Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: Exhumation May End Painful Hunt For Missing Tamils

Marwaan Macan-Markar

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Jun 17 1999 (IPS) - Paramanathan Selvarajah still remembers what his son wore the last time he saw him in July 1996 — a light blue shirt over ash-coloured trousers, a gold chain round his neck, two rings and a watch.

Such details will prove useful in his painful quest for his missing son, one among 628 Tamil youth who ‘disappeared’ in this northern town after being arrested by the army.

On Wednesday, forensic experts began exhumation of reported mass graves in Chemmani, a flat marshland covered with wild grass 4 kms north of Jaffna, searching for the remains of some 400 of those missing from military custody.

The digging began in the presence of international observers including Amnesty International at a spot identified by Somnath Rajapakse, a soldier who was convicted last year for the 1996 rape and murder of a Jaffna schoolgirl and her family.

Rajapakse who was the first to disclose the existence of the mass graves in Chemmani said he had buried two men whose tortured bodies he and other soldiers had transported to Chemmani from a nearby army camp.

By late evening, a little over four hours after the exhumation began under tight security to prevent possible attacks by separatist Tamil rebels, the first signs of a buried body surfaced: a part of a knee covered with the tattered remnants of a trouser.

The detained Tamils disappeared from military camps in 1996 – the year Jaffna was wrested from rebel hands by government troops who forced them to pull back into the jungles of the Vanni, further south from where they continue to attack at will.

More than 50,000 people are estimated to have died in this lingering 16 year ethnic conflict, in which tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have become refugees or been displaced. Civil war has scattered families, while many await news of a missing son, husband or daughter.

A recent report of the U.N Commission on Human Rights put Sri Lanka second after Iraq on a list of countries where people have “disappeared” in armed conflict. While Iraq cannot account for 16,348 citizens, Sri Lanka has 12,108 missing people.

The vast majority of the cases, the reports states “occurred during 1996 in Jaffna, Batticaloa and Mannar districts, frequently in the context of so-called round-up operations by military personnel. The number of disappearances increased steeply following the resumption of hostilities in 1995.”

Now relatives and friends of some of the missing people are likely to know what happened, though as Ingrid Massage of Amnesty International said here, “happiness will not come out of it (knowing).”

Sreskeran Pathmini, 27, who watched her husband being taken away by Sri Lankan soldiers in uniform in 1996, grieves openly. “They destroyed my life when they took him. I can never be happy if they find him at Chemmani,” she said outside a Jaffna courtroom where the exhumation process officially began.

She was among a group of some 30 women who had arrived for the reopening of graves. They were either mothers or wives of teenage boys and young adults who had ‘disappeared’ in 1996.

Many Sri Lankans have been missing since before that, among them majority Sinhalese from the island’s south, detained during a violent crack-down on so-called radical left student revolt against the government in the late-1980s.

Most of the victims were unconnected to the extremist People’s Liberation Front, better known by its Sinhala acronym JVP, and the ruling Chandrika Kumaratunga government came to power in 1995 promising to order a probe.

Three presidential commissions have received more than 30,000 petitions from relatives of those missing. Many of the cases have been investigated and the guilty identified, but the government has been slow to punish the guilty.

Instead Sri Lanka’s government-appointed Human Rights Commission has doled out compensation, in some cases of up to 50,000 rupees (roughly 700 dollars).

Jaffna’s only psychiatrist, Dr Daya Somasunderam believes families need to know the truth about their missing members. Having treated some of the affected, he says it will help them complete “the normal ritual of death and mourning”.

That may still take time in Chemmani, since the forensic team hopes to stop excavation once they have unearthed four bodies. A

more comprehensive effort is scheduled for a later unspecified date, probably months from now.

Dr William Haguland of Physicians for Human Rights, among the international observers at the exhumation here, is convinced the process cannot be rushed.

The doctor who has participated in similar exercises in Bosnia and Rwanda, among others, said: “If done in a hurry, another crime can be perpetrated, evidence will be destroyed, and the families denied the chance of identifying their relatives.”

Relatives of the missing Tamils like Selvarajah are prepared to wait. As he said, “He was my son, and I want to know what happened to him. If he is not there, where is he?”

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