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Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01
Pathmini's agonising ordeal
- a 'disappearance' case study, 15 February 1998
Marwaan Macan-Markar reported in the Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Leader on February 15, 1998:
"Pathmini was pregnant at the time with her second son. The nine soldiers who visited her house in Chavakachcheri had come in search of a man named 'Sresberan'. They took her husband 'Sreskeran' for he had a name that sounded close to the one they were looking for.....
The northern peninsula returns to the dark ages when night falls, for there is little electricity that brings to life the bulbs in homes. This is so in the city of Jaffna and the smaller towns spread across this arid expanse. Even on those occasions when power does flow through the arteries of the electricity grid, from 7 p.m. till 10 p.m. every other night, the quality of light is so weak that reading is a strain. This has resulted in another joke being spun by some of the cynics in the north, the latest addition to the growing volume of war humour. It goes like this: One needs to light a candle to read the wattage of a lit bulb.
In the dark
Powerlessness of this nature is nothing new to the Tamils who have remained in their homeland. It was the order of the day during the five year stretch, from the mid '90s till the end of '95, when the Tigers were in control of the peninsula. Aladdin lamps and candles were means by which people got through the hot, liquid nights' cooking, eating, washing, studying. It explains why the few doctors working at that time noticed the rapid increase in the number of patients with deteriorating sight. Students made up a large slice of the weak-eyed.
When the government troops marched in two Decembers ago, however, and when the president and her commanding officers invited the people back, there was some expectation that with time the north would limp back to a favourable atmosphere. Such expectations were built on the promise made by the government that they were committed to making Jaffna a better a place, a more live-able environment than it had been under the Tigers. Those promises were among the reasons behind the Sri Lankan army's onslaught in '95 to recapture that lost territory, to bring it under the fold of the state. Those promises, the people say, were among the reasons that did induce them to return home in early '96.
Restoring electricity was one of the promises. So, too, providing a fleet of buses for public transport. Rebuilding roads, another. But in the two years that have lapsed, there has been little to account for in the name of serious progress. The pace of restoration has been as sluggish as a lazy wind that occasionally blows through the still, steaming, rainless months of this dry zone.
Such shortcomings, however, pale in comparison with the pain hundreds of families are enduring as a result of another failed guarantee. That of security. Personal safety. For when the doors were opened for the return of those who had left, there was an assurance that the army had captured the peninsular to 'protect' the people from the stranglehold of the LTTE. And the people heeded Chandrika Kumaratunga's invitation. That promise, however, lasted for three months, till April '96. An army meant to 'protect' civilians soon became involved in abducting them. As the months progressed, the accounts of disappearing youth grew. In August of that year, 190 boys and men were taken into army custody, never to be seen again.
Among those who lost a family member that month was Sreskeran Pathmini, a tall woman with graceful features. The one abducted was her husband, Appadurai Sreskeran. Even now, when 26-year-old Pathmini recalls what happened on that night, August 10, shortly after 8 p.m., she breaks into tears.
Pathmini was pregnant at the time with her second son. The nine soldiers who visited her house in Chavakachcheri had come in search of a man named 'Sresberan'. And they had taken her husband for he had a name that sounded close to the one they were looking for, a man they had said was a Tiger 'sympathiser'. Pathmini's appeals that Sreskeran was the wrong man, that he was an accounts teacher, and one who had not dabbled in militant activity, had little effect.
The desperate search for her abducted husband began the next morning. Her first stop was the Madduvel army camp, which came under 522 brigade. For the soldiers who had taken Sreskeran had said he was to be questioned there. But the men on duty appeared surprised by her story. And they maintained a similar disposition when she began to describe the men in uniform who had visited her home, men who had appeared sans hoods, masks, pieces of cloth covering their faces. Identifiable soldiers.
Nevertheless, she persisted. Returning to the camp. Trying to attract an officer's attention. And such insistence paid off, at least for a while. She was told that Sreskeran had been transferred to another camp, in Kankesanthurai. But that information led to a blank wall. There was no sign of her husband there.
On January 20, 1997, Pathmini had another occasion to believe that her husband would be home soon. She was summoned before an investigating team, appointed by the military, going into the long list of the 'disappeared'. That was held at Palali, the main base of the northern military command. And the outcome, after the inquirers had listened to her, read the letters she had written, gone over the documents she had got from various authorities regards her husband, was a definitive answer. One she had hoped to hear ever since that August night. "He will be released in a month".
However, a year has lapsed since that promise. And Pathmini still waits.
When I met her three Saturdays ago, she was among a group of about 60 people, men and women, fathers and mothers, wives, sisters, who had suffered likewise. They had been invited to meet a team of human rights activist from Colombo who had come to Jaffna for the local polls. The meeting, arranged by the organisation that represented these new victims of the north, the Guardian Association for Persons Arrested and Disappeared, was held in the compound of a crumbling house that had been converted to a tuition centre. The purpose, according to the president of the association, an ageing Paramanathan Selvarajah, a victim himself, a son abducted, was to get whatever help. He had faith in these Sinhalese visitors.
That morning, Pathmini was not only one who spoke. There were others, too. A few mothers. Some fathers. The room where that meeting was held had the atmosphere of a cemetery. Faces still as gravestones.
To understand the breath of this situation, an Amnesty International report of November '97 becomes useful. For there it captures how extensive 'disappearances' were from the beginning of '96 toll midway of '97. More than 600 cases of abductions have been documented, it states.
Several relatives were witness to the arrest and detention but have been unable to traces their whereabouts since. Many other people 'disappeared' after they were taken into custody at military checkpoints set up throughout the peninsula."
In December '97, a team representing Guardian Association flew into Colombo for a meeting with President Kumaratunga. After listening to them, after apologising for what happened, she promised to set up an independent team of inquirers to search for the 'disappeared'.
Till now, that promise still remains a promise. There has been no action. No investigations. And the families of the 'abducted' wait in pain for news of life of their lost ones."