Hundreds of Tamil mothers on August 12 took out a rally in Sri Lanka’s northern Kilinochchi district to mark 2,000 days of their relentless struggle, seeking truth and justice for their loved ones forcibly disappeared during and after the civil war.
Women wearing black sarees and headbands marched in Kilinochchi carrying photographs of their missing relatives. “Where are children who surrendered to the army?”, “Arrest Gotabaya who was involved in a genocide”, “We want justice”, they chanted.
“We’ve been agitating for 2,000 days now, but justice has not been served. We want to draw attention to our struggle and highlight this long-pending issue before the Human Rights Council session meets in Geneva next month,” Kadirgamanathan Kohilavani, leader of a Kilinochchi-based group of families of disappeared told The Hindu. “We really hope they [Council] will do something to ensure justice for us,” she said.
Enforced disappearances have been among the chief concerns of thousands of Tamil families in the north and east lingering for over 13 years since the war ended. Families are relentlessly seeking information on the whereabouts of those who surrendered to the army during the last stages of the war when former President Gotabaya was Secretary to the Defence Ministry. Their ongoing struggle, led by women, is among the longest agitations seen in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International. There is a backlog of 60,000 to 1,00,000 complaints, it notes, including from the island’s Sinhala-majority south where thousands of youth went missing around the armed insurrections led by the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP] in the early 1970s and late 1980s.
Several groups of families, spread across Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern districts that were the site of the nearly three-decade war, have been persisting with their agitations, braving frequent intimidation by the military and apparent insensitivity from political leaders. The groups have at times had differences, in their demands and as well as the strategy for their struggle, but are bound by a shared resolve to continue seeking answers to the troubling questions that haunt them every day. At least 138 people, mostly mothers of these disappeared children, have died during the struggle, according to the women involved in the demonstrations.
“Many of the mothers of these disappeared children, especially those depending on a daily wage job, are facing enormous hardships while continuing to agitate for justice. Some of them are eating only one or two meals instead of three because of the current situation,” Ms. Kohilavani said, pointing to the impact of the island’s harrowing economic crisis on the women. “No matter how hard things get, we will not stop demanding justice for our children,” she said.
The families have engaged with several domestic mechanisms, but to no avail, Amnesty International said in a tweet on Thursday. Pointing to “many incidents of state repression” including “intimidation, harassment and surveillance, restrictions on peaceful protests”, that are “long time challenges” for the families of the disappeared, the global human rights organisation urged Sri Lankan government to “urgently and genuinely” take account of the demands of families of the disappeared, “prioritise, respect and facilitate” the families’ rights to truth, justice and reparations without exerting pressure on them to close the cases on their missing loved ones.