Mothers of the missing fight on | Daily News

Mothers of the missing fight on

The protest tent in Kilinochchi.
The protest tent in Kilinochchi.

Eight years, no answers:

They sit when it rains, and they sit when the hot wind off the A-9 highway blows sand into their makeshift tent. They’ve been sitting for over 200 days now in Kilinochchi, protesting the loss of their family members.

They are mostly women, and they say they have one thing in common: they all lost their loved ones in the final days of the war, in 2009.

Some of their sons and husbands were fighters for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, they said, who surrendered after the Army’s final offensive. Some were just civilians, picked up in camps for internally-displaced persons or loaded onto buses and never seen again.

The mothers have been searching for answers ever since, but a half-dozen government commissions set up over the years to address their questions have given them nothing, they said.

“For eight years we believed the NGOs and INGOs and government commissions, but now we are not trusting them,” said President of the Association for the Relatives of the Enforced Disappeared Kanagaranginy Yogaraja, “So in February, we decided to protest here, because we can only trust ourselves.”

They say their demand is basic: they want to know if their sons, daughters, parents, husbands and in-laws are dead, or if they’re alive somewhere, in a prison or detention camp.

“We don’t deny that there should be truth investigations,” said KathasamyPonnamma, a mother whose son-in-law disappeared in Vavuniya. “Even if they supported the LTTE in some way, we are ready for judicial processes, we are not saying just release them.”

“Even if you've killed my son, you can give me the body,” she continued, with tears in her eyes. “I need to do the final rituals. You can at least give the body to us.”

Stuck in limbo

Not knowing whether their family members are dead or alive plagues the mothers. Many believe that their loved ones are still alive somewhere, and if they were released, they could come home and help take care of their shattered families.

“That’s the cruelty of disappearance,” said Alan Keenan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “In many ways its worse than murder, because of that uncertainty.”

In the absence of truth, all they have left are their final memories of their loved ones.

On a recent afternoon, surrounded by about 25 other mothers, Thangavelu Sathiyathevy recalled the last time she saw her family.

She said she remembers the day exactly. “This was May 18, 2009. We were in Vadduvakallu, and there were buses taking people away,” she said.

Thousands of displaced people had gathered on the beaches there, seeking safety from the fighting.Vaddavakallu was technically in a no-fire zone.

“My daughter, son-in-law, and their three children were taken into the bus. He was an LTTE member,” she said, “and we also asked to join with them. But they said no, you can go separately.”

Sathiyathevy said she was taken to Manik Farm, an IDP camp near Vavuniya. But she has never seen or even heard from her family again.

The children were 2, 9, and 10 years old.

Sivayogam Ratnaraja said she and her family was also taken to an IDP camp in Vavuniya after the war. In June, her son Ratnam Ratnaraja came to visit them from the University of Moratuwa, where he was studying engineering.

But after he left the camp, he was arrested by local police.

Ratnaraja said she was never given a reason for his arrest. But she has a suspicion.

Her elder son, Ratnam’s older brother, was an LTTE cadre and died during the fighting. The Police or an informant might have known this.

“But my younger son was a student, he didn’t have any connection with the LTTE,” she said. “It cannot be justified in any way.”

She said shortly after the arrest, the police called some of his friends and asked about her son’s behavior at the university.

“They said he’s a very good student and he does not engage in any sort of activities like that,” she said, “They told the police to release him.”

Six months later, Ratnaraja said one of her neighbors, A. Rajaratnam, met with and spoke with her son at Anuradhapura prison.

But she has not heard from him again in eight years.

“I lost my husband to illness,” she said, “I begged other people for money and with that money, I encouraged my other children to study.”

“If my son is alive he will take care of my family, and his other siblings,” she added.

Without answers, the mothers say all they have left is hope. Since they began their protest in February, five of their members have died of heart attacks and other health complications.

“We have to get the answers,” said Leelathevy, one of the association’s senior coordinators. “Whether they protest for 300 days or 500 days, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Government pressure

On their 100th day of protest, the mothers called a massive demonstration and hundreds of people took to the streets and blocked the A-9 in Kilinochchi. After that, members of the association met with President Maithripala Sirisena in person. He promised to release a list of all those who surrendered to the armed forces in the final days of the war.

In the time since, President Sirisena has also operationalized the Office of Missing Persons, an official body that would help families trace the fate of their loved ones.

In an interview Tuesday, National Integration and Reconciliation Ministry Secretary V. Sivagnanasothy said that the country’s Constitutional Council is in the process of nominating seven councilors to head the office.

“After that, it will finally be appointed by the President,” he said.

Sivagnanasothy also said his ministry is working to compile the list of people who surrendered at the end of the war.

“It will be a very important milestone, I would say, in the whole of reconciliation,” he said.”

200 days and counting

But for now, the mothers in Kilinochchi say are still waiting to see that list, to go before the fully-formed Office of Missing Persons and to get the answers they’ve fought so hard for.

Yogaraja, the group’s president, said that politicians, even elected Tamil politicians, have lost sight of their pain.

“The LTTE leaders, they are now becoming very good friends and partners to the government,” she said. “But the normal soldiers, who joined the fight for two days, or three days, they were disappeared.”

They hope that their struggle, sitting every day and sleeping every night in the harsh elements of the hot northern province, will wake up those in power.

“They are enjoying their life and we are crying here in this place,” she said. 



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