Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Grieving mothers tell of lost sons

Mothers (from left) Abdul Wadoor Sitthi Jammeena, N Rajeswari and Noor Najeebha tell of the disappearances of their sons.
Mothers (from left) Abdul Wadoor Sitthi Jammeena, N Rajeswari and Noor Najeebha tell of the disappearances of their sons.

One was taken while walking his son home from school, another from his Indian foodstuffs shop, and another from his tuktuk while trying to stop the abduction of his Tamil passenger.

The reasons for the disappearances in Sri Lanka are not fully known, but there are suspicions. One mother said it was claimed her son associated with the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, although she denies this. Another was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One said her son had refused to pay a bribe. Another believes her son got involved with "mischievous friends". What each of the five tales have in common is that a white van appeared and took sons away, and those sons never came back.

Here in a hot windowless room in a quiet backstreet of Colombo are four mothers and one sister of Sri Lanka's disappeared. When the women are asked if they want their names withheld, they answer with a resolute no. "We are not afraid."

Instead they are sad, and angry. They speak in Tamil or Sinhalese, and it is translated by Brito Fernando, a human rights activist who heads the Families of the Disappeared group.

Abdul Wadoor Sitthi Jammeena, 50, is a Muslim whose son Mohamad Hakeem was taken in March 2006. She tells her story with dignity, weeping silently only after it is done. What she knows was told to her by a witness.

Her son, 25, was a tuktuk driver. He was not Tamil, but his passenger was, and apparently wealthy. When the white van pulled up and took the passenger from the tuktuk, that man called out "Brother, please help me".

Hakeem tried to give that help and was taken into the white van as well.

There were reports the Tamil man was released some years later, but when she tracked down his wife she said he too had not been seen again.

Her husband had asked her to stop looking for her son, because she suffered ill health and he was concerned he would lose her too.

"Before I die, before I lose the strength of my two legs I will try and find my son," she said.

He was married with two children. She has merged a picture of him into one with his wife and children. It was the only way to give the children a family photo.

Noor Najeebha, 63, says she lost two of her sons to the white vans in June 2010. They were aged 30 and 35. One was taken while walking his son home from school, and then the van turned up at home and her younger son was taken.

N Rajeswari's son was taken in August 2006 while working at his Indian food shop. She was asked for a ransom and produces deposit slips to show she paid. Her son was not returned.

These women do not know where to go.

One says she knows the police officer who took her son, another has the registration number of the van, but these have proved of little use.

Noor Najeebha visited detention camps hunting for her sons.

"I want the (Chogm delegates) to publish what has happened and get international pressure on the Government to tell the truth about my two children," she said.

The Sri Lankan Government clamped down on protests during the Chogm week. So the mothers are here telling their story this way instead, to three journalists in a room with piles of photos of the "disappeared" on desks.

They have some hope that international pressure resulting from Chogm will force the Sri Lankan Government to do something about their plight, and that of the relatives of the others.

They are asked what they think of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been defiant while hosting Chogm this week, and firmly resisted calls for an independent international inquiry into war crimes and human rights abuses.

Two of the women say he should be accountable for it, because the disappearances happened under his watch. "But they will only feel it if they also lose one of their children."

The United Nations has logged about 5,700 unresolved cases of political disappearances in Sri Lanka, most dating from the civil war before 2009.

There are still reports of disappearances happening, but media which question the Government are labelled "traitors" and other critics remain targets.

Fernando says the "fear is still there".

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