In Sri Lanka, Fear of Being 'Disappeared'

Grandchildren comfort G.H. Mithralatha, 75, a Tamil whose son was taken by police.
Grandchildren comfort G.H. Mithralatha, 75, a Tamil whose son was taken by police. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

MAHA OYA, Sri Lanka -- Under thick tropical rains on a rutted country road, a bus packed with ethnic Tamil families screeched to a stop here in eastern Sri Lanka. At a heavily fortified government checkpoint, the families were ordered off the bus.

They were asked many questions. Where had they come from? Why? Whom did they visit? The experience, for many of them, was more than inconvenient. It was frightening. In places like this, they said, amid bungalows battered and burned by war, people go missing.

"It's not waiting in the lines or the search of our bags that troubles us as much as the chances of being picked out, arrested and never being able to see our families again," said a 19-year-old Tamil waiter, who was too fearful of government reprisal to offer his name. "I know neighbors it's happened to. If you are Tamil in Sri Lanka, your trust has been spoiled. You fear rebels and you fear the government, too."

This country's war against ethnic Tamil rebels has grinded on for a quarter-century. But under a recent military offensive to wipe out those rebels, government forces have abducted hundreds of members of the Tamil minority group, including civilians, according to human rights groups. Many of the "disappeared" never turn up again.

The government denies that abductions have become widespread and says heightened vigilance at checkpoints is necessary -- even if Tamils complain of ethnic profiling. Authorities cite the danger of suicide bombings, like one that killed more than a dozen people, including members of a high school baseball team, in February.

But rights activists say President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his lieutenants are intent on eliminating the separatist insurgency known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, no matter the cost. They also say Sri Lanka's growing ties with Iran, China and Russia have emboldened the government to ignore criticism from the United States and other Western powers.

Rajapaksa "has a simple message -- that the LTTE are terrorists and he's going to be very, very confrontational," said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in Colombo, the capital. "He doesn't need the West. He doesn't need to worry about human rights."

Abductions are carried out in various ways, according to activists and relatives of those who have disappeared. Sometimes Tamil men of fighting age are rounded up at checkpoints, hurried into white vans and never heard from again. Sometimes they are arrested with little explanation in house-to-house raids at night.

Regardless of the method, the disappearances often leave deep economic and psychological wounds on Tamil families.

With her five grandchildren at her side, G.H. Mithralatha, a 75-year-old Tamil, said her 42-year-old son was working at a local harbor as a driver last year when police arrived on the scene. Without explanation, she said, they bundled him away. The family has not heard from him again, despite frequent visits to the police. The children's mother left to be a housemaid in Kuwait.

"I'm suffering so much with these children to care for," Mithralatha, whose body is frail and back is hunched, said as she wept. The grandchildren range in age from 2 to 14. "I wish we could find their father."

In its annual human rights report, released in March, the U.S. State Department said the Sri Lankan government's "respect for human rights continued to decline due in part to the escalation of the armed conflict." The report cited near-daily extrajudicial killings in the government-controlled Jaffna peninsula and accounts of the army, police and pro-government paramilitary groups participating in attacks against civilians.


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