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30 Years, and Still Waiting 'Bheeshanaya' Era enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka's South, and life after

Rain has turned the red earth roads of Kiula, Hungama in the Southern Province to mud and the skies are overcast. In the verandah of a bright pink house, five women – U.P. Somaseeli, K.D. Jayantha, A.T. Hemalatha, K.P. Somawathi and S.M. Pemasili – are settling in to plastic chairs to share their experiences.

“It’s not often that people come to talk to us, especially because so much time has passed."

These women’s husbands were forcibly disappeared in the Southern Province during what is called the 'Bheeshana Yugaya' (Age of Terror). This is the period between 1988 and 1990, during the second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection, and the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) brutal response to it. Their experiences recall a time of immense fear and uncertainty. Violence came from many sources: the JVP intimidating civilians into supporting them and murdering government personnel and those who opposed it; the Police and Army abducting, torturing and killing anyone suspected or simply accused of being JVP supporters; and paramilitary squads doing the same.

Three decades have passed since the women last saw their husbands. Since then, there is nothing they have not tried their hands at in order to raise their children, who have now moved on with their own lives. Over time, they have come together with the many other women and families with stories just like theirs, to seek the truth, justice, relief, and to simply share those stories.

“It has been thirty years, but the pain of this loss has not reduced at all.”

U. P. Somaseeli

“We didn’t even get to finish our morning tea that day”, Somaseeli says, recalling the morning of January 29 1989. It was 6.30 a.m. She and her husband had just stepped into their garden to drink their morning beverage when a van bearing an Army number plate stopped outside their home.

They didn’t give her a reason for taking him away with them. “In those days there were never reasons given, by anyone, for anything that happened,” she says. When the Army was unsuccessful in arresting local JVP leaders, innocent men like Somaseeli’s husband paid the price.

Thinking it would be a good place to start, she went to the Hambantota Army camp in search of him. When she arrived there on January 30 asking for his whereabouts, she saw him and some others being taken away in the direction of the toilet. His face was tied with the shirt he had been wearing. For all she knows, she says, he could have been on the way to being tortured.

This would be the last she would see of her husband. She was sent away from the camp, and returned to Hungama. On the night of the 31st, she found several men from the Army attempting to set fire to and damage her house. “They told me he had escaped,” she recalls, “and they spent hours shouting at me to return him, though I had last seen him at the camp”.

“I suppose there was one good officer in the midst of the rest, that they would at least think to tell me he had escaped?” she asks.

“That’s not because of any goodness they have, Soma,” Pemasili interjects, “it’s just to paint their own innocence”. She explains how several such families were threatened similarly to give back their loved ones who had ‘escaped’ from detention, when it is likely they were killed in custody. The narrative that they had escaped was a convenient cover-up.

For the first few years following his abduction, Somaseeli couldn’t approach law enforcement to report what happened to her husband. “We were terrified of the Police; we are innocent people who had never gone to a Police station before this. The journey there made me shake with fear”; Somaseeli and the others recall that the Police would shout at them as one would to an animal, asking them to leave the station and denying their complaints.

The zonal Commissions of Inquiry into Involuntary Removals and Disappearances established by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge during her first term was the first occasion where Somaseeli, and many others, were able to publicly speak about their loved ones who had been taken away from them.

“We received Rs. 50,000 as compensation, but that is all,” she says. This Commission and the more recently established Office on Missing Persons both promised to consider her case, and also promised livelihood assistance to her. “Since that first payment, we haven’t seen a cent.” She was also provided with a death certificate that says he was taken by ‘unidentified persons’, though she knows without a doubt that it was the Army, having seen him at the camp.

Death certificates which do not record a definitive cause of death, such as abduction by ‘unidentified persons’, pose issues for families because they often bar receiving compensation and benefits from numerous channels, including Samurdhi payments. Many families of missing persons are also wary of applying for death certificates, thinking that it would mean giving up on finding what really happened to their loved ones.

The current government began issuing Certificates of Absence in 2016 – these act in lieu of a death certificate, until the circumstances of the disappearances of the persons are investigated and concluded. Certificates of Absence can be used by the next of kin of a missing person to access more benefits, though they still have a drawn out application process.

After her husband was taken, Somaseeli needed to earn to be able to support her children. She took on any job she could find, working in various types of manual labour to be able to put food on the table. “Look,” she stretches out her palms, “I still have the calluses from those days. The physical and mental pain we carry only increases as we age.”

K. T. Jayantha

“My husband was a farmer, and because he didn’t support the JVP, we faced a lot of trouble even before he was taken”. Jayantha recalls the threatening letters that used to come to their house regularly. The party officials and supporters had told local vegetable sellers and fishmongers, who went door-to-door on bicycles selling items, not to visit their house because of this.

On the December 11, 1988, he and a few others were heading to the sea to go fishing. Barely 200 metres from their doorstep, Jayantha saw what appeared to be a Police jeep come to a halt. Her husband was pulled inside, and taken away.

“In those days, we didn’t have cars so I made my way to the Hungama Police on foot”, she says, going on to explain a harrowing journey. In the uncertainty and violence of that period, many were hesitant to travel on the streets. Jayantha says she took her medicine prescription with her, should she be stopped and questioned as to why she was out. “The road that runs there, the next road from here,” she points through the thick trees nearby, “there were so many bodies along that road, they’d been doused with petrol and just left to burn”.

When she reached the Police station, she saw the vehicle that had taken her husband parked outside. “No one by that name was brought here,” said the OIC when she inquired, despite her insistence that that very same vehicle parked outside the station had taken him away. This led her to be convinced that he had probably already been moved elsewhere in the time it had taken her to travel to the station.

A few days later, workers from a nearby saltern told her that they had seen what they thought was her husband’s body in Gonnuruwa, near Mirijjawila – he appeared to have been shot in the mouth, and the bullet had exited from the side of his skull. When the men went back to retrieve it, they found that it had been burned. She had no way of confirming if her husband was, in fact, dead or alive.

“The day they took him itself, I found another threatening letter on our door”, Jayantha recalls, “it said something to the effect of ‘we’ll have to fix your mouth too’”, implying that she might be next.

Life has been difficult and tragic for Jayantha since then, too. With the help of her family, she was able to relocate her three children to Hikkaduwa, where she took on work at a garment factory. She had to stop, however, when her young daughter fell seriously ill with a heart defect.

“I lost her too.”

Jayantha says her daughter taught her how to crochet. She now sells clothes she knits herself and makes a small income. Jayantha’s daughter made the top she’s wearing today as well. She picks at it softly as she talks about her daughter.

Last year, she was robbed by two men who had just been released from prison. She was tied up and hit with a knife; she still has the scars on her face. She managed to untie herself and her neighbours caught one of the thieves. She is awaiting the return of her stolen jewellery at the court case being heard next month.

She pulls out a pristine sepia-toned photograph out of a plastic bag. “Everyone used to say Jayantha’s husband was handsome like a movie star!” Somawathi peers over the photo, “but how do you still have this?” She says that during that time, the JVP would collect people’s identity cards, driving licenses and photographs – because documentation wasn’t as scrutinised as it is today, they went for long periods without them before applying to have new ones issued.

“They came and asked for it, but I refused to give it” Jayantha says firmly, “they can’t take this from me as well”.

A. D. Hemalatha

“December of 1989, I was working in Saudi Arabia at the time.” Hemalatha says how from as early as 1987, threatening letters would be sent to people’s houses, asking them to join the JVP’s movement. JVP members would also terrorise the neighbourhood for food all the time. The women all recall how everyone was cooking extra food, offering meals to JVP members before they would eat their own.

She heard the story of her husband’s abduction from other people; she’d been told he’d been walking with a machete as he went to work that day, looking after cattle. A vehicle had approached and asked him to turn over the tool, but he had begun to run away in fear. The people in the vehicle had pursued him, used the machete to hit him, and then taken him away.

Her three children were suddenly without any parents to take care of them. They could not stay with their relatives who lived close by. Days after their father was taken, their uncle’s body, beheaded and burning, was found hanging from a light post at the Nonagama junction.

Having managed to settle with some friends of the family, the children tried to get in touch with their mother overseas. In a time where they didn’t possess phones to make quick contact, letters were written and posted to her. “I received two letters in that envelope”, Hemalatha recalls, “one from the children, a cry that now both their mother and father were not there, and they wanted to be taken home. Another from the friends who had taken them in, informing me of my husband’s abduction, and telling me the children were alone.”

Her employees in the UAE had been understanding of her situation, and supported her journey back to her children. When she returned, she attempted to make a Police entry, but was instead asked to check at the Boossa Army camp. “They told me it was not likely that he was alive, and that I shouldn’t bother looking for him. That it would be better for me to do some pin (good deeds) and forget about it.”

The Rs. 50,000 compensation given out by President Kumaratunge’s commission was the extent of the assistance she received. She went to Kuwait again, and with the savings from her work there was able to find a home when she returned. Now, she makes food such as hoppers and sells them for a small sum to shops and restaurants in the area. Her son is now a sergeant in the Air Force, and that provides a little assistance to her as well.

The least that could be done by the government, she says, is to support women like her in their livelihoods. “The Samurdhi allowance for widows is Rs. 250– what can you do with that? It’s not enough to get even our pressure card. It’s not enough to eat full meals for a day,” she says. An increase up to at least Rs. 2,000 would be more helpful, she says.

“The toilet in my home is broken, and I have been compelled to visit others’ homes and ask them if I can use theirs.” She says that it's only party organisers who travel to these small villages making promises close to the elections. Hemalatha says she is waiting for a big politician to visit so she can show them the situation that she is living in.

K. P. Somawathi

“March 1, 1990, yes I remember it was the first day of the month”; Somawathi claims that she is slowly losing her memory, yet remembers every detail of that day in Thihagoda, where she lived at the time.

Her husband didn’t go fishing that day, because there was a daane (almsgiving) at the nearby temple. He had carried pots of curd to the temple, and partaken in the proceedings. Later in the day, he had come home to rest. “He had woken up and was brushing his teeth with his finger when they took him.”

She recalls the green Pajero van that had parked outside their home. As her husband brushed his teeth by their well, she was on the other side of the nearby stream. “He hadn’t even put on his shirt, or washed his mouth, but they took him”. When she inquired why he was being taken, she was told it was to give testimony. She and her five small children were left alone.

Close by was the Matara Army camp, and the Kamburupitiya Police; in her fear, she did not choose to visit either institution to make a complaint about the abduction.

Later that night, she says bodies had been left burning in places all across Thihagoda, some every few feet. She and her children went looking for her husband in all these places; “they were crying,” she recalls, “crying to me that their father was not there.”

These days, she is raising her granddaughter, whose mother began an affair with another man, and left her child with her mother. The child’s father blames Somawathi for her daughter’s actions, and she is tired of the strain.

And all the time, she is losing her memories.

S. M. Pemasili

“It was 3.30 or 4 p.m. on November 20, 1989, when my husband and I were taken to the Army camp at Maamadala,” Pemasili’s voice is quiet. Her face and hands were bound and she remembers that several others who had been taken were sat in a group together and interrogated one by one.

They hung her husband from the ceiling, and began beating him, demanding that he name members and leaders of the JVP, and that that they wouldn’t be released until they did so. “I heard all of it, as they continued to thrash him, letting him down only 20 minutes later.”

She was next; her ankles bound, she was hung upside down from a bar, and beaten with S-Lon pipes for the same information. When they were finished with her, she was taken to a room of clay walls. She had not had water for hours, and outside she could hear men talking loudly as they drank. It was here that she was sexually assaulted.

“What was my fault that I was tortured like this?” she had asked as they came afterwards to take her away again. Her face was covered and tied with her husband’s shirt, and she asked the men to give it to him. They brushed it off, claiming that she would be ‘put in a tire tonight’.

She was taken to the Hambantota camp where they announced that ‘they had brought another woman,’ and the ordeal continued. Hung by her fingers from a ceiling bar, Pemasili was tortured again for the same information. “There was a family of JVP members who lived in a house just over there,” she points through the trees around her current home, “they weren’t there the day the Army came looking, and look how we suffered.”

She was not able to fall asleep, terrified of when she would be taken to be killed or beheaded. Her legs tied up, she wasn’t even allowed to use the toilet. There were four younger women there who were untied. It was only when they complained of the smell that Pemasili was given a bath.

“The young women in there with me were scared, and spoke to me that night,” she recalls. They had been taken by the Army men to the ‘circuit’ nearby. Because they knew she was married, the young women had asked her if it was possible to get pregnant after ‘one time’. In her own distressed state, Pemasili tried to console them as best as she could.

A week later, she and the other women were taken to the Hambantota Police. The official at the Army camp, who Pemasili remembers by name, arrived at the station, demanding the OIC that they be given back to him. “He probably wanted to kill us and finish the job,” she says. Having been registered at the station under a detention order now, they could not be given over to him. The five women remained at the station for close to five months, however.

“For those five months, my children had nothing to eat and were alone.” All of this she learned only much later into her detention. The children would approach elders and families they knew to give them some food so that they could eat for the day. “My littlest one would come with his aunty to visit me at the station,” she recalls, “I would save my small meals of rice and pol sambol for him to eat, and he would tell me how his older siblings at home were hungry.” Having explained her ordeal quietly and methodically, Pemasili only breaks down when talking about how her children had to suffer.

“If we did something wrong, then I accept that we should be punished, but we were completely innocent,” she says. Owing to the torture at the camp and the strain it placed on her, it had not occurred to her to ask for her husband’s whereabouts. The last she saw of him was when they were both taken from their house that afternoon. She wishes she had asked more questions. He could have been saved. “But we didn’t have that intelligence back then, we were just village women. Now, we know better.”

The time since

In the years during and immediately following these experiences, the women were not able to speak out and or even share the injustices they had faced. “We were too scared to even go on the road at that time,” they say. Burnt and dismembered bodies lining the streets were an everyday spectacle for so long. The atmosphere at the time – the bheeshanaya, or terror – is unimaginable for many today.

It was only when the UNP regime changed that there was some space for them to come together in grassroots and civil society movements to call for justice. The activism has gone through waves and cycles. The movements of the mid-1990s gave way in the succeeding years, as the war intensified and the phenomenon of enforced disappearances took on more victims with newer dynamics leading to flashpoints in other parts of the country.

The women here have been engaged from 2014 onwards, through the Families of the Disappeared collective. Pemaseeli and Somawathi recall when it was just the two of them, going around the neighbourhood holding small meetings and trying to gather numbers. The others express gratefulness, and relief, at being brought into this movement by them.

Although they do not explicitly acknowledge it, there is a quiet sense of community among them. The conversations move with ease from a loved one’s medical updates, to an anecdote from a visit to the market, to comparing notes about the documents needed to obtain the Certificates of Absence they are entitled to, to the details of the next meeting.

“We women are all in the same boat!” Somawathi laughs.

Moving forward

“We have driven ourselves into debt trying to rebuild our lives,” they explain; relying on loans while not able to earn stable incomes drives them into further hardship. They express disdain at the new guidelines set out by Samurdhi officers to ascertain the ‘poor’ and what benefits they are entitled to. Evidently, if someone has access to a well and can buy medicine, they are not designated as poor. “By their measurements, no one is poor!”

They cannot and do not want to rely on their children, most of whom are married now with families of their own to support. As time has passed, they deal with being forgotten to varying degrees. What they would like most is to have enough to get by, and to not have to worry about their families.

When the conversation turns to politics, there is a sense of despair that their issues have gone unaddressed by successive regimes for three decades. There is anger and indignation, but also a mutual understanding about what the possibilities of change are. The upcoming presidential election, featuring the Rajapaksas, the JVP and possibly a Premadasa will bring back a lot of associations from the late 1980s.

Yet, the women are unfazed. Hemalatha says that “When I go to the polls this time, I will spoil my vote like always, because nothing any politician says means anything.” Pemasili says with laughter that she has told her children that by voting for Gotabhaya Rajapakse as they intend to, they are also voting to have her disappeared, for her critical voice and role in this movement.

When asked about the publication of their names and photographs, the women are all defiant in asking that their names and stories are made known. The loss they carry, and all that they have lived through has pushed them to find strength, they say. They are loudest when they insist that they have no fear anymore; “We have already lived through so much, and experienced the worst,” they say.

“What worse is there that could happen?”

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