Children's education was adversely affected by these disappearances. In one case, the principal of a school had written to the Commission saying that three children (girls) of a certain family had stopped coming to school due to extreme poverty. Their father was a 39 year old fisherman who had been abducted when he was returning home from hospital with his wife. When asked for the reasons for the discontinuation of the children's education, the mother said:

I have five children. When my husband was abducted, my youngest child was only three months old. I find it very difficult to manage my family. It is true that the government gives free school uniforms. But I don't have money to buy clothes for my daughters' underskirts and also to by their other school needs.

In another case, the daughter of a disappeared persons said:

After my father's disappearance, my mother did not have money to support us. Two years back she went to Lebanon for employment. Before she left, she asked me to stop schooling in order to look after my three sisters and brother. I was studying quite well and I am sad that I had to give up my studies. But I can console myself thinking of the future of my sisters and brother.

Besides their education, the children's normal upbringing was also disrupted by the loss of their parents. We came across a large number of cases involving wives who were pregnant at the time of the disappearance of their husbands; they had to go through the pregnancy with a sense of tremendous insecurity, hopelessness, and despair; babies were born to widowed mothers as victims of an era they had never seen but the effects of which were soon felt by them. Children often suffered separation from each other as they were parceled out to several relatives out of economic necessity. Without the support of their husbands, wives found it difficult to provide for their children, and some had to go to the Middle-East leaving the children behind.

One may think that this is a very common phenomenon in Sri Lanka, and the children of the disappeared persons are not an exception. To a certain extent, that observation is correct. The difference is that many of these children were also eyewitness to abductions and gruesome killings of their loved ones, and those terrible experiences left an indelible mark on their psyche.

In one such instance, the security forces had killed six members in one family (husband, wife daughter, and three sons-ages 21,14,11) and the house was also burnt down. They had abandoned two children, aged 8 and 3, in the middle of a paddy field. In another case, security forces had abducted both parents at night leaving two children without any adult at home. A mother of three children giving evidence had stated that one night subversives had come to their house, dragged her husband out of the house along with his cousin and shot them both. Her eldest son who was a witness to this incident was six yeas old at the time. Ever since the incident he had become subject to fits and occasional outbursts. On the advice of the head priest of the temple he had been ordained recently.

II. The Emotional Dimension

(i). Uncertainty about the present whereabouts of their loved ones

In eighty percent of the cases inquired into by us, family members were unable to find and identify the bodies of the victims and perform religious rites usually associated with death. We found that it is very difficult and agonizing for family members to cope with the uncertainty in not knowing what actually happened to their loved ones. Some parents, though very few in number, believe that their children are still alive and are being detained in secret camps. One mother begged the Commission not to treat her son as "disappeared" because she thinks he is still alive. She was not interested in receiving compensation and had told other family members not to apply for a death certificate. In another case, the witness asked the Commission: "Is nobody going to inform me what happened to my child since his abduction? Am I to celebrate his birthday or observe his death anniversary?. Aren't there certain basic social cum religious obligations one has to perform? Is the rest of society unconcerned about all these?" Several years have passed since the worst period of disappearances. The mere passage of the time however has not significantly helped the healing process.

I am economically well-off. I don't want compensation. I beg the Commission to find my son. I still hold Bodhi Pujas for him. I have heard stories about people who have reappeared after a long spell of disappearance.....I am hopeful that he will return home someday. Astrologers have told me that he is still alive.

I thought that my son was alive. Therefore, when I had to give my land to my children, I wrote it in the name of all my three sons, including the disappeared son. You can see that his name is still in the deed.

We heard that our son's body was burnt on a roadside. With the help of the priest of our church we brought the burnt body and buried it. But later another pasty from Negombo came and said that the body belonged to one of their people. Therefore, we are not sure whether our son is dead or still alive. We had to mortgage our land to find money to search for our son. We spent a lot on soothsayers.

As the mother of Richard de Zoysa, a journalist who was killed during this period, said: "I am one of the luckiest mothers because I saw my son's body." A story of another grieving mother of a similar social and educational background clearly illustrates the importance of seeing the dead body for mental reconciliation.

A fourth-year medical student of the Colombo University was planning to continue his studies in England, and in order to expedite his travel plans, he went to Jaffna by train to meet his parents. The train terminated at Medawachchiya and he was apparently caught by three persons and relived of his belongings-a gold chain, wrist watch and money. He was severely beaten and killed and the body was burnt in place close to the railway station. According to the O. I. C., Anuradhapura, there had been a terrorist attack the previous day in a near by village and area was tense. According to some evidence, those three persons had marched the victims along the road saying that they had caught a "tiger" and that they wanted to hand him over to an army camp. The student had pleaded his innocence saying that he was only a medical student and that his father was a university professor.

The police had arrested the three suspects and when they were shown a photograph of the student, they recognized that the person in the photograph was similar to the one who was killed by them. The police had also recovered the gold chain from a jewelry shop.

A post mortem was held and a burnt tooth was sent to America for analysis, but the report said that the tooth might belong to and elderly person. Giving evidence before the Commission, the O.I.C., Anuradahapura, said that he was not sure whether the bones collected by him belonged to one single person, and a body of another person could have been burnt in the same place.

The father, Professor of Forensic Medicine, Jaffna University, died two years later suffering depression over the sudden disappearance of his son. The mother is also a well-qualified doctor. They were not at all convinced that their son had been killed, particularly after the finding that the tooth could belong to an elderly person. Moreover, they had received several messages saying that their son had been seen at various army camps. The mother still pleads : We have heard many stories and rumours but nothing is definite....I therefore beg of you to please make inquiries and uncover this ravel and bring our son back to us. Her sentiments clearly demonstrate that it is the mental reconciliation that has been denied to the family members of the disappeared.

(ii) Guilt

Even those who were "lucky" to find the bodies still suffer from a terrible feeling of guilt that the remains of their loved ones could not be accorded a decent burial. Both the agents of the state and subversives used dead bodies as a weapon to terrorize society. Not only did they kill people but also inflicted humiliation and insult on the remains of the dead. Subversives very often gave instructions to the affected families on how to conduct the funeral-not to perform any religious rites, not to perform any rituals such as beating drums, not to life the coffin above knee-level when carrying it to the cemetery. They also ordered the villagers not to attend the funerals of the victims. Very few people dared to defy the orders of the subversives.

Even when family members had identified half-burnt bodies in tyre pyres, security forces had not released the bodies to be taken home. The security forces either removed the bodies or let them rot in the same place for days and days, allowing dogs and animals to feed on them. In some cases, victims were beheaded and the heads kept on display at public places.

In one such case, two youths were killed by security forces, and the mutilated bodies were kept against the wall of bridge. According to the post-mortem reports, in one body, the head was completely severed from the neck; both hands and both legs were cut off; the penis and scrotum were also cut off from the body and hung around the neck of the second deceased. The second body was else without hands and legs. Both bodies were completely naked Such a scene would be grossly offensive and repulsive to any human being; one can imagine the psychological impact of such a scene on an immediate family member.

III. Emotional Disturbances, Insanity, and Suicide

When witnesses came to give evidence before the Commission, we observed on many an occasion that some witnesses were completely shattered emotionally by the loss of their loved ones through disappearances. Only a very few of them had already sought psychiatric treatment, but our observation is that there are many more who require counselling and emotional rehabilitation.

A witness told this Commission that his wife has become insane after the disappearance of her son. As her other son is mentally retarded, it was the missing son who had supported the family by working in a gem-pit. Her husband said that his wife now chases after children in the street crying out her son's name.

This Commission has come across several incidents of suicide involving both males and females. Unfortunately, a mother of twins committed suicide a few weeks before the scheduled inquiry by this Commission into the disappearance of her husband. Her husband as well as her father had been abducted by the security forces and subsequently disappeared. She became very depressed after the disappearance of her loved ones, and being unable to cope with the upbringing of her five-year old twins, she decided to end her life by taking poison. "You will be blessed, if you can find my husband," she had said in a letter sent to the Commission earlier.

It was revealed in another case that a person became very depressed after his brother was abducted by the army. One day he went out wearing the clothes of the disappeared brother and committed suicide by jumping into the Nilwala river. We came across several cases where fathers had committed suicide by taking poison after the disappearances of their sons.

A mother gave evidence before the Commission saying that one night a group of armed men had abducted three of her sons and another relative who was sleeping in her place at the time. A few minutes later she had heard several gunshots, and when she rushed to the scene, she had seen the burning bodies of her children. One year later, her other son was also abducted. Unable to cope with these tragedies, the only remaining son had also committed suicide.

In another case, an Engineer was abducted and subsequently disappeared. His father, an agricultural labourer, drowned while picking lotuses for pooja, and then his younger son also committed suicide.

Subversive killings else brought untold misery to the affected families. A police inspector (C. I. D.) was killed by subversives, and his wife, a teacher with a 10 month old son by the time of this incident, became insane; she committed suicide by setting herself on fire two years later.

Human rehabilitation is much more difficult and complicated than physical reconstruction of a war-ravaged area. An old factory, if destroyed, can be rebuilt in a way more suited to modern requirements and efficient management. A society cannot be re-built in the same way. Apart from the human aspect involved, we also found that there has been no concerted effort or "intervention" on the part of the state or society to help these affected families to re-build their lives. They were left to themselves. Society has not been sensitized to the special needs of these families. Apart from material assistance, many of the families also need emotional rehabilitation. This is a rather neglected aspect in our society.

Sri Lanka in the recent past has undergone several traumatic experiences-two insurrections in the South and a continuing war in the North and the East-with disastrous repercussions on the social psyche of the nation. No systematic work has been done to study this aspect. We assume that our culture has its own in-built mechanisms to absorb or cushion these shocks. But one should realize that culture has its own limits. When societies are confronted with catastrophes of unprecedented magnitude, special mechanisms should be evolved to cope with those problems.

" To the dear lady at the Matara Fort
Here is the picture I promised you "
A little girl whose father's body washed up on the shore was
buried by the family in the sands.

Posted on 1999-01-01


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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