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.”