Sri Lanka’s Disappeared Documentary

‘Sri Lanka’s Disappeared’ is the first documentary to be produced by 47 Roots and it is based on the struggles of finding answers to thousands of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. The documentary travels across the North-East of Sri Lanka, populated predominantly by Tamils, where families of the disappeared had been protesting on the sides of roads for more than 100 days at the time of filming. In particular, the team visited the protest sites at Kilinochchi and Trincomalee, where mothers shared their stories of their disappeared family members and their resilience at these protests.

Families were camped outside in the heat, day-in day-out, under tarpaulin sheets, surrounded by banners and photos of their disappeared loved ones, along main roads in the hopes of finding answers to their years of searching. Their demands were simple, but they may as well have been far-fetched. For Tamils in Sri Lanka the reality of justice was stalled and denied by the state on many occasions, and it was all too obvious as to why their voices went unheard.

Whilst international eyes looked away, more than 70,000 Tamils were massacred in the final days and months of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long armed conflict that came to an end in May 2009. Trapped in so-called No Fire Zones designated by the Sri Lankan military for the safety of Tamil civilians, which then became the strategic sites of targeted attacks. As far as those who survived were concerned, the arms may have been put aside but their sufferings continued on new territory.

A recent study conducted by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the International Truth and Justice Project estimates that between May 17th-19th 2009 an astonishing 503 people were forcibly disappeared all at a particular location. Thousands of Tamils were screened by the military through Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps for being LTTE, of which Menik Farm was the world’s largest at one-point housing over 300,000 and was renowned for its horrendous conditions, which eventually closed in 2012. It was whilst in these camps that many families handed over their children, partners, parents and siblings to the military for investigation under the promise of their return. Years of searching from camps to prisons across the island would lead to nothing but despair.

In 1999, a UN report found Sri Lanka to have the second largest number of disappearances in the world. Enforced disappearances were not a by-product of the conflict but rather were a tool of oppression for decades, used by state forces all the way through to paramilitary groups. Unconvincingly, many commissions had been established by consecutive governments that exhausted victims of information only to produce reports that failed to provide answers.

In mid-2017, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act was finally passed, but it took a further year for the commission to be established in May 2018. Families of the disappeared were reluctant and had very little faith in yet another commission. In June 2018, families had passed 500 days of continuous protesting without answers to their demands. Although since then many of the sites have ended protesting and opened respective offices, some continue, particularly at Vavuniya where the original protest began. For a detailed overview of the demands and events of the protests, visit the ‘Solidarity with Families of the Disappeared’ website, an independent campaign across the Tamil diaspora initiated alongside the 500th day of protesting in Kilinochchi.

The documentary was filmed in mid-2017 shortly after the 100th day protest and the families’ meeting with the President, leading only to false promises. The team spoke to civil society activists on the ground including Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, Research Director at the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, and Kumaravadivel Guruparan, Head of Law at the University of Jaffna, who both detailed the legal and practical elements of the protests and Sri Lanka’s lack of action. On return to London, Dr Thusiyan Nandakumar, an editor at Tamil Guardian, gave his insight into the international media response to issues faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka, and prospects for the Tamil diaspora’s involvement.

‘Sri Lanka’s Disappeared’ tracks the ongoing silencing of voices demanding justice from a state that refuses to hold itself accountable for many atrocity crimes, targeted specifically at the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. It was an effort to raise awareness and attention to the plight of Tamil families in the aftermath of a conflict that ended almost ten years ago, still seeking the answers they deserve to know.

The documentary premiered on February 23rd, 2018.