By Zahrah Imtiaz
The new building on Sunday (28) however, became a place for old wounds to be healed and bottled up grievances to be aired as the Presidential Commission on Missing Persons held its sessions at this location.
“What is your name? Who are you missing?” asked the translator as the first witness came into give evidence before the Commission, and all listened patiently as the she related her harrowing story to be written into a file.
Wasanthakumaran Parani, a resident of Velangovil, lost her son and daughter and they were last seen on 16 May 2009. Her daughter, Ilakia was 19 years old when she disappeared and her son was 17. She said her daughter was forcibly recruited by the LTTE at Mullivaikal while her son too was taken away by the LTTE as they were travelling by bus towards Welanjamadam. She added that eye witnesses had seen her daughter surrender herself to the Army in order to be taken for rehabilitation. Parani has visited all the detention camps since then, looking for her children but has found no information on them.
“How do you earn a living?” asked the Chairman of the Missing Persons’ Commission, Maxwell Paranagama. Parani said she survived on the Samurdhi benefits and the salary received by another son of hers who is a security guard working for an NGO in the area.
“Did the LTTE discourage you from leaving their area? Were there LTTE cadres amongst you when you crossed into Army controlled areas?” continued Paranagama. Parani in reply said she was not discouraged from leaving and she is certain if LTTE cadres were present in the crowd.
The Missing Persons’ Commission this year had its mandate extended to investigate into war crimes which might have taken place during the last phase of the war. This includes investigation into crimes committed by both the Army as well as the LTTE, in addition to finding out whether the LTTE forcibly recruited civilians to fight during the last stages.
The questions asked by the witnesses are standard but the same questions are not asked from all. They are: “Who decided to go where. Which path did you take?, Was there any obstruction? Did the LTTE obstruct you from leaving? From which direction did the shelling come? Were you moving towards the Army controlled areas or the LTTE? Where did you go to? Which camp did you stay in? Did you inquire about your ‘husband’ from the camps? Registered lists? Rehabilitation centres? Did you lodge a complaint with the police? Did the police look into it? What is your source of income? How many in your family? Are you supported by the Samurdhi? Do you have your own house?”. Once these basics questions are satisfied, the Commission promises the witness that it will look into the complaint. The sessions which have been in operation for one year, have only managed to locate one missing person among the thousands of cases heard.
Yahappan Grace Amma had come to the Commission with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to complain of her son who has been missing since 16 May 2009. Her son, Anton Nandakumar(31) disappeared at Mullivaikal.
“The LTTE used to always come back for him. They would take him away and then he would escape and come back to us. This happened quite often. The last time he came, his wife had been injured when a bullet hit her eye and he took her to the Mancholai hospital”, related Grace Amma.
While Nandakumar’s wife lay in hospital nursing her eye, he went back to Mullivaikal to see to the rest of his family. On 17 May 2009, the wife who lost the sight in her right eye, moved to Army controlled areas and on 18 May 2009, they heard that Nandakumar was injured and had to stay back.
The wife and mother were kept at the Ananda Coomaraswamy camp and resettled after a few months. The mother went to look for her son soon after, found his name on the Red Cross’s list for those who were found; the list informed her that her son was being kept at Boosa Army camp. She went to Boosa camp with a letter endorsed by Mulangavil Police, but the camp informed her that her son had been moved due to issues of congestion. That was the last she heard of him. “Are you on the Samurdhi?” asked Paranagama, he was informed that they received the Samurdhi but also earned money through a small poultry farm and lived in an incomplete house.
By afternoon, the school hall was filled with more relatives, many holding pictures of their loved ones. Rumours of military intelligence officers in the room also abound but the relatives are adamant that their stories be heard. “No one has listened to me so far, this is the first time I was allowed to tell my story, I live alone and have not been given anything”, said Sahonthalai as she revealed that her only child, Kalyani had been missing since 18 May 2009.
“She was recruited to the LTTE when she was 18 and was put in charge of carrying bodies of dead cadres from the battle field. The LTTE never let me see my daughter, I fought with them about this and finally they let her come home on holiday once”, said Sahonthalai. She would also see her daughter at LTTE funerals in Mullivaikal and for the last time as she crossed towards Army controlled areas in Vattuvakal.
“I am living in a house constructed by the Army. The Indian housing scheme asked us to open a bank account to get a house but when I opened one they said as I was the only person in the family, I will not receive one. The Tamils here don’t help much either, I am not on Samurdhi and I have no food to eat”, she lamented.
She then broke down in tears and was escorted away from the room to a government official who was to provide her with further assistance. He had asked her if she would like some goats and to his surprise, she shouted at him saying with, “I am looking for my daughter, what have you found? I have been looking for her for so long. God will grant justice, men are killers. I will burn this place down if I do not get my daughter. This is a good for nothing government which gives us nothing, just find my daughter. I do not want anything else”. As the angry woman proceeded to leave the building with a multitude of curses, a government official was heard to be saying, “Her daughter worked for the LTTE at the frontline, and now she wants us to find her? She’s a mad woman!”
Human rights activists who have been monitoring the Commission’s sessions for some time now said with the mandate being extended, questions have become more random and arbitrary. They also accuse the Commission of having inaccurate translations when recording testimony.
In one of the instances, the Chairman of the Commission asked the witness, “You don’t know from where the shelling was coming from?” the translator in turn translated this to be, “Enthemukamilirun teerkalendru solla mudiuma? (Can you tell us the camps where you were at?)”.
Activists also accuse the Attorney General’s Department of not following up on any one of the cases that they have been recording at the sessions.
The Killinochchi District unlike other districts has a higher illiteracy rate and many of the people were not aware of the facilities available to locate their missing. Most had not checked the camps or lodged a complaint about the missing person with the relevant authorities. Civil society and NGO involvement in such matters were also low in the area, especially when compared to Mullaitivu and Jaffna.
Many of the women who came to give evidence at the Commission also reported that their husbands had abandoned them soon after the war. The levels of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the area are also high. Most had married at a very early age to avoid recruitment by the LTTE and thus, could not cope with marriage, especially after the war when the hopeless reality of rebuilding their lives had set in.
Rasadurai Nagamma is from the model village of Pallavaraikaate and out of the six children she bore, she has lost three of her sons every years since 2007.
Rasadurai Yoganeswaran (31) went missing on 27 June 2007. He was travelling from Vavuniya to Mannar and eye witness accounts stated that he was abducted in a white van at Stadium Junction, Mannar. Mannar was under Army control then. Rasadurai Jayathalaprathaban (33) went missing on 7 July 2008 as he accompanied his mother to the Vavuniya check point. “The CID officers there questioned him and did not allow him to come with me. He turned to go back to Vavuniya but never reached his home there. I suspect the CID officers to have taken him”, said Nagamma his mother.
Her third son, Rasadurai Kuhanesan was 19 when he was taken away in an LTTE van on 23 February 2009 at Rettaivaikal. “I cursed them, hit at the van and shouted at them to let my son go. My son screamed and held on to me crying amma but they took him away anyway. He was studying to be a lawyer” said Nagamma amidst tears.
Her fourth son, Nirojan too was taken away by the LTTE on 28 February 2009 but he managed to escape from their clutches. He has been rehabilitated since and now works for a demining operation in the area. Nagamma gets Samurdhi and was given a house but her husband left her soon after they were resettled.
Sunday (28) was only the second day of sessions and the Commission would be sitting for another two more days in Pooneryn. The stories are filled with despair and hope that the Commission would be able to find their loved ones. Many however, are aware that there is very little good news the Commission would be able to convey to the relatives.
In this backdrop, an activist who has been working with the relatives for some was asked, “Why do people come when they know there is very little hope of finding anyone?”, in reply she said, “Some still hope that their loved ones will be found. It has only been five years since the end of the war. A few come for compensation as the day to day realities of living in this area are harsh. People are finding it hard to survive. Most however, come to be listened to, they want their stories to be heard, they do not care what happens after”.
Most of the missing persons are between the age groups of 16-25 years. Only the very young and very old are left behind.
Former High Court Judge and Chairman of the Commission, Maxwell Paranagama said he had sat for six sessions thus far and that it had been quite useful. When he was asked whether he had been successful in locating anyone, he said, “a woman came to Colombo looking for her husband and we managed to locate him in a refugee camp in Madras”.
With regard to the poor translations at the sessions, he said the accounts were also recorded by the officials at the AG Department and that all notes would be corroborated with those to ensure accuracy.
The Commissioner having admitted to there being instances where the Army had interfered with the sessions said, “I have spoke to the Army about it and they have resolved the matter. However, there are few individuals who misuse the power of their uniform”.
As the sessions broke for lunch, the Chairman was asked, “Do you think the Commission will be able to deliver justice to the people?”, in reply he said,
“We can see the right thing to be done, the question is can it be done?and who is going to implement all these? Even our LLRC recommendations are hundred percent correct but the issue is implementation and that is going to take time”.