“Bring them back home”


By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

War came to an end in May 2009, but that did not put an end to the suffering of the communities. Even today, numerous Tamil families await justice for their families and friends in Sri Lanka.

This tale is similar but also different. Different because it highlights the plight of women – mothers, wives and sisters – who are waiting for the men in their families to return home, post war. That story is so common to many thousands here. But it is different because these women are refusing to accept the loss of their dear ones as mere ‘collateral damage’ or ‘natural’ during war conditions.

These are men who were associated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and surrendered during the final battle to the security forces, in a final bid to save their lives. Given to them was a firm undertaking that their lives, along with their families, would be safe.

For the women who have been waiting to be united with their family members after their surrender, it is not merely a matter of emotion but of justice. It is a right at least two women in this group have sought to have enforced through the arm of law.

Uppermost in the minds of these women is the absence of justice after their family members voluntarily surrendered to the security forces. They demand justice – and the return of the male members of their families. Despite all odds, they firmly believe they have a cause and are now in active pursuit of justice.

Eyewitnesses to surrender

According to these women, their family members had surrendered to the military in May 2009, both during and at the end of the war. These women also claim to have actually witnessed the respective surrenders, during those final days of war.

Since then, the relatives have continued to search for their missing kith and kin and are now despairing, as it daily dawns on them that these surrendees are not likely to return home, no matter how much they hope that they would.

The Paris-based former LTTE international spokesperson who later became the Project Coordinator of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization(TRO) in Vanni, Lawrence Thilagar, Tiger Political Wing Deputy Leader, Thangan alias Sutha Master, LTTE Administrative Wing Head, Poovarangan and Jaffna Political Wing Leader, Ilamparithy, were among a group of senior Tiger commanders who were last seen surrendering to the security forces in the Vanni region on 18 May 2009, accompanied by a Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph – never to be heard of or from – again.

“My son Vijayapaskaran (32) surrendered on 18 May 2009, in Vattuvaagal, along with many senior combatants, who were accompanied by a Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph. I witnessed my son’s surrender as well as others’. The military took the surrendered combatants in a bus, and promised me, as I continued to stay there, that they will inform about their whereabouts, once they are taken to safety. In the past four years, I have visited all the detention centres in the country, but I did not find my son anywhere.

“I have waited for far too long and I am getting old.  I want justice for my surrendee son before I die,” says an emotionally charged Pushpaambaal Thanabalasingham (53), a grieving mother from Kumuzhamunai, in the Mullaithivu District.

“My son-in-law, Nadesu Muralitharan (37), served the LTTE’s Intelligence Unit, until the end of the war. My daughter, Krishnakumari (30) and their children Saariyan (5) and Abitha (3) surrendered to the military together with Nadesu, on 18 May 2009. I visited all the detention centres and I could not find my family members. They surrendered along with several senior combatants of the LTTE, accompanied by Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph. The surrender took place in Vattuvaagal in the Mullaithivu District and I witnessed their collective surrender.

“I have searched everywhere for my son-in-law, my daughter and my two grandchildren. Almost four years have gone by since the war ended, but I have not heard a single word about my family members after their surrender to the security forces in Mullaithivu. I have decided to file a writ of habeas corpus,” says a defiant Ponnamma Kanthasamy (60) from Kandavalai, in the Kilinochchi District.

It’s noteworthy that most of the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters witnessed their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers in the act of surrender to the security forces, thus rendering them eye witnesses to their surrenders, during the final phase of the war.

“My husband Sinnaththurai Sasitharan (43), popularly known as Ezhilan, was the Political Wing Leader for Trincomalee District. He surrendered along with many senior combatants like him, accompanied by Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph.

“I still have reason to believe that the government is keeping my husband, possibly in some secret place. I need to know where he is and to have him released urgently as promised to the families of all surrendees,” asserts Ananthy Sasitharan (41).

These families of LTTE surrendees have waited for justice since May 2009. Nothing has happened to alter their collective fate of having to wait for their family members and some of these anxious women have now resorted to legal action. Family members of five such surrendees have recently filed writs of habeas corpus at the Vavuniya High Court.

“The families of the surrendees are suffering without justice. These people were not taken into custody but were surrendees. As such, the government should be accountable for their safety and should be answerable. We believe, the State should not continue in this manner without ensuing justice,” adds Ananthy.

Meanwhile, there are many questions that remain unanswered relating to their safety and wellbeing.

“Where are the combatants who surrendered to the armed forces in May 2009? Family members of the surrendees have a right to truth and to the safe return of these persons. What happened to them after their acts of surrender? The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has made clear recommendations with regard to surrendees, which should be duly implemented.  That is mandatory for people to receive justice and for all of us to move ahead, towards reconciliation. The government was expected to create a centralized database containing the names of all detainees which should have been made available to the next of kin with their names, place of detention as well as the record of transfers, if any. Nearly four years have passed, but where is the list?” queries Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Sebamalai, Parish Priest of Thaazhvuppaadu in the Mannar District.

For the family members of surrendees, it is of extreme importance to know what happened to their loved ones. They need information and justice to move on, bringing closure to this dark and painful episode in their collective lives.

LLRC Recommendations on surrendees

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report contains four specific recommendations relating to the surrendees.

9.23 – Launch a full investigation into allegations of disappearances after surrender/arrest and where such investigations produce evidence of any unlawful act on the part of individual members of the Army, to prosecute and punish the wrongdoers.

9.48 – Direct the law enforcement authorities to take immediate steps to ensure that allegations (of abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances and arbitrary detention) are properly investigated into and perpetrators to be brought to justice.

9.51– Appoint a special Commissioner of Investigation to investigate alleged disappearances and provide materials to the Attorney General to initiate criminal proceedings as appropriate and to provide the Office of the Commissioner with experienced investigators to collect and process information.

9.63 – Create a centralized database containing a list of detainees, which should be made available to the next of kin with names, places of detention as well as the record of transfers.


(1) Publish a list of names of those in detention.

(2) Issue a certificate when a person is discharged, so that the same person is not taken into custody again, unless new evidence is discovered against him

(3)Look into the general issue of law delays to expedite prosecution or discharge detainees.

Women take over as breadwinners in North


By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

JAFFNA, 9 September 2010 (IRIN) – Fifteen months after the end of fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers, women in the north are taking up a new and challenging role as breadwinners – with more and more becoming day labourers to support their families.

A survey conducted by the Jaffna-based Center for Women and Development, a non-profit group, revealed that the northern region had approximately 40,000 female-headed households – including more than 20,000 in Jaffna District.

“Three factors have reduced the male-headed households in number: the war, disappearances or being in military custody,” said Saroja Sivachandran, the centre’s director.

The Sri Lankan civil war, which began in the 1970s, claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced more than 280,000 people, primarily in the north and east of the country. The government took control of the east in 2007, and declared victory in the north in May 2009.

Although up-to-date statistics are hard to come by because many people remain displaced, Sivachandran and government officials say the northern and eastern regions combined are home to some 89,000 war widows.

“This has drastically altered their livelihood options. Over 50 percent of them [women who head households] are single parents under 30 years of age supporting their own and extended families,” said Visaka Dharmadasa, executive director of the Association for War-Affected Women (AWAW).

Women = cheaper labour 

AWAW and other support groups say many employers are discriminating against women, in some cases paying less than US$1 a day.

Maillaiyappal Thangavelu supports her two children, parents and three sisters by working on a construction site.

“My husband disappeared,” said the 26-year-old Jaffna resident. “My sisters are still in school. My eldest child is in school. My parents are too weak to work.”

She earns a $1.25 a day – but according to Sivachandran, this is half of what a man would earn for the same work.

“It has become cheaper to hire women – men would demand higher daily wages. Women unquestioningly accept what is given, often because they have many mouths to feed,” Sivachandran said.

“Women provide cheap labour, so they are preferred,” said Nagarasa Thavaselvam, president of the Kampanai Camp Residents’ Committee in Jaffna, adding that in some households, men are now becoming dependent on women for economic support. Thavaselvam himself is one of many house-husbands.

Photo: Dilrukshi Handunnetti/IRIN 
The number of female-headed households has increased

Government security restrictions on traditional occupations – such as fishing and farming, the main industries of the north – have also driven women to work, Thavaselvam added.

At a construction site, a manager gave his own reasons for hiring women over men: “Women report to work on time. They don’t drink and provide cheap labour.”

Food, livelihood assistance

Although many women are finding jobs, more assistance is needed to boost their livelihoods in a society where many women have never worked outside the home before, and had never imagined they would do anything other than care for their families.

Imelda Sukumar, a government official for Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts, said industries had to be encouraged to create more jobs, but there had been some programmes for community-based income generation and cash for work at small infrastructure development projects.

“These projects are vital for areas where women carry heavy economic burdens,” Sukumar said.

Meanwhile, unemployment – particularly with fishing and agriculture still being pieced back together – is fuelling food insecurity, she said.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has provided returning families with six-month food packages, but because many households have been unable to access their land and “resume normal activities”, they have given returnees three additional months of food support.

While determining the extent of further assistance needed, WFP will move away from free food and to food for work on community projects or skills training – which will also benefit women.

“It is critical that female-headed households are supported with skills training and other appropriate interventions,” Giancarlo Stopponi, officer in charge and head of WFP’s programme unit in Colombo said. “This will better prepare families for a successful transition from resettlement to early recovery, and thus achieving some form of sustainable household activity.”

The Center for Women and Development said one economic support programme for war-affected women is a $100 grant to help them open a shop, pack chillies and coriander for commercial distribution, or purchase a sewing machine.

An AWAW programme assists farmers to secure farmland.

According to an update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 6,900ha of abandoned land is being targeted for cultivation.

“The next season is likely to be better, enabling farming families to return to their original livelihoods,” said Dharmadasa of AWAW.