14 Nov 2013

White Van Stories – reporting on Sri Lanka’s disappeared

The making of White Van Stories was not a scripted journey. It was rather mystical. Maybe my constant urge to tell stories that otherwise had been forgotten pointed me towards that direction.

by Leena Manmekalai, director of White Van Stories

I was furious when I learned from my civil society activist friends in Sri Lanka that their attempts to mobilise families of the disappeared for the street protests had been crushed every time by the authorities.

Life instinct

When the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillai visited Sri Lanka in August this year, families were fully geared to make their voices heard. I volunteered with a team of activists when they held pocket meetings in Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochi, Mullivaickal and Mullaitheevu.

I met almost five hundred families whose members were abducted or taken for enquiry or who surrendered in the last stage of war in 2009. They told me horror stories of how family members were picked by snatch squads in white vans and had never been seen again.

The howls and tears of the families in despair started haunting me. But it was their sheer resilience, hope, apathy and perseverance that restored my faith in humanity.

What I found in them was not death instinct but life instinct. I decided to walk their hard path to justice in an effort to find out how can a human being just disappear?

Families told me how enforced disappearance victims do not disappear willingly or by accident.

Extraordinary bravery

I filmed the historical protests of the families of the disappeared in Jaffna and Colombo who were asking for justice, truth and reparation, declaring “No Peace” until their loved ones return. And I followed seven women who shared their stories across the east, south and north provinces.

Access was incredibly challenging. North of Sri Lanka is heavily militarized and this is a story that had been largely impenetrable to the media as enforced disappearances also include journalists who are considered even slightly critical of state and its policies.

Ultimately the film had to be made under severe vigilance and intimidation by the Lankan military.

On one occasion I was asked to leave the country and on another detained for hours of questioning at a check post where they confiscated our tapes and denied us permission to film.

I had to free myself of the paranoia of danger to continue filming. I felt I had nothing to lose compared to the magnitude of injustice faced by the families in my film describing their eternal search for their beloved.

White Van Stories is testament to the extraordinary bravery of desperate families speaking out in the face of unthinkable adversity.

White Van Stories, the story of the disappeared in Sri Lanka, is on Channel 4 News on Thursday 14 November 2013 at 7pm.