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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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