When Thangamanikkam Saradadevi, Vellathambi Junaida and Jayadeepa Padmasri sat on a panel listening to hundreds of people in Batticaloa speak of their missing relatives, of land occupied by the military and of their waning patience, they could instantly relate to them.
This was not merely because the three women were trained as counsellors but also because they were fellow survivors of Sri Lanka’s brutal war and familiar with all that it took away and left behind.
Ms. Deepa, as Jayadeepa prefers being called, has been searching for her husband who went missing in May 2009, barely two years after their wedding.
A decade after Ms. Saradadevi’s husband was shot dead by the Army, her son was conscripted by the LTTE.
Ms. Junaida saw the LTTE go after her relatives, as they did after many Muslim families in the North and the East.
The three women, now part of different community organisations in Batticaloa, were part of a zonal-level task force that counselled war-affected people on the reconciliation mechanisms that the government has proposed.
Earlier this month, a government-appointed Consultation Task Force (CTF), comprising activists and academicians, released a report based on such public hearings across Sri Lanka.
This is not the first such exercise. Families of victims have testified to different, government-appointed and other commissions in the past. However, there has been no action or follow-up on any. “The government would send a team of people, some of whom would be very cold and indifferent to us. They were usually Sinhalese and we were never sure if what we said was properly translated to them,” recalled Ms. Deepa, who has appeared before panels, submitting details about her missing husband.
“Whenever I met a woman of my age, I would feel her pain immediately,” Ms. Saradadevi (56) said. After her husband was killed in the 1990s, she packed and sold peanuts for a living. In the habit of reading anything she could lay her hands on, she spotted a note in a newspaper while wrapping peanuts. It was an advertisement calling for women interested in working with war widows. She took it up. As the war intensified, her son was abducted and, her son-in law went missing in the final years. “He returned, but had lost one leg in a shelling. There was no respite, it was one problem after another.” The same family was victimised repeatedly.
This time, the three women were seated on the other side of the table. Brainstorming in advance, they decided to try and make the process more sensitive and humane.
Though they were invested in the process, the three women don’t view the exercise without scepticism. In a sense, it was “just another commission”, they said.
“If the government was serious about it, why did it outsource the process to civil society and later abandon us?” Ms. Deepa asked. “There was no ownership from the government, locals saw it as an NGO programme.”
Pointing to the perceived futility of the consultations, Ms. Deepa said: “At the end of the day, people affected by a war have a natural tendency for peace and non-recurrence. They say just let us be, without further confusing us with these new processes.”