“So that he might not disappear” — Poetry and Enforced Disappearances

By Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA

On March 21, World Poetry Day celebrates the power of verse. “Poetry,” Robert Frost wrote, “is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” In Sri Lanka, a country where up to 100,000 people have been subject to enforced disappearances, poetry has been how many people have turned the deep pain of having their loved ones wrenched away from them into an eloquent cry for justice.

In 2015, Amnesty International launched Silenced Shadows’, a poetry competition that drew on the talents of people on all sides of Sri Lanka’s decades long conflict, united by their common grief at the disappearance of their relatives. The winning poems have been compiled into a book that was launched in January.

One of the winning poems was “Mudamai Kolam”, by Shash Trevett. The word kolam refers to a South Asian form of drawings, consecrated to deities, and often found in the front of houses. A kolam is composed of curves, known as sikku, that sweep around patterns of dots, or pulli. The poem, recited in a video here, opens with this image.

Feet planted in perfect balance,

she bends each morning

deftly dotting the floor,

Each pulli a prayer,

each sikku a curving embrace

The fish, birds and flowers,

her suns, moons and stars,

her patterned privations

flow through from the outside

in, a propitiation –

so that he might not

disappear into the darkness,

so that her lips might

call him forth from the unknown.

Each curve a syllable of his name

a patterned proclamation of his absence.

For months she has performed

these mudumai kolams,

for him.

While somewhere,

he washes her feet daily

with his tears.

The poem, and others like it, convey what Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty described as the “yearning to know”, “the pain of imagining it” and the “uncertain grief”.

“The flame of hope that subsides gradually to a barely perceptible flicker, never quite extinguished by the passage of time,” Shetty writes in an essay introducing the collection of poems. “There can be no real certainty, no closure, no moving on.”

It’s a haunting sentiment that captures another poem in the collection, “Looking for Raju”, by Basil Fernando:

I will not cease to search

I will not stop my questioning

I will not die, but live to the end of time

Seeking my son and asking questions from everyone.

The poems and the video inspired by them should rouse us to take action to end enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, a tragedy suffered by tens of thousands of families, across all communities, for three decades.

We are calling on people to take action in the emblematic case of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a Sri Lankan journalist and cartoonist, who left work on 24 January 2010 and hasn’t been seen since.

Two days before he vanished, he had published an article critical of then President Mahindra Rajapaksa. Prageeth’s wife, Sandya, has tirelessly fought for justice, trying to discover his whereabouts and to get the government to take responsibility.

We can all help. You can send an online letter to the Sri Lankan government demanding justice for Prageeth, by clicking here. You can also take part, along with more than 1,700 activists, in our photo action #WhereIsPrageeth, with directions and a sample sign here. With your help, Sandya and all other loved ones of the disappeared can get the answers they need and the justice they deserve.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.