Dashing the hopes of thousands of families desperate for word about loved ones who went missing during Sri Lanka’s long, grisly civil war, the country’s new president has offered an unsparing rebuff to their quest for closure.
The missing are in fact dead, said the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and “I can’t bring back the dead.”
The government, eager to close a painful chapter in the country’s history, plans to issue death certificates for the missing Sri Lankans, a number put at 24,000.
But not all Sri Lankans missing relatives in the 26-year war that ended in 2009 were ready to accept that the cases are closed. Some rejected the notion that the years they had spent searching for loved ones in the hope that they survived had been in vain.
“Even after 21 years, I still do not accept that my son is no more,” said Visakha Dharmadasa, whose son disappeared at the height of the civil war between the government and Tamil Tiger insurgents. “I haven’t seen a dead body. I am still waiting for him.”
She said she planned to keep her son’s certificate of absence, a document that allowed the families of the missing to make legal decisions on their behalf.
Sri Lanka is haunted by the scars of its civil war.
Even as the country tries to move on, devastating reminders of the carnage crop up. It is not uncommon for mass graves and old weapons caches to be uncovered during excavations to build shopping centers or upscale hotels in the country, which became a tourist hot spot after the conflict had ended.
Now, President Rajapaksa appears to be seeking to usher in a new era for the country by trying to close one of the final chapters of the war: the file of the missing.
Mr. Rajapaksa was defense secretary during the last years of the civil war, and was accused of gross human rights abuses as he crushed the insurgency and brought the conflict to an end. Thousands of civilians were killed. The president has consistently denied any wrongdoing during his time as defense secretary.
Not all missing-person cases are from the war years.
Several journalists and political dissidents disappeared off Sri Lanka’s streets after the guns had gone silent, when Mr. Rajapaksa and his brothers were spearheading the government. When Mr. Rajapaksa was defense secretary, his brother Mahinda served as president for a decade.
The family lost elections in 2015, and in 2017, the country’s Criminal Investigation Department told a court that during Mr. Rajapaksa’s time as defense secretary, he ran a death squad that had targeted opponents. He denied the allegation.
After the family’s 2015 defeat, the police ended a kidnapping racket run by Sri Lankan navy officers that investigators said had abducted and killed 11 young men.
For more than a decade, mothers of the 11 men have trudged to court and listened to the investigators’ findings, never giving up hope that the children survived.
“My son is alive, and I am still searching for him,” said one of the mothers, Jennifer Weerasinghe. “My son’s case is still ongoing. I will wait for that outcome. I will not accept death certificates.”
The Rajapaksas returned to power last fall. The president’s assertion that there was no point in pursuing the search for the missing came over the weekend, at a meeting with a top United Nations official.
Most of the missing, President Rajapaksa said, had been forcefully conscripted by the Tamil Tigers, who were seeking to establish their own state in the north, and most likely had died on the battlefield.
A statement from his office said that “steps would be taken to issue a death certificate to these missing persons.”
But for some families, presidential finality was not enough. They want hard evidence, like remains.
“The Sri Lankan government cannot dismiss their grievances and simply issue them death certificates — that is not only illegal but also unconscionable,” said Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, an Amnesty International researcher based in Colombo, the capital.
The government, she said, had acted “without conducting an effective and independent investigation, where the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person is found and shared with relatives.”
In 2013, a presidential commission to investigate missing-person complaints was appointed.
“The history of conflict in Sri Lanka is characterized by the agony of individuals and families who are seeking closure to the pain of not knowing what has become of their relations and loved ones,” the commission declared in its final report.
The commission said it had registered 24,000 cases, at least 5,000 of them involving combatants who disappeared during the war.
Its report also pointed a finger at the Sri Lankan military. The evidence, it said, “had clearly established that several individuals who surrendered to the Sri Lankan military” were “among the disappeared.”
With a long history of insurgency and conflict, Sri Lanka is responsible for the second-largest caseload before the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, trailing only Iraq.
The history of Sri Lanka’s missing goes back further than the civil war.
Amnesty International has estimated that there have been up to 100,000 disappearances in Sri Lanka since the 1970s. Tens of thousands of Sinhalese youth, for example, disappeared during two Marxist insurgencies.