The land between Jaffna and Mannar is beautiful and lush this time of year, after the rains. There is a checkpoint on the road to Vavuniya which requires foreign passport holders to get off of the bus and have their details recorded. I have passed through here several times now and, other than holding up the bus, it has not been a problem. Mines still occupy the surrounding countryside and men and women are seen at the sides of the road in protective clothing clearing the ground.
Not long after arriving in Mannar, I was told by a Priest that a meeting had been arranged to help organise local women with missing relatives. I was asked to arrive at 6pm, once the women had gathered, so that I could hear their stories. I had no idea what to expect but travelled at dusk by tuk tuk through several police checkpoints to the hall.
I walked into a large room in which 48 women, 2 men and a little girl sat on chairs in a big circle. Two community leaders addressed the group with a microphone before inviting me to speak. I was a little taken aback as I had been trying to keep a low profile, but I explained who I was and that I was trying to better understand and to raise awareness of the human right violations taking place in Sri Lanka.
The woman sitting to my right then came into the centre of the circle, took the microphone and told her story. Two of her sons had been killed by shelling in the war and the third had been taken by police in a car on their way to church one morning. She began to weep as she explained that without her sons she had no income and that she just needed to know what had happened. Another woman stood up and as she started to cry that the LTTE had forced one of her three daughters into combat, I realised with some horror that all 53 people were going to tell their incredibly painful story.
Throughout the meeting the women remained calm, poised and stoic. But as each began to speak the emotions were too much, with tears rolling down their faces and many unable to continue, or even begin. An elderly man spoke of his ongoing search for his only son and several described supporting their sons to surrender to the army, only to not hear of them since. Many of the missing relatives must be dead, but it is hard to accept, or to grieve without knowledge and a funeral.
The little girl who had been smiling shyly at me throughout the meeting stood to speak of her missing brother, her only sibling to have survived the war. She sobbed heavily as she spoke but recomposed herself on returning to her chair. She must have been 8 years old. It was an extraordinarily emotional time for everyone in the room. In my absence of any solution to the agony, I ended up drawing and passing the little girl a picture. This nervous act was appreciated by the other women who smiled and nodded at me.
As the meeting drew to a close, one of the women approached me with pictures of her missing relatives. Again, and particularly with the language barrier, I didn’t know how to respond. So I took her hands and smiled, and then photographed the picture. I had no plan for what I would do with this image, but on seeing this, other women started to get up and pull pictures from their bags. Suddenly the women were queuing for me to take their hands and to take photos of their photos.
I have never felt so inadequate, as these women looked at me with hope and I really had little idea of what I could do. As I spend more time here I come to understand that listening to and recording people’s stories and acknowledging their missing relatives is not close to being enough, but it is something that does help a little.
There are thousands of cases of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. I was overwhelmed at the number of people in the room telling such similar stories. But they are just a fraction of the families facing this nightmare.
Here are some of their photos.