Searching for the Missing in Sri Lanka

By Aaron Goodman
(Originally published in The Toronto Star, Dec. 12, 2004)

In the war - ravaged northeast of Sri Lanka, an aging Tamil father sits on the floor of a Hindu temple, waiting to meet an exuberant, seemingly tireless oracle. Holding a wand up to a woman's chest, the oracle - a hefty, middle-aged man dressed in a red and gold sari - rocks his head back and forth as if in a violent spell. Finally, the oracle draws three lines of ash, yellow and red across the father's forehead.

"You want me to tell you about your son," says the oracle. "He's alive. Someone is keeping him in the south of the country. When he turns 29, he'll be all right. Don't worry, I'll give you back your son."

With the oracle's news of his son, the father, Kumaran, covers his face with his hands and begins to weep. Fourteen years ago, his 18 year - old son was arrested along with 157 other Tamil youths by the Sri Lankan army at the nearby Eastern

University. None of those who were arrested have ever been seen or heard or from again.

For most of the last 20 years, Sri Lanka has been gripped by civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fighting for a separate homeland in the northeast of the country. More than 65,000 people have died in the conflict, and some 200,000 Sri Lankans have moved to Canada as a result of the war.

But there is an insidious part of the conflict that we rarely hear about. Over the last 30 years, security forces and the LTTE have disappeared an estimated 60,0000 people. Only one other country in modern history, Peru, has had more people go missing.

this is from srilanakd

Security forces first disappeared 30,000 people in the late 1980s as they crushed a radical Marxist rebellion in the south of the country. Throughout the civil war in the northeast, the police and army have also disappeared thousands of Tamils.

Yet only a handful of low and junior -ranking officials have been held accountable for these crimes. Many in the chain of command responsible for disappearances, both in government and the military, still hold positions of power.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement. But a year and a half ago, the Tigers walked away from negotiations, claiming their demands for self - government were not being addressed.

Since then, Norwegian mediators have tried, and failed, to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, the country hovers on the edge of renewed fighting. Last week, LTTE leader Vilupillai Prabhakaran stated that the rebels are running out of patience and are prepared to go back to war.

But even if peace talks resume, it is unlikely that disappearances will be addressed any time soon. According to Dr. Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council in Colombo, a well - respected NGO that supports the peace process, the issue of the missing will only be dealt with once there is a legitimate end to the war.

"There must be a beginning of disarmament within the military and the LTTE," said Perera. "It is only at that stage that we will be able to address more seriously the issue of disappearances, only when there is a lasting political solution to the ethnic conflict. Prior to that it's going to be very difficult."

In the meantime, thousands of families, including the father, Kumaran, continue to search for answers about the fate of their missing loved ones.

At the Eastern University, 20 km from the northeastern town of Batticaloa, Dr. Thangamuthu Jayasingam, the rector of the Eastern University, recalls the events that led to the disappearances at the campus 14 years ago.

"The military ordered everyone on the campus to line up in rows, and masked men identified those who were taken aside," explained Jayasingam. "They were gagged and their hands were tied behind their backs. After that, they were put on buses and taken away. The army said they would be released as soon as they were questioned, but it's been 14 years, and so far nothing has happened."

The next day, a nearby Hindu temple hosts an annual fire - walking ceremony. According to local custom, walking across fire is the ultimate act of spiritual purification. For the father, Kumaran, it is a chance to pray for his son to come home.

Since sunrise, dozens have men have been reducing a roaring blaze into a path of burning hot coals. Kumaran waits at the front of a line of hundreds of worshippers preparing to step across the fire. Lifting a coconut over his head - a symbol of his devotion - he sets off lightly and speedily over the embers.

When he reaches the other side, his body trembles, and he repeats prayers under his breath. Moving back to the front of the line, he steps across the fire again, and then for a third and final time.

Outside the temple, Kumaran describes his experience walking over the fire and what he was praying for.

" For the past 14 years, I haven't had any information about my son," said Kumaran. "But I still believe I can get him back. Today I walked across the fire three times, but I didn't feel a thing. I prayed to God to give me back my son. Wherever my son is, he has to come back and join us in our prayers."

Whether his son will ever come home is unclear, and if these rituals really help, no one can truly say. But with thousands of people still missing, the task of building a lasting peace in the country seems incredibly daunting.




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