The Townhall

“Still counting the dead”: Tamils’ 15-year-old struggle for justice in Sri Lanka

By Umer Beigh

On the hot afternoon of May 18, Vijayakumar Jacintha held a family portrait in one hand, and painstakingly took her crutches at the spot where hundreds of other mothers had congregated to commemorate the killings of their children in Sri Lanka’s Mullivaikal, fifteen years ago. 

“The violence devastated my entire family. I lost my husband. Three of my children – a son and two daughters,” the feeble Jacintha admits.

Sri Lanka’s civil war stretched for nearly two decades between Sinhalese and Tamils—after the ethnic conflict took the violent turn in 1983—bringing upon immeasurable suffering on its populace for which the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, blamed Sri Lankan forces for “unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and gender-based violence en masse against Tamils”.

In the final phase of five months in 2009, thousands of people were killed, displaced and subjected to enforced disappearance especially in northern Jaffna. 

For the relatives of disappeared persons seeking the whereabouts of their loved ones even after 15 years, they continue to face threats, harassment, and state intimidation. A Tamil woman from eastern Sri Lanka, who is campaigning for justice for her husband who has disappeared in 2000, told rights organization HRW how she finds herself hounded all the time by the state agencies. “Even if I go to the market or temple, security officers ask me, where are you going?”  

Navigating this risk of being imprisoned, thousands of Tamils including 72-year-old Jacintha gathered in Mullivaikal district to pay homage to the thousands killed in 2009.  The mother paid homage to her children in this sandy ground by offering prayers with flowers.

‘We want justice’

Jacintha, lives in a humble two-room abode in the small village of Mullivaikal. With barely any household comfort, utensils, furniture and basic food items. She has been surviving on donations for years. Whenever she runs out of cash she cleans the houses in the neighborhood or assists fishermen pull nets to fetch some money (roughly $3). 

“With that money I can only afford to boil gruel to survive. Had my beloved son been around today, I wouldn’t have to go out to work in the scorching sun at this age,” she laments. 

She remembers vividly that fateful day fifteen years ago, when northern Sri Lanka was witnessing a bloodbath in May 2009. The fighting was so widespread between the government and LTTE fighters (Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam), that it devastated the entire region. Thousands of families were shattered. At least 40,000 civilians were killed in the final month of the civil war, as per UN.

“My son was among those who’d joined the LTTE. He died as a martyr. During this frenzy, my husband and I were also badly injured. We were shipped unconscious to the No-Fire Zone”, Jacintha recalls, she’d toil hard to survive these years and have come a long way: 

“Even though my husband recovered in a hospital in Vavuniya, he passed away suddenly in the camp. Thereafter, I began to search for the whereabouts of my two daughters and found no trace of them,” she said. 

‘Return our beloved ones’

Several rights bodies including People for Equality and Relief in Lanka estimates that 100,000 have been subjected to enforced disappearances in the country’s ethnic conflict.

Among the long list of women seeking justice is 74-year-old Soosai Victoria, her son was barely 21 when he was picked for never to return. Her ailing condition has lately prevented her from participating at the memorial in Mullivaikal on May 18: “I don’t want to let go of my struggle to find his whereabouts but now I can’t walk properly,” she told reporters.

So far at least 132 relatives of persons subjected to enforced disappearances have died while struggling to establish the fate of their relatives. Sri Lankan police have repeatedly arrested those individuals who attempt to serve kanji, which is a rice porridge symbolic of the starvation conditions Tamils suffered at the end of the war. 

Sri Lanka, an island country, in the southwest of Bay of Bengal, has over 18.3 million population. President Ranil Wickramasinghe-led government often targets Tamils protesters against mobilizing and campaigning for justice. 

According to Amnesty International Secretary’s Anges Callamard, it was sobering to stand in the same place (at Mullivaikal) where, 15 years ago, countless civilian lives were lost during the last days of the war.

“Between Gaza and its 34,000 dead, Russia invading Ukraine, Myanmar crisis, Ethiopia and Sudan, there is a risk that the Sri Lanka conflict could be forgotten,” Callamard insisted.

‘Still counting the dead’

Even though the UN has recommended that the Sri Lankan government take a meaningful action to determine and disclose the fates and whereabouts of the tens of thousands of people who have been subjected to enforced disappearances. But hardly any military personnel have been held to account.

On May 17, the UN human rights office called for international prosecution and other accountability measures to address the thousands of unresolved cases for enforced disappearances in the war. “The large number of enforced disappearances which have occurred in Sri Lanka continues to haunt and wound both the individual and the society,” the report remarked.

Besides the tremendous human cost, several rights groups have blamed the government forces for increasing militarization in the north and east. They accuse the army for land seizures and controlling lands in the areas in post-war that have contributed to the decades of displacement and dispossession. This has complicated the process of reconciliation. 

Author of Still Counting the Dead, Frances Harrison who has extensively written on the survivors of Sri Lanka’s hidden war, points towards the psychological dimension of the ethnic conflict. Harrison argues that Tamil women who once ordered artillery fire against the government forces in the northern coast of Sri Lanka, are displaced and marginalized abroad. Most of them are invisibilized in nondescript suburbs. 

As a migrant Kalaiyamuthini recollects the gory images she witnessed at Mullivaikkal saying how can the heart forget May 18, “…whenever I hear the noise of aircraft and my eyes seek, instinctively, a bunker. Those looking on laugh, yet the pain of that trauma continues…I now live, a walking corpse,” she writes.

*Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir. His work has been published at several international media outlets including The Unbiased News, Ink Stick Media, The Contrapuntal, Express Tribune, New Frame, The New Arab among others. 

Todd Davis

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