BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — When the Venkatesans recall how many of their family members have disappeared, the husband and wife look down at their hands and begin counting fingers. Four of their relations are missing, each abducted in the night by unmarked white vans. Three were taken in the last four months.
For any other family around the world, this number would be shocking. But for an ethnic Tamil family in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, it is unremarkable. For decades the region’s civilians have been traumatized by widespread disappearances, and they believe the majority of them are perpetrated by government security forces or government-backed paramilitary groups.
“We are powerless and don’t know what to do,” said Mrs. Venkatesan (the name has been changed at her request). Her only son was abducted last year and held in a prison for 11 months without charge. The 27-year-old said the police tortured him by beating the bottom of his feet. “When you are 40 years old, you will never walk again,” he said they told him. Last December he was released without explanation, narrowly escaping becoming another finger to count on his mother’s hand.
No one is sure exactly how many individuals have disappeared in the East over the last three decades as the Sri Lankan government has fought the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What is clear is that the disappearances are continuing, even as Sri Lankan government forces farther north engage in what they call they call the final battle.
Abductions have been a favored counterinsurgency tactic of the Sri Lankan government in its civil war with the LTTE — and the East has been at the heart of this battle from the start.
In one of the bloodiest periods of Sri Lanka’s history, from 1988 to 1994, 20,000 people around the country disappeared, although some believe that the true number may be two to three times higher.
Currently there are 5,727 unsolved cases of disappearances registered with the United Nations Human Rights Council, one of the worst records in the world. In a report issued in February 2009, the council expressed its alarm that the number of disappearances appeared to be increasing, particularly in eastern towns like Trincomalee. But widespread fears of reprisals, the council said, means that the true scale of the problem is likely underreported.
Many residents of the Eastern Province hoped that when the Sri Lankan government won control of the region from the LTTE in 2007, the possibility of a new era of peace would be realized. Instead, disappearances remain a common, almost daily, occurrence.
“It is a systematic cleansing of the Tamil population,” said one civil servant. “It is a process. Without the knowledge of the government, it wouldn’t happen. I would estimate there have been 1,000 to 1,500 abductions in the East in the last three years.”
In the town of Batticaloa alone, there were at least 75 abductions in 90 days from November to January, according to the Ceylon Human Rights Authority.
One of these cases involved two Tamil men in their early 20s who were arrested late at night. Their families went to the police station in the following days, but were told that the men had already been released.
Two weeks later, the young men’s bodies washed onto a nearby beach. Both had been tied to cement posts and could only be identified by their clothing. Beaten and tortured, their faces were unrecognizable.
“They used to burn them on tires, now they dump them in the sea,” said a priest in Batticaloa. He noted how unusual it was for families to have proof that their loved ones were dead. In most cases, remains are never found. “This time, the bodies came back,” he said.
Although this particular case has been referred to the Sri Lankan Human Rights Council (HRC), there is little confidence that institutions — international or local — with the mandate to register and report disappearances have any real power.
Indeed, a report issued last year by Human Rights Watch said that the current government, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, “has demonstrated an absolute lack of resolve to investigate and punish those responsible … There appears to be a concerted effort to disguise the identity of those responsible and to hamper future inquiries into the fate of the ‘disappeared.’”
According to a Tamil government employee in the East, the HRC struggles to merely keep up with the number of cases reported to it. “We need a squadron of human rights people,” he said sadly. “Batticaloa alone needs thousands of human rights officers. Their office has less than eight.”
For now, the Venkatesan family is struggling to survive. They plan to send their son to the Middle East for his own protection and so he can send money home. Mr. Venkatesan, a farm laborer, is no longer able to provide for his family.
“I can’t take food with me to work in the fields,” he said. “The army accuses me of giving it to the LTTE. I fear for my life.”
Additional dispatches by Maura O'Connor:
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