Text: Sarita Manu
Images Courtesy: Law & Society Trust, Colombo
In their relentless pursuit of a mono ethnic Tamil state in Northern Sri Lanka, the LTTE, in October 1990, evicted close to 70,000 Muslims in the North. At a notice of just two hours, this community was ordered to leave everything behind, and forced to start afresh in camps. It was only when the war ended in 2009 that these families were able to begin returning to their homes in the North.
The Law & Society Trust (LST), a not for profit organization engaged in human rights documentation, legal research and advocacy based in Colombo, began to work on a memory project with these families. The Northern Muslims Project is a project of the LST together with three northern Muslim partner organizations where they set up a Citizens’ Commission to investigate this expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE. The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and Asia Foundation also assisted the project during its various stages.
The Citizens’ Commission consisting of eminent people from all walks of life went to the community over the last one year, listening to people’s stories. These narratives were collected in the form of oral recordings and photographs. The final report was based on the evidence presented in front of the commission and there was very little photographic evidence as few people had pictures about their life pre-eviction. A team was then entrusted with the task of going to these people, family by family, with portable scanners and scanning all available pictures. Old, beautiful photographs of weddings, young children and family portraits emerged. With the release of the final Report, “The Quest for Redemption: The Story of the Northern Muslims”, recommendations were made to the government on restitution and how justice could be provided by the State to these people. This had a very strong impact in raising the visibility of these families, both within their own community and at a larger national level. ‘Each of these families had a story but nobody wanted to listen to them. The entire process had such a redemptive force and the very act of documenting their loss was cathartic for these people,’ says Mala Liyanage, Executive Director of LST.
War and Disappearance
LST intends to do a similar project with victims of the lesser known ‘terror’ (Bheeshanaya)in southern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Ordinary people were victimised by the government as well as the insurgents: many were killed and several disappeared. Liyanage adds, ‘More than three decades have passed since, and sometimes people are forced to live side by side with those responsible for the death of their loved ones. These people have had no opportunity to tell their stories.’
Thousands of people have gone missing during the conflict in the southern Sri Lanka and the Civil War. Nearly 30 years have passed since and families still wait for news on the missing. Liyanage wishes to do a documentary, ‘missing’, on all those who have disappeared. ‘Several of these missing have disappeared involuntarily: arbitrarily arrested or placed in detention. Some in the government probably know what happened to these people,’ says Liyanage. The documentary will be based entirely on the memories of the families of the missing; families waiting endlessly for the loved ones to come back. Children wait for their fathers; mothers wait for their children; wives wait for their husbands and they never stop waiting. This wait is very difficult as there is no way of knowing whether the ones they await are dead or alive: if alive, whether they are in prison or if they are dead, cremated or buried. The families go in search from prison to prison, detention centre to detention centre in the hope of finding some information or finding someone who can tell them what they desperately want to know.
The documentary will focus not only on Tamils from northern Sri Lanka but also on the victims of the insurgency in the south. It is difficult to talk about the suffering of Tamils in the north, without looking at the people who suffered in the south, says Liyanage. The ‘missing’ will cover all of these people. Liyanage comments that this project will be extremely difficult to execute, as it is very complicated to arrive at an exact number of the missing. The official records of such disappearances are arbitrary: they may be recorded as prisoners, or simple as ‘missing’ or even as dead. This is also closely tied with the issue of accountability on part of the government and hence one may never get an official number, feels Liyanage. She wants to have this film only for local consumption, especially for the Sinhala people in the south. Reports tend to be read only by students, lawyers and such but she wishes to reach out to more people through a film. She says, ‘People are unaware of the things that happen around them. All issues that will support reconciliation need to be made known, and this won’t happen as long as the Sinhala people remain uninformed of the issues and suffering of the Tamils.’
Continuing on the theme of the need to educate and inform, she proceeded to introduce me to the invaluable, meticulously preserved records of human rights and policy issues in the island over the past two decades.
Legal Treasure Trove
The LST publishes Sri Lanka: State of Human Rights, which is an annual survey of human rights, drawing contributors from across the human rights community and a monthly magazine, LST review. This monthly, has been in publication for nearly 25 years and is an advocacy tool for parliamentarians, judiciary and activists. A valuable record of significant issues over the last two decades, it is also a medium through which some sensitive issues have been brought out in the open for discussion. Since the LST review has been published for several years it serves as LST’s “business card” especially in the regional advocacy of human rights that Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam was very interested in. Dr. Neelan, who founded the LST, was one of the pioneers, advocating for national human rights Commission in Sri Lanka.
The archives house some of the documents, letters and papers which he used to express his thoughts before his assassination in 1999. His work related to utilising the law for social change, his pioneering work in public interest litigation and papers from various public discussions he organised in constitution making is also present in the collection, though not organised. On the rare occasion that someone wants to access these documents, they are brought out.
With more than 8500 volumes of books and journals, including a rare collection of legal literature, the Information & Documentation Centre at LST is particularly rich in historical material related to the Sri Lankan legal system. The library room itself is small and cramped due to lack of funds for its expansion but the collection is well-maintained. The lack of digital copies of this marvellous collection has restricted its reach, feels Liyanage. In the future, LST hopes to raise funds for the expansion of the library as well as digitisation of their collection in an extensive database, making it accessible to a wider audience. Even as they are working towards digitisation, the constraint will remain in physically scanning all books and making digital copies, due to lack of training in digitisation and shortage of staff. Some existing staff members have a keen interest in research and documentation and the trust can benefit strongly with the in-house training of such staff.
Through the work in human rights documentation, and memory projects including oral documentation, LST has been able to stitch together stories and pieces of Sri Lankan history that would have been lost otherwise; thus aiding the struggles for human rights.