(Officer in charge of the Vantharumoolai refugee camp, 1990)
Many may not know that when September 5, 2015 dawns it will be 25 years of waiting for 158 families who ‘lost’ a member or two on that day in 1990 from the VANTHARUMOOLAI REFUGFEE CAMP at the Eastern University. They did not go missing as usual where no one knew where they went. In this case these 158 were ‘handed over’/ ‘taken over’ by the Sri Lankan military in front of a population of nearly 40,000 people. They were forced into buses and driven away in the direction of Valaichenai. This was the last time anyone saw any of them, to date.
Unfortunately, I was the lead officer of the camp at that time and stay witness to this, to date. I have made my comments to various national and international persons regarding these facts. I presented myself to the Presidential Commission on Missing Persons in 2004. I gave them the names of all the army officers who came for the operation that day and also gave the name of the Army Major General who came three days after on 8thSeptember to the camp. I am not aware whether there had been any inquiries to this day.
Two colleagues who were managing the camp with me, Prof. Mano Sabaratnam and D. Sivalingam, are no more. I went again to the Presidential Commission in 2014, at the request of relatives of the people who went missing. I gave them a letter stating that I had given all what I had, the documents, and all what I knew, which is already in the report of the previous Commission, published in 2007. I told the commissioners that I want to know what happened to all those? There was no answer. I told them the next time when another commission comes looking for these facts, I won’t be there and you won’t be there and we will be talking of stories of 1990. Perhaps all relevant parties may have died when the next commission comes around.
I have people asking me whether they are alive or not, to which I have no answer. I have people telling me that they are in place X, place XX etc. and I have no confirmation. I am traumatized as any person who went through the ordeals of the war. I wake up at night at times when the missing persons’ memory and the camp comes back to haunt me in dreams….
I am not sure whether this will end, but I wish this will never be repeated.
I am not sure what happened to them? But surely, there must be many soldiers who would know what happened to them. I am sure the Major General who visited our camp on 8th September 1990, and who went on to become the Army Commander would be aware of the case and its follow ups. Will anyone have the face to say to the world that this is what happened? It is not about a war crime, it is about humanity. It is about the truth. Does anyone have the courage to face the truth and say ‘this is the ‘truth’. Many do not understand what the families of missing people want? They want an answer. Not compensation, not punishment, but an answer. Could those who took them away from a refugee camp give that?
Does anyone realize that there are children who do not know their fathers and are waiting for them all these years? I attended a wedding recently where the fathers of both the groom and the bride were those who went missing on September 05, 1990. As parents can we imagine what would have gone through in their minds on one of the happiest days of their lives?
My hope is that President Maithripala Sirisena, who pledged that there would be justice and good governance would end this saga of missing people, especially when the full list of the missing persons is known. My hope is also that after 25 years some who have knowledge of this would summon enough courage to speak up and get it out of their chest for their own peace of mind. I am sure this unfortunate event would haunt them too.
It is not only the people who went missing, it is a combination of humanity, good governance, rule of law and truth that went missing. It is time to recover these missing elements or we will risk losing the trust of people forever. Reconciliation cannot take place when truth is suppressed.
It is my wish that before my lifespan is over I would have the satisfaction of having received an answer on behalf of the 158 families who were with me that fateful day in the refugee camp in Vantharumoolai.
It was the largest refugee camp in Sri Lanka at that time and housed around 10,000 families with around 40,000 people within the four walls of the premises. There were 28 births in the camp and 15 deaths and all buried mostly within. There were shops and markets in the camp, post and water supply. ICRC and MSF were caretakers. The Grama Sevakas worked for the management of the refugee camp administration. It was a mini government within, people feeling secure though worried and desperate seeing smoke at distances, the burning of ……, hearing bullets that travel the sky day and night, yet willing to stay under trees and in open hoping for the day to return home. Following this event on 5th September 1990 and another incident shortly thereafter where 18 more were taken away, the population dissipated slowly from the camp which was closed on 30th September 1990. I was the last person to leave the premises on that day, haunted with heavy heart and memories of the missing 158+ which remains to date.