The Disappearance of ‘Father Basketball’ in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Jesuit Missionaries in Post-Colonial Conflict Zones

by Bernardo E. Brown, Journal of South Asian Studies, November 15, 2015

Disappearance of ‘Father Basketball’ in Batticaloa 2015

Eugene Hebert SJ.jpg

Father Eugene John Hebert SJ, ca. 1955 (photographer unknown). Original photograph from the Hebert family. Source: (accessed 12/9/20).

In August 1990, Father Eugene John Hebert SJ disappeared while trying to reach his home in the Sri Lankan city of Batticaloa. Caught in the midst of the turmoil that confronted Tamil and Muslim minorities after the peace-keeping operations led by the Indian armed forces collapsed, Father Hebert was one of thousands of victims who perished in the violence that
engulfed the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka between June and September 1990. Since the early stages of the ethnic conflict (1983-2009), American Jesuits stationed in Tamil-speaking areas of the island had become de facto human rights activists, being virtually the only remaining trusted mediators between the different factions involved in the armed confrontation. Their
efforts to foster peace and dialogue in the region were far from their original assignment as educators—which Father Hebert had been conducting since his arrival in 1948. This article not only traces Father Hebert’s life trajectory from Louisiana to Sri Lanka, it also reflects on the cultural impact that the presence of American Jesuits had in the entire region, as well as on the changing responsibilities they assumed in the volatile political context of the island that took them from coaching basketball to becoming catalysts for peace…

In Checkpoint, Temple, Church and Mosque—a collaborative ethnography that assesses the
role played by religious organisations in eastern Sri Lanka at times of civil strife and natural
disaster—the authors note that beyond the work conducted by religious charities in
channelling aid to populations in situations of extreme need, the actions of individual religious
leaders have a vital impact on the lives of these communities.40 Commenting on the peculiar
space that these individuals occupy, Spencer et al. remark: ‘Paradoxically, religious leaders’
legitimacy comes from their apparent distance from the dirty world of politics, yet this in turn
gives them a degree of moral authority to act in the political realm’.41 Indeed, by virtue of being at the margins of what is purely political, religious leaders possess a flexibility that
allows them to mediate, negotiate and act as bridges, creating dialogue between the different
factions involved and generating points of contact and solidarity between ordinary people
caught in the midst of the struggle.

Eastern Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of suffering, not only as a consequence
of the war, but also as one of the regions in the country worst affected by the 2004 tsunami.
During such critical instances, the work conducted on the ground by those responsible for
mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils and Christian churches has been fundamental in
saving lives and offering refuge to those exposed to uncertainty and violence. Throughout the
ethnic conflict, the Catholic Church in eastern Sri Lanka had to travel a perilous road in trying
to reaffirm its spiritual and educational commitments to the community while actively
engaging with delicate political issues. As a consequence of the critical conditions imposed by
the civil war, the activism and advocacy for the Tamil cause espoused by several prominent
members of the Catholic clergy was often portrayed by Sinhalese nationalist sectors as proLTTE, and many foreign priests were accused of being staunch ‘white Tigers’.42

Spencer et al. suggest that the institutional infrastructure that backed Catholic priests in
Batticaloa underpinned the immunity with which they took notoriously high-profile stands
against both sides. Father Harry Miller noted how during the 1990s, when he depended on the
LTTE for transport out of Batticaloa, he once loudly complained about the hardships that the
LTTE had imposed on Batticaloa’s civilians. Father Miller spoke freely with his attentive
interlocutor, who turned out to be none other than Colonel Karuna Amman, leader of the
Eastern Province for the LTTE at the time. The anecdote is told by Father Miller himself as an
example of the unusual freedom to speak and work that he had through the war years. To be
sure, the transnational infrastructure of the Catholic Church provided a kind of immunity for
religious leaders to voice their opinions and act as mediators at times when no other
interlocutors remained. Nonetheless, considering the fate of many native and foreign members
of the clergy in Sri Lanka, the courage they showed throughout the conflict should not be
underestimated. To speak of their exceptional position in the confrontation should not detract
from a balanced appraisal of the danger they exposed themselves to in order to save civilian
lives. Whether actively engaged in the defence of human rights like Father Harry Miller, or
only marginally involved in politics like Father Eugene Hebert—whose efforts were directed
towards bringing a sense of normalcy to students growing up under extreme circumstances—
Catholic priests were in a position where a refusal to act would have been the most
reproachable attitude.

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