13 Nov 2013

Chasing the ghosts of Sri Lanka’s disappeared

I’m in seat 67, carriage B on the 0650 train from Colombo Fort station to Kilinochchi, the erstwhile rebel capital of the vanquished Tamil Tigers.

My Channel 4 team are scattered around me. For the next six hours we’ll trundle north, crossing coffee-brown rivers, past villages set among clusters of coconut palms, past emerald rice paddies, wading water buffalo and egrets.


We saw a long snake swimming across a drowned field. The doors and windows are open and there’s a good draft. Outside, it’s hotting up.

Three rows in front, in seats 54 and 55, are the state intelligence agents – or, at least, the men we’re all pretty convinced are our government minders. They’re young with sharp haircuts; one in a blue stripey shirt, the other wears white, short-sleeved. They occasionally turn round just to make sure we’re still there.

At least we’ve convinced ourselves that that’s what they’re doing.

We were tailed as we bolted from hotel to station at ten minutes past six. It was comical. Six grumpy, adrenalised white men with small backpacks, on the run, desperately trying to hail tuk-tuks.

We figured we’d been clocked, but if we had been, they made no move to stop us. We hadn’t actually dared to believe we would make it this far. We had thought the invitation to travel around was rhetorical. The government’s made clear that they don’t really want Channel 4 here at all.

Dark art of abduction

At 1pm, our unwanted traveling companions will find themselves in the militarised Tamil north of Sri Lanka. But they’ll be amongst friends.

Military intelligence runs the show up there. The army is dominated by ethnic Sinhalese from the south. Four years after the long civil war ended, there’s an uneasy peace, it is said. But that’s what we want to see for ourselves.

As we head north, a convoy of special buses is heading in the other direction. Or was. We’ve just had a phone call from the CID to inform us that something appears to have gone badly wrong. That’s the Committee for the Investigation of the Disappeared, by the way – not the other much-feared CID, who specialise in the dark art of abduction.

The acronym joke is the black humour of human rights activists who, in this tropical tourist paradise island, spend their lives chasing ghosts, pressing their repressive government to investigate the cases of tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who have vanished into thin air.

The voice on the phone said there’d been an army road block early this morning. Three buses, reportedly packed with 150 relatives of the disappeared, had now themselves disappeared.

They’d been traveling from the towns of Killinochchi and Mullaitivu to Colombo to join a vigil tonight. The vigil aims to highlight Sri Lanka’s abduction scandal in the run-up to the Commonwealth summit which opens on Friday.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa runs a republic of fear, which human rights groups say has more unresolved disappearances than any other country bar Iraq.

As I write, there are frantic efforts by the CID to locate the missing busloads of people. You can guess which CID is doing the investigating.

What I find utterly astonishing, as Sri Lanka prepares to host the prestigious Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, is that the government is brazenly riding roughshod over the very Commonwealth values it is supposed to embody – and says it’s committed to. These are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, signed by the Queen in May. They include respect for democracy, human rights, rule of law, freedom of expression, good governance, the separation of powers as well as tolerance and respect.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government openly brands his critics as “traitors.” He has criminalised dissent, had peaceful protestors killed, impeached his Chief Justice (illegal under Sri Lanka’s own constitution) and abducted, disappeared, killed or driven into exile any journalist who dares defy. In Sri Lanka today, arbitrary detention is common and torture is rife. It is a police state; a surveillance society.

Two years ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa amended the constitution so as to eliminate presidential term limits. Oh, and this man – who, ironically, rose to prominence as a human rights lawyer – is also accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As, by the way, is his brother (who besides being defence secretary is also an American citizen) and a number of his senior generals.


The tourists who come to soak up the South Asian sun are oblivious. Around 100,000 Britons holidayed here last year. Sri Lanka is British Airways’ top tourist destination in 2013.

But if there’s anything that captures the “turn-a-blind-eye syndrome” it’s the fact that next week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be crowned Chairman of the Commonwealth for the next two years. It feels like the beginning of some dystopian New Raj.

‘The cleaning unit’

Last night I was secretly visited by a woman called Nimalka Fernando, a human rights activist. She sneaked into our hotel to talk to us, despite suspicions that the walls have ears. Last week she was the victim of a string of overt death threats, broadcast on state radio in a phone-in show hosted by Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation’s Director, Hudson Samarasinghe.

Nimalka was labelled a prostitute and seven callers – four of whom identified themselves as ex-military – suggested ways by which she could be “eliminated.” They ranged from simple murder and dumping her body in a river (along with two other named “traitors”) to handing her over to “the cleaning unit.” This, one impish caller apparently made clear, was a special army unit, which, it is claimed, is under the direct command of the defence secretary, the president’s unelected but powerful brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Nimalka’s crime?

To openly oppose – as spokesperson for a national alliance of 150 non-governmental organisations – the upcoming Commonwealth summit. The president’s detractors believe that hosting the meeting is being used to shore up his domestic political capital. They see it as a spectacular propaganda coup for a megalomaniac dictator.

“I think it’s a disgrace that these world leaders have not been able to stand up and oppose this,” Nimalka Fernando said. “Engagement? I am exasperated by this language. If they are harassing the families of the disappeared, do you really think they are going to listen to a bunch of foreigners telling them what to do?”

She sneaked back out of our hotel. An hour or two later I received a text message: “Home safe” it said. But she’s not safe and she knows it.

As I tried to get over to sleep last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about another activist I’d met earlier: Britto Fernando (no relation to Nimalka), who had told me how campaigning for justice for the families of the disappeared had been enough to get him branded a traitor too.

As always, we expressed our concern for the safety of those, like him, who want to get their voices heard. Britto insisted, just as Nimalka did, that he knew the risks of going on camera. There was a chance, we agreed, that he might actually be safer for doing so.

But after our interview finished, Britto grabbed my hand. “And you promise,” he said, “to set up a fund for my wife and my children for when I disappear?” I looked at him, aghast. His face creased. The head of the CID had just cracked a joke.


Shortly after writing this article, a mob of hundreds of pro-government protestors blocked our train as it was preparing to leave Anuradhapura.

Earlier, when planning our trip, we had all decided that in view of the likely attempts to stop us travelling north, going by rail was probably our best bet. Ben de Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, who is travelling with us, said: “The one thing they can’t stop is a train…”

Tonight on Channel 4 News – White Vans, a film on Sri Lanka’s disappeared.

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