South Asia

Running from pillar to post, looking for their loved ones

For Jayakumari Satish (seen here with her son), the everyday battle continues well after the end of the war.  

Peeping out of a square opening on the brick wall of her home, Jayakumari Satish handed over a packet of biscuits to her first customer that afternoon.

“90 rupees,” she said, smiling widely at the sight of her seven-year-old son, who was just returning from the neighbouring block. “I have to work hard for his sake.”

Missing persons

Ever since her husband went missing during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, Jayakumari has been raising her son with her modest income from the tiny grocery store she runs in her thatch-roofed home in Ambalanthurai village, Batticaloa.

With no other jobs available in the village, she had little choice but to take a loan and set up this shop where she sells items like sugar, chilli powder and basic toiletries. “I have been running from one office to the other to find my husband, but not a word on his whereabouts.”

After being displaced multiple times during the war, the young couple, along with their child, ended up in Mullivaikkal, Mullaitivu, during the last stages, before the war ended in May 2009. That is also when both her arms were seriously injured in a shelling. She returned to Batticaloa, only to find adversity chasing her. A few years after her surgery, her arms remain swollen above the elbow and bear crisscrossing marks of surgical stitches. “I can’t weigh the items properly because my hands start hurting. I cannot complain because my son has to eat and I have to repay my loans.”

Not just her, everybody in the village is in debt, she said, pointing to a small notice pasted on her window that read Indru mattum kadan illai in Tamil. (No loan today alone). “What do we do if there are no jobs available? Harvesting machines have replaced agricultural labourers. There are no factories here. Who will give us jobs?”

Lack of jobs, housing

The lack of jobs and housing was a running theme among many families in Batticaloa — in the island’s Eastern Province — particularly among households headed by women. Even as many of the women desperately look for their partners — said to be victims of allegedly enforced disappearances — they struggle to find sustainable incomes and a basic home. Most of them make do with thatch-roofed homes, or asbestos sheets crowning their four walls.

A presidential commission set up in August 2013 by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to investigate complaints regarding missing persons, has been holding public hearings across the North and East, so far collecting nearly 20,000 complaints. While the commission has recently sought an extension, families have been anxiously awaiting an update on their petitions. With no any visible sign of progress in the investigation so far, many young women like Jayakumari go about with their daily lives clinging on to hope.

Sitting in the front yard of her small home in Vaikaladichenai village, 34-year-old Udayakumar Thevamalar was helping a group of farmers fill up forms to claim flood relief. “I have done my A-levels (class 12) so I can do this kind of work, but I am unable to find a job,” she said.

A mother of two small children, she has been looking for her missing husband for the last seven years. Young women like her, who seem hopeful of finding their loved ones, are also among the most vulnerable. Thevamalar recently received a call from an unknown person, who promised her information about her husband’s location, giving specific details of his appearance. “I went all the way to Colombo, taking an extra set of clothes for him. The caller asked me to deposit 50,000 rupees (approximately INR 23,500) in a bank account, so I sold a small plot of land to make the payment. I have not heard from them since or seen my husband.”

The war may have ended over five years ago, but its aftermath continues to manifest in many forms, haunting families like hers.

Pending investigations of enforced disappearances remain a key challenge that, families of the disappeared said, was not a top priority to the Sri Lankan government.

“Even the newly elected government wants to investigate bribery charges. But we are waiting here, looking for real people,” said a middle-aged single mother near Batticaloa town whose husband, she suspects, was abducted by the armed forces.

While many families accuse the Sri Lankan armed forces of abducting members, some others point fingers at the LTTE. “Caught between the state and the Tigers, innocent families like ours suffered immensely,” she said, requesting anonymity.

“The state thought we were terrorists, the LTTE thought we were traitors.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 3:30:11 AM |

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