A Thousand Unanswered Questions The ongoing plight of families of the disappeared

By Raisa Wickrematunge

The photographs are framed in a variety of ways; gilt-edged, glossy black wood, or laminated. Creased from being held and passed around. Whatever the frame, they are cradled with equal tenderness. These photographs are one of the few tangible mementos the families of the disappeared have of their loved ones. Across the North, these families have begun to protest, calling for answers. Most of these protests have been ongoing for months, in rain and baking heat, for 24 hours.

Groundviews travelled to three of these protests. These are their stories.


It is day 60 when we visit. Two months of these families taking turns to sit in this hut, next to the post office in Vavuniya town, waiting for the State to listen to their demands.

“My son was taken in 2008. When I went to the police, they said he had been taken to court. Five people from the CID had come to take him in for questioning. I took my son by the hand and said 'You have no right to take him like that.' I said he had done no wrong. They intimidated me and told me they had to take him. They bound his hands, and took him in a white van.”

He never saw his son again.

“They are calling us LTTE supporters. We are just humble people, who have been downtrodden. My son used to help me in my business. Now we can’t live, or do anything. This is why we are on the road,” the anguished father said. “Our son lived with us. We would know if he did something wrong.”

A mother sitting nearby shares her story. “My son used to give the police food. He helped the police, but still they said he was an LTTE suspect and took him in. He was taken on 26th December 2009. The very next day we went to the police. They searched and found no trace of him. After that, someone had spotted him in the camps. But the Army denied that they had ever brought him there.”

Many of the families say their children were taken in for questioning in 2009, when the last stages of the war were being fought, or shortly after.

One of the leaders of the protest in Vavuniya, Kasipillai Niromi, has a particularly chilling story. Niromi thought it was a stranger who had abducted her daughters. She has one photo of them, garlanded and smiling in happier times. The eldest was 17 years old when she was taken.

She has one more photograph – a smiling Maithripala Sirisena, taken when he was Health Minister, surrounded by schoolchildren. Two of the faces in that photograph are as familiar to her as her own. “It was only when I saw this photograph that I realised my children had been taken by the Army,” Niromi said.

She doesn’t know exactly when the photograph was taken, but said it surfaced in 2015, in the run up to the Presidential elections, when she saw it in the newspaper. “He was Health Minister in 2010, so it must have been around then,” she says. Niromi has gone to every commission and state organisation she can think of to tell her story, and to point out her daughters in the photograph. She has yet to hear anything. “People come and listen, but there’s no resolution,” she says.

Some of the families also said their children had subsequently been seen in camps.

“My son was taken in February 2009. In August, someone said he had spotted him in Chettikulam camp. They said he would release him and even drop him at home, around 2014. But I have heard nothing since then.”

“In my son’s case, the Army denied they had ever brought him there. I have gone to the ICRC and testified. We have all testified everywhere, and not received anything.”

However, these families say that it’s not monetary compensation they want, but to see their children again. For at least one of the protesters, it has been 28 years since their child was taken.

One thing all these families have in common is a sense of anger and injustice against the State. “If our children did anything wrong, they should have been arrested,” they say. At one point in the interview, one of the mothers throws away a newspaper she has been holding angrily. “If Sampanthan were to speak on our behalf, this would all be resolved,” she says passionately.

“The people in Government have children too. They should understand our pain. How can they just sit by while we suffer? We have lost our children. If they lost their own children, how much trouble would there be?” they ask.

Yet, even the State had been beginning to forget their troubles, the families said. “After 2009, the CID or the police would come and follow up on our cases every few months. Yet for the past year, no one has come.”

This fear of their stories being forgotten is what has driven the families to continue their protest. They are willing to go to drastic lengths – if there are no responses by day 75, they say they will launch a hunger strike. “We will not drink a drop of water until we know what has happened to our children,” they said, striking the floor to emphasise the strength of their conviction.

For many of the families, the pain is still as raw as the day they discovered their children would not be returning home. As they tell their stories, tears fall. The other protesters gather around the more distraught, comforting them.

In this way, they have found strength in their collective grief. They are determined not to give up their struggle until they have some answers. On the day Groundviews visits, a group of the families have gone to a nearby kovil for their families. As we leave, they hand us a list of all their missing children, and the dates on which they went missing.


The bright yellow gopuram of the Kandasamy kovil is the marker for the Kilinochchi protest, well into day 64 when Groundviews visits.

For many of the families, this kovil is a place of refuge. Thevendra comes here often to pray for the release of his son, Rajiswaran. “I am always here. I don’t even sleep at home, although some of the others come and go,” Thevendran says.

Thevendran’s son was last seen in 2008, when he was admitted to hospital, with bullets in his leg. He never came back from the hospital. Thevendran was told his son had been arrested. “His name had been given to the prison. They asked me to come, but when I went, he wasn’t there. He had been taken somewhere else.”

Thevendran also has a printout of a newspaper clipping. He says he recognises Rajiswaran as one of the blindfolded men in the photographs. He doesn’t know when it was taken. However, it is clear that the photograph is precious to him – his hands shake as he tenderly unfolds the paper to show us.

Thevendran is the only one who didn’t mind being photographed. In Kilinochchi, the protesters anger is palpable. They request that no photographs be taken of their relatives, or of the ongoing protest. Part of this is because they feel their pain is being used. On Sinhala and Tamil New Year, for instance, they decided to wear black sarees and stand on the A9. While Tamil news providers like Shakthi and Vasantham covered the protest, it was never aired.

People from the area have also sent their photographs to family overseas, asking for funds to support them. This money never reaches the protesters. “We’ll have to change for their wishes if we accept money from everyone. So we stay hungry, and rely on donations,” a protester says. The nearby kovil provides lunch, and the others share what they can.

The Kilinochchi protesters want the state to release lists of the detainees, and those being held in secret detention camps.

Many of them had voluntarily handed over their children to the Army after the war. “The Army told us even if you have half a day’s affiliation with the LTTE, surrender and we will look after you,” Therese said. She had handed over her son to the Army in good faith, as did many of the other protesters here. Therese’s son has not been seen since, although she says that there is a newspaper article quoting Palitha Kohona that says he is still alive. While at World Vision, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had sent Therese’s son abroad for a conference. He had returned and worked at the Human Rights Office before he was taken.

Copy of the newspaper article quoting Palitha Kohona, indicating that Therese's son is still alive

Another protester says she saw her husband in the Channel 4 video, years after he had surrendered to the military. She had held on to the thought that he was alive, but is now worried, after seeing the video.

“People’s minds and health are being affected,” Therese said. “I have cholesterol and pressure. So I can’t stay the night here anymore.”

Therese said she has testified at several Commissions. She has no faith in the newly set up Office of the Missing Persons.

“Release our children now and we will be silent. We won’t hold the Army responsible. Others can ask for punishment, but we just want our children back,” she says.

In their desperation, some of these families have even been exploited by the military. “The CID told us they have our children, and to pay up if we want to see them. People have paid from Rs. 100,000 to as much as Rs. 500,000.” Military intelligence also often photographs the protesters.

“If our children did something wrong, take them to courts, or to prison. You cannot hold someone without a trial,” Therese said. “In order to get the confessions, people will hit and hit. After a while, because you are in so much pain you might shout that you did it. This is a disgrace to Sri Lanka,” she added.

Even amidst her own pain, Therese has great empathy for Sinhalese families too. “We care for the Sinhalese families of the disappeared too. They are our friends. We want them to understand our struggle. We want them to stand with us,” she says.

She describes seeing Sinhalese mothers, who lost their children during the JVP insurrections testify at public hearings. “The Sinhalese mothers cry as much as we do – our tears will turn to fire and the whole country will burn.”

In kovils, dashing coconuts can be either to invoke blessings or to call for retribution - the day before, families in Vavuniya had dashed coconuts at their kovil, calling for the speedy return of their loved ones

While the protesters say they understand why the war had to end, they do not understand why their children are still being held, so long after the war was over. “Mahinda did a lot of good, but also bad. If he had released these people, he would still be in power,” Therese said. However, she added the current President too had yet to take any definitive action to release the detainee lists and give them some closure.

“It’s not good for children when their mothers are sad. The Government should think about this. This country is being built on the tears of mothers like us,” Therese said.

After our visit, on the 27th, the protesters blocked the A9 road for some time, in order to bring more publicity to their cause. However, they say, it is mostly the Tamil media which gives them coverage. Undeterred, the protesters say they are willing to die if no one listens to their pleas.

From an Amnesty International exhibition on the disappeared

They see an opportunity with the visit of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, who is slated to be in the area for Vesak.

“If we can all come together, Tamils and Sinhalese and show we are all suffering we might be able to get some results,” Therese says optimistically.

Until then, those like Therese and Thevendra will continue returning to Kandasamy kovil, praying for their children’s release.


There is an air of purposefulness when we visit Mullaitivu. In the shelter located opposite the Divisional Secretariat’s office, a meeting is taking place. A female politician from the area is addressing the protesters. The subject of the meeting is a planned hartal, to be held on April 27th. Towns from Batticaloa to Trincomalee, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu Mannar and Vavuniya shut down in protest.

It is day 49 since these women have begun protesting, calling for answers.

The banners here are more strident. They want the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, and also call for the set up of a judicial mechanism with the participation of international judges.

Apart from this, of course, their concerns echo those of the families in Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. They want to find out what happened to their missing family members.

“We want to hold the President to his promises,” one of the protesters tells us quietly as the meeting goes on. Upon being asked what action they would take if this didn’t materialise, she answered simply, “We will stay here. Until we get the details we want, we won’t move.”

There is an air of tension here that is not apparent at the earlier sites we have visited. The politician speaking is accompanied by a bodyguard, who watched the proceedings closely. There have been instances of military surveillance here, one of the women says.

On the day of the hartal, the Mullaitivu protesters come out on to the road, holding photographs of their loved ones. The Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C M Wigneswaran in a speech said the hartal reflected the helpless situation of families of the disappeared. The Northern Provincial Council sittings were postponed.

Photo courtesy Garikaalan

Yet, a few days later, on May 1, the protest was still ongoing in Mullaitivu. In fact, May Day was declared a “Black Day.” It marked the 54th day of protest.

There has been some progress, with the State beginning to issue certificates of absence, allowing the families of the missing to access essential services without the trauma of having to apply for a death certificate. The Government recently gazetted a Bill to criminalise enforced disappearances. While legislation to set up the Office of Missing Persons has been passed, recent legal amendments curtailed its ability to enter into agreements for technical support and assistance. However these steps, while encouraging, have been slow to implement.

To date, these families are waiting for answers.

Written for Groundviews

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