By V. Priyatharshan
“Like we saw during the destruction of Mullivaikal, there will come a day where we will see the destruction of our struggle for the enforced disappeared.” Longstanding campaigner Reverend Shakthivel’s crackling tone is tinged with frustration and a certain inevitability.
As the coordinator of The National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners, Reverend Shakthivel has been at the forefront of the campaign for the families of the disappeared. He is looked upon as a figure of hope, but his words reveal a sense of impending doom as the fear of erasure and justice denied looms large. A decade on from the events that have culminated in many families seeking answers, Shaktivel has begun to notice a growing apathy towards the struggle as the energies of the older generation fade.
Campaigning families across the country face a generational transition, but the scars of the struggle have taken their toll.
“In the search for my son, I had to go to many places. For that, I sold all of our properties and jewelry. We do not have money to go to the protests (anymore).” Alfred Yogarthi holds back the tears as she recalls how the last decade has devastated her family’s life.
“I was a preschool teacher. I left the job to engage in searching for my child. This has become my profession nowadays.”
In 2008, Yogarthi’s eldest son, Dinu, disappeared while collecting drinking water in the Pudukudiripu Mantuvil area of Mullaitivu. He was only 16 years old at that time. What followed was a chain of events that would define all their lives.
Fixated by the struggle for answers, Yograrthi and her mother spent the subsequent years attending protests across the country, sacrificing both health and finances. Yograthi’s mother, who died campaigning, sold all her possessions to continue the struggle. Yograthi has trodden a similar path as ancestral properties and valued possessions have slowly disappeared. Her family of five children now live in a small house in the Manduvil area of Pudukudiripu, Mullaitivu – the same place her ‘Dinu’ disappeared. Wanting to move back to their native Jaffna, Mukamalai, the Alfreds are stuck in limbo, living a hand-to-mouth existence by engaging in poultry farming, goat rearing and home gardening.
“If Anna (elder brother) were with us, we would not be here. We would have moved to our native place Jaffna Mukamalai. As our Anna was made to be disappeared exactly at this place (Mullaitivu Puthukudiyiruppu Manthuvil), we managed to buy land and built a house, and are waiting until our Anna returns. He knows only this place. So, we live here with the hope that he will return to this place one day,” says Gobinza, Yogarthi’s 21-year-old daughter.
Gobinza has lived her formative years through this struggle and has seen first-hand the effect it has had on her mother. The sacrifices her elders have made have left long-standing scars and signs of resentment.
“When there are economic crises, we do not have enough money to go to protests. We manage our day-to-day expenses after pawning our mother’s jewelry. Due to money problems, we have kept ourselves away from the protests. No one comes searching for us since we do not have money.”
The journalist and social activist, K. Kumanan has worked closely with the families of the disappeared and has seen the plight of the Alfreds mirrored across the campaign.
“The families of the forcefully disappeared, lead a hand-to-mouth life. They are in dire straits. Having already been affected by the war, their economic situation is much worse. It was those who were the pillars (main earners) of the family who have disappeared. In unfortunate circumstances it is their younger siblings who have now been compelled to look after their families.”
A few kilometers east of the Alfred residence, another family grapples with the pressures of maintaining the fight for justice.
“Only our elder sister is employed and looks after the entire family. Our father is aged and we do not have much money,” says 18-year-old Nagaratinam Thamil Nila, the youngest of a family of five children.
Thamil Nila’s elder brother disappeared during the final stages of the war in 2009. Her 50-year-old mother, Parimaladevi, has campaigned ever since, despite suffering from heart disease and other ailments, causing her to faint and fall several times while on a march. Thamil Nila cites her mother’s exhaustive pursuit for justice as the major cause of this.
“My mother has become a sick person by participating in the struggle continuously. We do not have money to buy her medication. Sometimes, the neighbors buy medicine for her as a humanitarian gesture ..I haven’t seen my brother since I was little. After he disappeared, my mother has been searching for him. Even after searching for so long, (my) brother has not been found. We wonder whether we will ever find him, even if we continue.”
Her mother, Parimaladevi, laments her current situation, “If my son were alive today, I would not need to go out to do manual jobs. Much money is needed to participate in the struggles. Economic problems are the greatest impediment in our struggle for justice.”
Whereas the Alfreds still display an unflinching hope for justice, Parimaladevi is far more reticent about the future, having witnessed her family crumble under the strain of that day in 2009. Almost resigned to her fate, she finds the words difficult to comprehend.
“I think my children will not search (for) their brother after my death. But I am afraid to share my thoughts with my children.” she reveals with hesitation, afraid of what the future holds.
For trauma expert and academic Christy Palendran, the telltale signs of war-fatigue have always been visible in the new generations.
“The reason why young people often shun the struggle is due to severe long-term shock and trauma – they have been psychologically affected. Further, they are self-pressured by the thought of what happened to their parents and their brothers may also happen to them. I have met many young people like this, sometimes they become withdrawn due to the strain.”
But the life-changing experience of their campaigning parents isn’t the only factor that seems to be fueling the slow demise of the campaign for justice. The other is far more apparent and immediate, as Christy explains. “There is a fear of being threatened …that intelligence officers may follow them for investigations.”
This climate of unspoken intimidation has created a hesitancy in action that Thamil Nila strains to articulate. “My mother does not like to take me to the protests because of the threats that intelligence officers and others posed to younger generations like us, so we don’t participate in the protests.”
Across Mullaitivu district the post-war atmosphere has remained tense. What was once a peaceful region is now heavily militarized with the presence of army personnel immediately apparent. The sense of being watched is shared by the Alfred family too.
“Some (people) would come and make inquiries, claiming themselves to be intelligence officers and speaking in a harsh tone. Due to this reason, we do not go to demonstrations anymore.” Says Alfred Jeyanthan (28) second son of Yogarthi. “Even when we go, we face problems. We do not participate in the demonstrations for fear of the threat we have.”
Activist Kumanan explains further about this new obstacle that the campaign faces. “In the current circumstances of security threats, persecutions and crises, they naturally have apprehensions about what kind of problems they (youth) will face when they engage in protests. This thought is deeply rooted in the minds of the young generation. The fear of being charged with concocted stories, leading to the harassment and intimidation of their innocent aged parents. These ongoing incidents and experiences have really impacted the younger generations, and due to this indefinite fear, they are forced to refrain from joining the struggle even if they are willing”
Christy Balendran believes all these frustrations are connected to a wider strategy of stagnation that is beginning to penetrate the justice movement “When participating in the struggle, incidents like strangers taking photographs, imposing threats and incidents like being affected emotionally, frustration, economic difficulties, poverty, suppression and repression by the government may cause obstacles to their struggle.”
Reverend Sakthivel agrees with the lack of action being a thorn in their side “The struggle for the disappeared is continuing. But no justice has been done so far. If it goes on like this, at a certain stage the campaign will fizzle out.”
He is adamant where the blame lies: “The Sri Lanka government is dragging without meting out justice; in the process, they are planning to dilute the organized struggle …We have no plan to take the struggle to the next generation. How are they going to take it forward finally when they (government) are just buying time. Of those parents who were active in the struggle more than 130 have lost their lives. The deaths of the parents of the disappeared has become very discouraging and made us lose hope to take forward the struggle into the future.”
But activist Kumanan is still hopeful of a reinvigoration of the cause through alternative means. “The Struggle of the next generation is beginning to emerge only now,” he says. “The contribution of the youngsters will play a significant role when they take the narrative of their parents’ struggles when the inquiries for justice are eventually conducted.
“It is the responsibility of the youngsters to take the struggle to another level. They can make it globally known through the digital platforms, particularly Twitter, Facebook. Using the medium of art, documentaries, photographic exhibitions and so on. The injustice of disappeared persons is being brought to the attention of the world only now through these new channels. It is the younger generation who are responsible for this.”
Back in the homes of the Alfred and Nagaratinam families, the new generation are still defiant and continue to hold on to hope of their brothers return. “I am not afraid of any threats from anybody and am still prepared to participate in the struggle,” proclaims Nagaratinam Thamil Nila in a moment of unabashed bravado. But how this struggle continues in the future is still unknown.