No stones unturned
Stories of victims and their families’ relentless search for truth and justice
“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel
Documenting cases in Northern Sri Lanka
The heat greeted me one afternoon as I sat in a vehicle patiently absorbing the passing scenery. My mind was set on the seriousness of the task before me, strangely in contrast with the calmness of the day.
I was on my way to meet the father of one of Sri Lanka’s disappeared human rights defenders.
Lalith Kumar Weeraraj worked in the North and East of Sri Lanka as the Jaffna Coordinator of the Movement for People’s Struggle (MPS). The movement mobilizes people to stand against state repression of the Tamil community.
He devoted his time campaigning against human rights violations of civilians and human rights defenders in the North. He assisted the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) as well. But most notably, Lalith extended support and worked on the issue of disappearances. The forming of several committees of Familiesof the Disappeared was attributed to his efforts in the districts of Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya, Killinochchi and Jaffna.
He was travelling back and forth to his home and the northern areas during the conduct of his work. His father, although expressing alarm and concern, satisfied himself with asking Lalith to call each morning at 9:00 a.m. Lalith agreed and updated his father on his work and well-being.
It came as a shock one day when an unidentified person called and threatened Lalith’s father. His message was clear. Lalith should leave Jaffna or else he would be forcibly removed.
Lalith travelled to Jaffna on 9 December 2011 and needed to organize a press conference for the MPS for the International Human Rights Day on 10 December. He was with KuganMuruganandan, a close colleague. Both were seen to have left Muruganandan’s place at Avarangal around 5:00 p.m. They have not been seen since.
Allegations that the Sri Lankan army was behind the disappearances increased when Lalith’s engagements with the army were made public –these started before he went missing. The threatening call to his father was actually part of a series of threats Lalith suffered from both the military and the police in the North.
He was previously abducted by men claiming to be members of the army as he was putting up posters on 25 March 2011 in Mannar town. The posters demanded the Government release information on Sri Lanka’s disappeared. He was then blindfolded and detained overnight.
Another incident occurred on10 April 2011 when the Vavuniya police arrested him and a friend for putting up the same posters.
Two months later, the officers of the Killinochchi Army (Depo Junction) abducted him and he was interrogated for six hours. On 14 November in Jaffna, he was severely injured due to extensive beatings by unidentified men at a rally with the families of the disappeared.
Lalith attempted to file complaints and reported the incident. In his first attempt, the Mannar police refused to accept the case for the reason that he could not identify the persons involved in the act .The last incident of beating was filed at the Jaffna police station, but there was still no news on the progress of the case.
Lalith’s father shared that once,Lalith had asked him to come to Jaffna and see the pain of the Tamil families searching for their loved ones. He replied then that there is no need, for just the thought of the dangers associated with Lalith’s work and the possibility that he might disappear himself already brought him the same unbearable pain.
Aside from the emotional trauma, the family’s financial capacity was affected. The tea estate where the father works only pays 385 LKR (3 USD) each day. Before Lalith disappeared, he was helping the family in buying medicines, food, and paying for electricity bills.
The cost of witnessing the 1998 Riot in Indonesia
The rain was pouring when I met Nurhasanah.
Nurhasanah is the mother of YadinMuhidin, an Indonesian youth who disappeared in 1998.
In the morning of 14 May, Yadin was eager to watch theriot taking place in GriyaIntiSunterAgung. He soon returned home to eat lunch and to pray. At 1:00 p.m., however, a friend came and invited him again to witness the riot. He asked his older sister if he could still go. She responded positively and cautioned him to wear shorts instead of pants so he could move faster in case the mob would be dispersed and chased by the police.
By 2:00 p.m., Nurhasanah returned home and asked for Yadin. Upon learning that he was at the riot, she instructed the family to search and bring him back. For the next hours, the family scoured the area for Yadin, but he was nowhere to be found.
They later learned from one of Yadin’s friends that he was seen around GriyaIntiso. They sent a message through the friend instructing Yadin to return home. The friend named Rudi was able to speak to Yadin and relay the message. Shortly after, Rudi saw how a group of army members started arresting the people around the area.
After waiting for several hours, the father began checking with the local police at Gorontalo for news of their son. The police officer confirmed that Yadin was arrested but he was already released. When asked whether there was any official document about the arrest and release, the police officer denied his responsibility on the matter.
Still without Yadin, Nurhasanahand the rest of the family resumed their search. However, in spite of their efforts, he remains disappeared to date, his fate unknown to his family.
She was retelling this story the afternoon I came to see her. And unlike the rigid hard facts by which the incident was summarized, Nurhasanah was crying when she spoke of Yadin and how she longed to see her only son again.
She struggled and tried to keep her voice firm,her hands steady, as she recounted how her husband eventually became sick and broken with their son’s disappearance. He passed away without ever finding out what happened to Yadin. She spoke of how she remembers Yadin every night, and prays that if indeed he is dead, that he may be in peace, and that Allah may forgive his sins and bring Yadin to his side.
She told me how, in spite of extensive efforts to search and demand the Indonesian government’s attention and action on the disappearance cases, no positive action has been undertaken.
As we bade our farewells, she drew me to her and embraced me. In the midst of such grief, one always seems to be at loss for words. She whispered, “Please don’t forget us. Come back and don’t forget us.”
Despairing for decades
He is Thai and gradually became a friend last year. I knew his father was a victim of enforced disappearance. He had told me so himself, but still it surprised me that the case – that happened way back in the 70s, has not been documented. I asked him again to be sure, and he replied with the same statement, that it has never been documented.
So then, we began the process of our work. He was briefed about how we assist the families in our capacity to document, monitor and report cases of enforced disappearances and he told me how his father disappeared.
He was a young kid in school, when he came one day to find his mother crying and telling them that their father had gone. It was striking and heartbreaking to see, for he had never seen his mother cry and looking so broken.
Earlier that day, his motherwas with the father accompanying him to a bus stop for he was on his way out of town. Suddenly, two men from the bus stop approached her. Their words sounded menacing and she was told that the husband would be brought to the provincial administrator’s office for questioning. She protested and told them the village chief should first be informed, but the incident happened very fast. Two other men came out of a pick-up truck, handcuffed her husband and took him into the truck.
She was about to board the vehicle as well, when one of the men assured her that there was no need to come with them and she could follow them to the provincial administrator’s office later.
When she did go, there was no evidence of her husband, no information about the arrest and where he was taken. She didn’t realize then, that the incident at the bus stop was the last time she would lay eyes on her husband – handcuffed and brought to the pick-up truck.
She searched relentlessly, went to various police stations and spoke to different people – politicians, civil society, neighbors and others who would have knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts. But the search did not result in positive leads. Devastated, she suffered a breakdown after that but was forced to resume her work, her life for the sake of her three children.
Life took a seemingly normal course, until my friend resumed her mother’s search. He searched long and hard but similar to his mother’s experience, he soon faced a blank wall.
Then, he told me how empty it was growing up without a father to teach him things, no father to help in his education, no father to guide him in his early adolescent stages and towards adulthood. It brings him pain, he said whenever he remembers. This was something I could sense. But he has been strong and in the years without any word, evidence or support, he has made peace with the situation. . If in case he comes into contact with the person responsible for his father’s disappearance, he will tell him that he was already forgiven.
He told me as well, that the documentation was welcomed by him and his family. And it brings him peace knowing the search would continue and the incident be put in writing.
He also wished to keep certain identities confidential, thus the lack of names for the persons mentioned in the incident.
Recalling these stories and remembering each of these people I have met, I thought of how one cannot help but bleed – a little and then some more, when hearing about the families’ stories. From how they learned of their beloved’s disappearance, the denial soon followed by anger and frustration with the endless search to locate their disappeared loved ones,coupled with that waveof grief, seemingly stretching out from every waking hour and towards the rest of their lives.
But as one colleague frankly phrased it, perhaps it is not enough for people to feel sad. While never forgetting the capacity to forgive and be at peace, one should allow one’s self to be angry – mad at how loved ones were snatched from families, never to be seen again.
As I was bringing the interview with Lalith’s father to a close, I asked for Lalith’s photograph – a standard practice in documentation work. His father was quick to say that they have no recent picture of him. I was prepared to accept that perhaps I could manage with an old photo, when suddenly one of Lalith’s sisters came up to me and handed me his picture.
It was a clearer copy, a recent one, the sister told me. She spoke of how, in one of Lalith’s visit, he took her aside and gave the photo to her. Lalith had purposely gone to a photo studio to have his picture taken so that he could leave it to her with instructions, that in case something happens to him, people might come searching. And that she should give the photo to whoever would come.
Perhaps it was that certainty in Lalith’s actions that left an ache. He knew that soon, the consequences of his extensive documentation work and organizing of the families in the North would catch up with him. And with that inevitable fate, he knew with the same certainty and hope that is humbling, that other human rights defenders would come searching, demanding for government action and continuing the struggle to stop enforced disappearances from further robbing a family of a loved one.
I came across a copy of Elie Wiesel’s writings recently. He was a survivor of the holocaust and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Reading his speech about the lessons from the holocaust, a particular paragraph stood out from the rest…
“…the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
It still rings true to this day.
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