SEVEN years ago, at a busy crossroads in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, armed men in an unmarked white van abducted Stephen Sundararaj. He was going home, his three children snuggled up against him, after idling for weeks in a police cell. Mr Sundararaj, then a 39-year-old project manager at a local human-rights group, had been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a draconian law permitting arrests without warrant for “unlawful activities”. He challenged the move in court and would have pursued the case, had he not been hauled away mere hours after his release. He was never charged with a crime. He has never been found.
Such horrifying tales are common in Sri Lanka, where 26 years of ethnic conflict ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. In the past century the country has also experienced two Marxist insurgencies in the south, and several anti-Tamil pogroms. In May Mangala Samaraweera, the foreign minister, admitted that it had one of the world’s largest caseloads of missing people. The armed forces, the Tamil Tigers and other insurgents are all to blame.
Figures vary hugely, depending on the source. The UN puts Sri Lanka second only to Iraq, with 5,731 outstanding cases. But Dhana Hughes of Durham University, who has studied the two southern insurgencies, estimates that thousands vanished during the second one alone, in the late 1980s.
Under the authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005 to 2015, who defeated the Tamil Tigers, snatches like that of Mr Sundararaj were so common that they were dubbed “white-vanning”. Not only terrorism suspects but political opponents were targets. Some, like Mr Sundararaj, were taken for no apparent reason. Thousands more went missing from war zones.
In 2013, after heavy international pressure, Mr Rajapaksa set up a body to investigate missing-persons cases. The Paranagama Commission received more than 19,800 representations, including 5,600 from relatives of missing military personnel. Weeping families flocked to public hearings clutching photographs and heart-rending petitions. But the commission’s final report, last year, exonerated the government of war crimes—which had not originally been part of its remit.
But Mr Rajapaksa’s defeat at a snap election in January 2015 by a coalition supported by Tamil and Muslim voters created space for more genuine efforts. The new government ratified the UN convention on enforced disappearances and allowed its working group to visit, even throwing open a former secret detention facility and escorting its members to mass graves. The group concluded that “a chronic pattern of impunity still exists in cases of enforced disappearance”. It urged the government to determine the fate of the disappeared; to punish those responsible; and to guarantee truth and reparation.
The government vows that it is trying. A law to create an “office on missing persons” will be taken up for debate in parliament this month. Another, to issue “certificates of absence” to families of the missing, will be presented to the legislature around the same time. These will help relatives overcome legal, administrative and financial obstacles (the transfer of property or bank accounts, for instance) that would, under normal circumstances, require death certificates.
She does not want any certificate, says Vathana, Mr Sundararaj’s wife. And she can identify two of his abductees, she says: she had often seen them sitting outside his police cell. What she wants is to get him back: she insists that he is still alive.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which offers support to victims after as well as during wars, such refusal to lose faith is not unusual. The lack of information about missing relatives wears families out, it said in a survey of them it published last month. Fewer than two-fifths of those it interviewed believed their loved ones were dead; the rest were split roughly equally between believing they were still alive and being unsure. All vacillated between hope and fear; mired in pain, they told and retold their stories to anybody who would listen. “No abduction, please,” says Vathana, wiping away tears. “Not for Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim.” In the meantime, she waits for news.