OMP marks International Day of the Disappeared : If their stories do not stir the heart, something is wrong with our country - Deepika Udagama | Sunday Observer

OMP marks International Day of the Disappeared : If their stories do not stir the heart, something is wrong with our country - Deepika Udagama

2 September, 2018
Demonstration by the families of the disappeared
Demonstration by the families of the disappeared

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. For the long-suffering families, it was a remarkable moment in their journey towards truth and justice.

Suffering from years of conflict and political instability it is believed, Sri Lanka has one of the highest number of human disappearances in the region. But, it was the first time in the country’s history, that a government entity had marked the Day with an event. According to Brito Fernando, President of the Families of the Disappeared Organization, it is a sign that the State now finally recognizes that disappearances once occurred in Sri Lanka. “Since 2010 we celebrated the day with others who also lost their kith and kin,” he says, adding that, no government had acknowledged the day previously.

To him, this was a victory achieved through many years of struggle and agitation by family members of the missing in their search for answers from those responsible. He says, the establishment of the OMP too has been a positive step. Appreciating the many recommendations and suggestions being made by the OMP on behalf of the victims and their families, Fernando, however, says their fight is not over. “Many governments misled us and promised us many things,” he says, adding that therefore, they will continue in their fight for justice to ensure that at least this government delivers as promised.

Prior to attending the event organized by the OMP, around 250 family members of those who went missing during various time periods in the country, including, from the South and East gathered at Viharamahadevi Park for a silent demonstration. Holding placards that display their plight, they had many questions to ask the government, regarding action against those accused, where their loved ones are, and compensation for their years of suffering. Others held photographs of their loved ones who have been missing for decades. Joining the group were people such as, Dhanawathi Palliyaguru from Galle whose husband, the village Grama Seva Officer was taken away by an unidentified group one night in 1989, and Pillayar Kumarasamy from Batticaloa whose 16-year-old son went missing in 2000 on his way to school. The perpetrators of disappearances over time had not spared any section of society.

As the group joined other families of the missing at the OMP function, President of the OMP, PC Saliya Peiris, however, had words of support and comfort for them. Noting that 2018 is an important year for victims of disappearances he explained that enforced disappearances have now been declared a crime to ensure that similar spates of abductions and disappearances will not take place in Sri Lanka again. Reiterating Fernando’s sentiments, according to Peiris, as a nation it is important to acknowledge that a large number of people have disappeared in Sri Lanka over the last four decades. Claiming that only such acknowledgement could move the country forward towards true reconciliation, he announced that the OMP has finalized its first interim report which will be handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena on September 5. In it will be a number of initial recommendations to provide short-term and immediate solutions to the families of the missing.

Peiris though unable to reveal its full contents shared several recommendations with the families in a bid to gain their confidence. “We have asked for interim economic relief for the victims’ families to support their livelihoods,” he said emphasizing that however, this will not negate the right of the families to truth and justice. Importantly, the OMP has also requested to ensure that the military cooperates with the inquiries while also calling for better technical expertise to investigate the recently discovered mass graves.

While family members were also allowed to share their stories and experiences, perhaps, it was the emotionally charged speech by Anula Ariyawathi from Galle on the plight of the victims, their families and the brutality they had to face at the hands of the perpetrators, that left lasting impressions on those gathered. Although it is 30 long years since her husband went missing, Anula still cannot contain her tears.

In 1988, Anula’s husband was the only graduate to be employed at the Galle Bus Depot till he was dragged away by an unidentified group one night to a nearby Military camp. His crime was demanding an increase of Rs. 45 as an allowance, on behalf of his fellow workers. But, the perpetrators inflicted even more horror on the family that night. Anula herself was brutally assaulted and almost raped. But managing to fight off her attackers it only angered them more as they went on to physically assault her. “I had long hair at the time but they cut it” she says, adding that the beating left her with broken teeth. To this day, she continues to suffer from health issues as a result of the horrific assault. “Our own brothers in this country did this to me,” she says.

Her suffering did not end there. “Since 1988 we have had to face many problems, economic and otherwise,” she says. Trying to find her husband’s whereabouts or bring the abductors to book, reaching out to government agencies such as, the Police, she says, they were chased away or asked for sexual favours in return for their help. “We suffered so much and the pain was unbearable,” she says.

According to her, politicians often tricked them. “Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa used to campaign with us for justice, in the end, he turned his back on us when he gained power” she accuses. “Why did he do that to us?” she asks. Speaking for her loved ones every August 30, Anula says, they always returned empty-handed. “Therefore, I am glad at least now we have an Office dedicated to us,” she said, imploring that the OMP now helps those who continue to suffer.

Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Dr Deepika Udagama making the keynote speech on the Day noted that if something does not stir in one’s heart after listening to the stories of the victims there is something fundamentally wrong with the country. But, the Chairperson also noted the significance of the event. “It is a landmark where a government entity has acknowledged that disappearances happened in this country,” she said.

Significantly, missing among the crowd on the Day were family members of the forces and the police that went missing during the country’s conflict years. According to a chairperson of the OMP, still many do not feel included and fail to understand that the OMP is meant for them as well.

“They still have doubts,” he said. Family members of the disappeared in the North too were notably absent except for one mother who had travelled alone from Kilinochchi to attend the event. The families of the youth kidnapped in abduction by a group of the Sri Lanka Navy for ransom was represented by the missing Jamaldeen Dilan’s mother, Jamaldeen Jennifer Weerasinghe. “Having heard of this event I decided to attend as my focus is to get my child back” she said. According to Brito Fernando, not only do the families of the disappeared seek justice for themselves but they also want to ensure such incidents do not repeat in this country bringing more pain and suffering to other families as well.

“For years, we have been looking for our children, parents and spouses and we have suffered so much, that such a fate should not befall even our worst enemies,” he says adding that therefore their families will fight till justice prevails.

Pix by Chinthaka Kumarasinghe