By Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA
If you happened to be in Colombo, Sri Lanka a couple weeks ago, you might have seen three trucks driving around the streets with enormous yellow signs draping their sides. The first truck’s sign read: “More Than 60,000 Disappeared”. The second: “Still No Answers”. And the third: “Why, Mr. President?”
You might have wondered: what is this about? Would you believe it if I told you that between 60,000 and 100,000 people were made to “disappear” in Sri Lanka by government forces over the past 35 years? And to this day, in the vast majority of their cases, no one has been held accountable? And to this day, the relatives of the disappeared still don’t know what happened to their loved ones?
“but her eyes are a story/and in them I read/of stolen people, vanished off the earth/like shadows in the night/of war and carnage and burning palm trees,/the torture of uncertainty” — “Still Waiting” by Ria Rameez
August 30 is observed as the International Day of the Disappeared. From Aug. 28 to Aug. 30, Amnesty International staff joined activists from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Maldives to highlight the ongoing human rights violation that is enforced disappearance and that occurs in so many parts of South Asia.
We started on Aug. 28 in the capital, Colombo, with a solidarity event at Galle Face Green on the oceanfront, flying yellow kites symbolizing the disappeared and hearing first-hand from some of the relatives of the disappeared. We also had a street theater performance by local artists, enacting the all-too-common fate of the relatives of the disappeared who only meet with rejection while searching for answers.
“I will not cease to search//I will not stop my questionings,/I will not die, but live to the end of time/Seeking my son and asking questions from every one” — “Looking for Raju” by Basil Fernando
The next day, we took our campaign to the south of Sri Lanka, where an insurrection in the late 1980s by an opposition group from the Sinhalese majority community was defeated by government forces killing or “disappearing” tens of thousands of suspected supporters or members of the opposition. Despite subsequent presidential commissions investigating these disappearances, no one has been brought to justice and the family members still do not know the fate of their disappeared relatives.
“It is a secret journey/to oblivion/footprints don’t last on the sand/nor on gravel or grass” — “The Lonely Walk” by Hasitha Wickramasinghe
Despite the large numbers of disappeared, and given that Sri Lanka only has about 21 million people, many people who haven’t been personally affected by enforced disappearances aren’t very aware of the issue or know much about it. Why would they? The government has no interest in informing people as to what the security forces have gotten away with and are continuing to get away with. Part of our campaign was to change that by informing people of the scope of the problem.
Starting at 2:00 A.M. on August 30, we started heading north to express solidarity with members of the Tamil minority whose relatives were “disappeared” in the course of the 26-year conflict between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A conflict that ended in 2009 with massive human rights violations by both sides against civilians trapped in the war zone.
“Pillow cases getting soaked every night,/visionary belief of arrival,/zealous expectations of appearance/accounted as only merits left/for the rest of our lives” — “You Shall Come, For We Await You” by Raheema Faizal
In Mannar, in the north, we joined families marching to commemorate their disappeared loved ones.
We ended our journey in the northern town of Vavuniya but our demands for truth and justice for the disappeared and their relatives continue.
You can join us in our campaign for the disappeared. Send an online letter for the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and take part in our photo action on his case. Together with the families of the disappeared, we must keep pressing for justice and truth.
“so that he might not/disappear into the darkness/so that her lips might/call him forth from the unknown/Each curve and syllable of his name/a patterned proclamation of his absence” — “Mudumai Kolam” by Shash Trevett