1991: The Mothers Who Won’t Disappear

by  March 3, 1991

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — The letter arrived by regular post in the afternoon. A mailman carried it up the walkway of a posh bungalow lined with palms and splashed with tropical light. The letter was handwritten in English, addressed to Manorani Saravanamuttu, a medical doctor and a child of the island’s wealthy elite, perhaps the best known of the estimated 25,000 Sri Lankan mothers to lose a son to the death squads.

richard de zoysa

Manorani Saravanamuttu. http://www.island.lk/2001/03/25/featur16.html

The letter went like this:

We condole with you regarding the death of your son Richard. He was a traitor to the cause of justice and prosperity to our motherland. Therefore he was removed …

You are about to set out on a venture seemingly to avenge your son’s death. If you do so, you too become a traitor …

MOURN the death of your son — as a mother you must do so. Any other steps will result in your death at the most unexpected time …

Only silence will protect you.

Since the letter arrived last May, Manorani Saravanamuttu has considered at length the price of silence and the price of speech. When she decided to raise her voice, she says, it was less from heroism than anger, less from courage than desperation. She is alone — divorced, now childless. She felt she had nothing left to lose.

“They expect you to curl up in a corner and die of fear,” she whispers on a sultry Sunday morning, smoking, laughing and weeping through hours of conversation on her front porch. She is patrician by Sri Lankan measures — light skin, high cheeks, gray hair pulled back in a bun — and easily familiar with a Western stranger, confiding and intimate. She answers sometimes carefully, other times with emotion, stopping now and then to ponder aloud what the president of Sri Lanka will think if he reads this or that quoted from her lips.

“I had no one else to put into danger,” she says, explaining the origins of the journey that led her into exile and back in the months since the death threat arrived. “I kept going around to my friends saying, ‘They would do me a favor by killing me.’ They thought I had lost my head, but it was just my reaction. You can get crushed by grief, you can get crushed by fear, or you can just get angry.”

From Saravanamuttu’s anger the Mothers Front has risen, a mass movement of 25,000 registered mothers of Sri Lanka’s disappeared. Despite threats from the police and allegations of subversion from the government, the mothers held their first rally this month, timed to commemorate the abduction and execution of Richard de Zoysa, Saravanamuttu’s only son, a journalist, actor and human rights activist.

Where it all will lead is difficult to predict on an island so entangled in violence, ethnic hatred and civil war. Perhaps quixotically, Saravanamuttu hopes the mothers will forge the beginning of a peaceful reconciliation and change their country forever.

“It is my belief that men don’t feel sorrow the way that women feel,” she says. “I realized that what Sri Lanka needs is a peaceful force. The women are saying, ‘We are going mad with grief at home alone.’ Now at least we are doing something.”

The Paradox of Horror

Perhaps you have heard about the death squads in Sri Lanka, or the headless corpses that smolder in the mornings on the roadside, or the eight years of civil war, or the ethnic hatred so fierce it causes literate, educated men to set each other on fire. Perhaps you have also heard about the white beaches, or the crystal ocean water running over coral reefs, or the lush tea estates, or the thousands of elephants, or the first-class hotels and casinos, or the Sri Lankan people — impoverished but almost universally literate, gentle and welcoming.

There is no easy way to explain Sri Lanka’s death squads. For one thing, this is not a set piece where Evil stands to one side and Good to the other, locked in moral confrontation. But it is helpful to sort it all out, if only better to understand the courage and despair of Manorani Saravanamuttu and the other mothers of the disappeared.

One place to begin is with the departure of the British from Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was once known, following World War II. In Colombo, as in many other capitals of the empire, the British left behind what amounted to an entourage — a tiny, English-speaking elite of Sri Lankan lawyers, doctors, army officers, administrators and clerks who had managed the island’s affairs for more than a century.

Many trees have fallen and many books have been written in an effort to explain what went wrong between 1948 and 1983, when the civil war in independent Sri Lanka began. Some blame the British for sowing the seeds of injustice. Some blame the Colombo elite for jealously guarding its privileges. Some blame a new generation of nationalist politicians who exploited ethnicity and religion to win votes.

The island split in two, with the Hindu, ethnic Tamil minority in the northeast fighting for a homeland independent from the Buddhist, ethnic Sinhalese majority in the south. Tamil guerrilla groups formed in the north and took to the jungle to battle the government’s Sinhalese army.

The war grew bloodier and bloodier until 1987 when India, which sympathized with the Hindu Tamils, dropped in with 100,000 soldiers, ostensibly to restore peace and protect the Tamils from the Sinhalese. The arrival of Indian troops provoked a backlash in the south, where the Sinhalese live.

Sinhalese radicals, mainly from the oppressed lower castes, formed the People’s Liberation Front, known by its Sinhalese initials JVP, a Maoist, Buddhist, totalitarian revolutionary group whose goals and methods have been compared to those of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Beginning in 1988, the JVP dedicated itself to overthrowing the Sri Lankan government by violence and expelling Indian troops from the island.

The JVP resorted to extreme forms of terrorism. One of its favorite tactics was to enter the home of a government policeman while he was out on duty, slaughter his wife and children with guns and knives, then leave the bodies for him to find when he came home from work.

With the island on the verge of chaos and collapse, the government decided to fight fire with fire. According to Sri Lankan politicians, security force officers and international human rights groups, the government deliberately recruited policemen who had lost their wives and children in bloody JVP attacks, sent them into JVP areas, and told them to do whatever was necessary to defeat the enemy.

In that way, in 1988, the death squads were born.

The Abductions To travel in Sri Lanka’s death squad country in 1989 and 1990 was to tour a strange landscape of slaughter and silence.

During that time, at least 25,000 and perhaps as many as 60,000 (the estimate of European parliamentarians), Sinhalese boys and men — identified by the government as JVP suspects — disappeared from their homes. They were abducted at night by squads of armed men in civilian dress who drove around in green Mitsubishi Pajero jeeps. By 1990 the squads were so bold that they operated in daylight, and a foreigner could stand by the side of the road and watch the men from the jeeps barge into a village home, pull out a frightened teenager and drive away with him.

In the mornings, piles of corpses appeared on beaches, floating in muddy rivers or burning along roads. Crowds of villagers gathered and stared mutely.

They confided that if you were from certain castes or villages associated with the JVP, it was a virtual certainty that you would be killed by a death squad if one ever found you.

One of the strange things was that the tourists kept coming — Italians, Germans and East Europeans drawn by pristine sands and budget prices. They went jogging when the sun came up, literally hopping over the bodies of the dead. Both the JVP and the government declared foreigners off limits in their war, to encourage the uninterrupted flow of vital foreign exchange.

In those days, many in Sri Lanka and abroad seemed to view the death squads as a tolerable evil necessary to defeat the greater evil of the JVP. Mothers and wives of those who disappeared sobbed with grief and declared to visiting journalists the innocence of their relatives. Human rights groups documented the disappearances and counted the burning corpses. But Western countries put little pressure on Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who said he did not control the death squads directly and that, in any event, he was trying to save his country from an apocalyptic revolution.

In November 1989, the government announced the capture and death of the JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera. A spokesman said Wijeweera was shot while attempting to escape from security forces. The war against the JVP had been won, the spokesman claimed. Many Sri Lankans celebrated.

But that winter, in the south, the death squads roamed unrelentingly. Thousands more disappeared. Corpses continued to appear. Opposition politicians, who had generally supported the anti-JVP campaign, began to question whether Premadasa intended to use the death squads to consolidate his hold on power.

Some asked how it was, exactly, that a government was supposed to instruct a death squad that its work was finished, that the enemy was defeated? Did you send a memo? Award a certificate of meritorious service and a pension? What did you do with these men, so angry and accustomed to brutality?

Neelan Tiruchelvan, a Colombo attorney, said that winter that he feared that Sri Lanka had become a country that had “lost its ability to distinguish between right and wrong.”

“The frightening thing is that when this violence is unleashed, you don’t quite know where it will end,” said Mangala Samaraweera, who has helped organize the Mothers Front. “I don’t really know how one could stop it. They {the government} are moving to a situation where they are getting more systematic and dictatorial.”

It was amid such questioning, one year ago in February, that Richard de Zoysa was murdered and the mothers of the disappeared began to find their voices.

The Disappearance of Richard de Zoysa

Richard de Zoysa and his mother “both lived extremely busy professional lives — we were two buddies sharing the same house, rather than parent and child,” Manorani Saravanamuttu recalls. After the divorce, when Richard was about 13, she devoted herself to a general medical practice at hospitals and clinics. Patients often drove to the gates of their bungalow in a wealthy Colombo neighborhood, seeking attention in the middle of the night.

Richard’s was a household face in Sri Lanka. For a while, he anchored an evening news broadcast on state-owned television. An actor, he played a prominent role in a popular TV series called “Neighbors,” a light satire on the pretensions of Colombo’s upwardly mobile middle classes. In journalism, he began to work with the International Press Service, a European agency specializing in the Third World.

Some believe that it was de Zoysa’s work for IPS, documenting death squad killings in the south, that led to the events of Feb. 18, 1990. Others say he was killed because he helped write a play that made fun of Premadasa.

The play was called “Who Is This? And What Is He Doing?” which happened to be the campaign slogan on which Premadasa ran in the national elections of 1988. Written by hand in the Sinhala language, the play depicts a lunatic asylum in which many of the doctors and patients are recognizable politicians from Premadasa’s United National Party, and the new chief of the asylum is Premadasa himself.

“It’s not a very readable play,” says Batty Weerakoon, Saravanamuttu’s lawyer, who has seen one of the few copies. “It was something on which was hung so many bits of jokes by way of poking fun at government personalities and primarily at the president and his family.” Weerakoon, like some others, doubts that de Zoysa was closely involved in writing the script, which does not bear the name of any author. Others say de Zoysa helped organize the theatrical troupe that was to perform the play and contributed to the writing.

Sri Lankans have been unable to judge the play’s merits, since on the night before its debut at a Colombo theater during that winter of 1989-90, its producer, Luxman Perera, disappeared without a trace. His body has never been found. The actors and audience, unnerved by this development, declined to go forward.

In any event, it was six weeks after Perera’s disappearance that a death squad arrived at the de Zoysa home one morning two hours before dawn.

“People ask, Why did I even come to the door?” Saravanamuttu says as if a stranger might believe this was all her fault. “But I was on a paging system and sometimes relatives and patients came to the house in the middle of the night {for medicines}. Even the domestic {servant} thought it was a patient.”

It was over in 15 minutes. Armed men barged through the front door, climbed the stairs, pulled de Zoysa from his bed, walked him outside and put him into a waiting jeep. “I ran down and up to the jeep,” Saravanamuttu remembers. “I went to the front seat. ‘Where are you taking my son?’ There was no answer; they drove off at high speed.”

The following morning, de Zoysa’s body washed ashore on a beach near Colombo. He had been shot through the head at close range. Fishermen recognized him as a television actor.

In the swirl of grief and rage that followed, Saravanamuttu says, she had no clear idea what she would do. She says the movement of mothers she has created arose spontaneously from her throat in words she had not planned to speak. She remembers it exactly: She had just come out of the inquest, which established that her son had lived for perhaps 45 minutes after his abduction. She was angry and disoriented. Reporters surrounded her, seeking a comment.

“I am the luckiest mother in Sri Lanka,” she told them as she climbed into her car. “I got my son’s body back. There are thousands of mothers who never get their children’s bodies back.”

With those words, the silence of Sri Lanka’s mothers ended, and a movement began.

What Can They Hope For?

Premadasa himself came to the funeral at de Zoysa’s home. Saravanamuttu was too overcome with grief and anger to speak with him, but the president conveyed his condolences nonetheless. Saravanamuttu steadfastly refuses to speak about her relationship with Sri Lanka’s president — it is too sensitive, she says. But others close to the family say Premadasa has been oddly sensitive and solicitous since de Zoysa’s body washed up on the beach.

One difference between Richard de Zoysa and the thousands of Sri Lankan youths who died before him cuts to the heart of politics and power on the island: De Zoysa was born to a high caste, spoke English fluently, went to the right schools and lived in a good neighborhood.

These facts may have tempered the Sri Lankan government’s response to Manorani Saravanamuttu’s campaign on behalf of the mothers of the disappeared, but they have not prevented it from opposing her quest, at virtually every stage, for answers about her son’s murder.

When Saravanamuttu pressed a court case against police officers she identified as the men who took her son away, the attorney general intervened and said there was no evidence to proceed. After the death threat arrived last May, she went abroad to Canada, New York and England. This winter, she decided it was time to come home because “this is my country. I am not against my country. I was only seeking justice.”

The government remains as hostile as before. In February of this year, when opposition members of Parliament sought an independent commission of inquiry into the case, members of Premadasa’s cabinet rose on the floor to denounce de Zoysa as a homosexual and a JVP sympathizer.

“You keep referring to abduction and murder. What if it is not murder, but suicide or something else?” asked Ranil Wickeremesinghe, a government minister.

“The more you try to stifle this inquiry, the more people think you are responsible for this murder,” answered opposition member C.V. Gooneratne.

The motion for a commission of inquiry was defeated, with all of Premadasa’s party members voting against. One parliamentarian, Prince Casinader, lamented that he would now have nothing to tell the hundreds of mothers who had written him recently to ask what happened to their sons. “All those mothers are not Mrs. Saravanamuttus, who can go and file habeas corpus cases. They trek through the night and believe their loved ones are somewhere, six feet underground,” he said.

Leaders of the Mothers Front say they are apolitical and seek not a change of government but only a modicum of compensation for what they have suffered. Disappearances mean that mothers and widows cannot obtain death certificates necessary to collect insurance benefits and property. Among other things, the Mothers Front seeks a one-time payment to the relatives of the dead and missing.

Though she has decided to lead thousands of Sri Lankan mothers into the street, Saravanamuttu is skeptical that her campaign will accomplish anything. “There does seem to be no hope for the country,” she says. “But one cannot think in those terms. At some stage, there has to be a solution.”

In the meantime, she is driven less by a vision of the future than by a need to reconcile the past. “What I hate these people for is their lies,” she says slowly and softly as the noon sun rises over her front garden. “They tell their lies, and we never have a chance to tell the truth.”

Comments are disabled on this page.