Families of disappeared living slow death under state terror: Leena Manimekalai

Film maker of the latest documentary “White Van Stories”, Leena Manimekalai says that her two-hour long film on the enforced abduction and disappearances by the state forces was just a fraction of what is still going in Sri Lanka, which is currently hosting the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), amid growing international concern over its human rights track record.

In an exclusive interview with the JDS, she said that the government critiques, journalists, lawyers, former rebel suspects and aid workers are still being abducted using the notorious ‘white-van’ and made to disappear forever. She says the coalition government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is long carrying out this terror campaign with the dual strategy of eliminating its opponents and instilling fear among the people.

“Some rights groups say that at least two people are made to disappear every week, while some say more. The truth is that the most-feared white-van abductions and enforced disappearances are still taking place and no one would have an actual count of it,” said the critically-acclaimed independent Indian film-maker, who spent more than two months with the affected people in the former war zones to make this powerful White Vans film. 

“Keeping this already victimised people under constant reign of terror and stress is nothing but a slow death. This is actually what is happening in Sri Lanka’s North and the East,” she said, stressing that one would need an extraordinary strength to stomach their horrible stories and experiences.

Excerpts from interview with Leena Manimekalai:  

JDS: What prompted you to make such a risky film?

Leena: How can a human being disappear? This question has been hurting and haunting me ever since I heard about forcible disappearances in neighbouring Sri Lanka. When I happened to meet the families of the disappeared, I was eternally impressed by their sheer resilience, perseverance, struggle, hope and their waiting. I was getting in touch with them regularly. I actually gained faith in humanity from them, because for them there is a very thin line between disappearances and death. If they could risk their lives, continue their struggle for justice, I think as an artist I am bound to share their pain. I did not have anything to lose. I wanted to transform their pain into my work of art, so that, it would be shared by anyone who is interested in humanity and compassion. Enforced disappearances are a humanitarian crisis and everyone with humanity should work to hold the Sri Lankan state accountable.

As a country, Sri Lanka has a very violent history as thousands of people have involuntarily disappeared for three decades. Sri Lanka is almost becoming the world’s leader in enforced disappearances. Here is a state in the modern history, abducting and making its own citizen disappear. They can be rebels or separatists, but when they surrender they cannot disappear. This is a war crime. This is my primary objective for making this film.

JDS: Under prevailing reign of state terror, you would have obviously needed a lot of courage, strength and backup to work on film such as yours. How did you manage to get all these?

Leena: Initially, I did not go to Sri Lanka with an objective to make this film. I went to a literary conference in Jaffna as an observer. Being a Tamil, neighbouring Sri Lanka always remained an emotional quotient for me from my childhood, but merely being a Tamil is not just the reason for making this film. I have been writing, voicing and dealing Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis in my own films in my journey as an activist.

After literary conference I stayed back and met a set of amazing people such as human rights activists and writers who have lived through the bloody war, but still retained their faith in humanity, trying to fight this horrible Sri Lankan state. These people have lost their loved ones, seen death throughout the years, but still they have the undying quality of perseverance and resilience left in them. I think this is the least I could do as an artist and activist from the neighbouring country.

There is an absolute darkness and silence. They were keen in making their stories (of tens of thousands of disappeared) heard, because. In that space I realised that I can be of some help. I am just helping their stories heard via this film.

JDS: How did you cope with the threats around you and your work?

Leena: When I discussed with my close network of people about my idea of making this film, they unanimously warned me that I would be raped, made to disappear by white vans and would soon be in the headlines. The Sri Lankan state is very successful in keeping people in terror and mistrust. The Sri Lankan state is systematically nurturing a strong feeling among the people of the same community and neighbourhood not to trust each other. The people do not know whom to trust and they find informants everywhere. They are being forced not to trust one another. The state is doing this to prevent people from living together as a community and as a social group. The terror is instilled in each and everybody there in the backdrop of a huge military presence. If you have the will, you will have a way. And I found the space to work on this film, though it was not so easy.

JDS: What is your take on the current situation with regard to enforced disappearances and abductions?

Leena: This film is not even a fraction of what I heard. The people are still being white-vanned and made to disappear forever. Some rights groups say that at least two people are made to disappear every week, while some say more. The truth is that abduction and enforced disappearance are still taking place and no one would have a count of it.

I also found that by now the people are fed up and tired of this terror campaign. They want to voice themselves and they want them to be heard louder. Every individual who has suffered during the war has thousands stories to narrate. There are tens of thousands of people affected by the war and subsequent terror campaign of the government. They simply want to share their pains and stories. I found that the whole exercise of telling their stories to a stranger is so much therapeutic to them. There is an absolute need for therapeutic counselling for all these people. Otherwise, they will die and you wouldn’t need a bomb. It is nothing but living a slow death, when you keep them under the reign of terror and stress. This is actually what’s happening in Sri Lanka’s North and the East.   

I was just standing at Nanthikkadal from morning till evening. Whoever who went pass had stories to say and importantly each one was different.

JDS: Do you mean to say that the people are getting acclimatised to the reign of terror, now that it has gone on for four years even after the declared end of the war?

Leena: I think so. It has become a part and parcel of their daily routine to live with these threats. You hear something happening everyday in the hands of the state forces. The profound military presence has become part of their social fabric. From running a tea boutique to civil administration, the military is virtually controlling everything in the former war-zones. If you see four bicycles going on the road, at least two would be that of military. You will see that in the film.

Several wailing wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers invited me to come and listen to their stories. They openly demand the army to shoot them to death, but plead with them to provide their loved ones before being shot. -- “If you say they are criminals, take us to the prison and show them, otherwise, give their dead bodies” -- This is what they are asking and not a separate nation.

JDS: Is it correct to say that the country is still on a war footing?

Leena: Of course, yes. There is no shelling and there is no bombing or chemical weapons being used, but the people are always kept in terror. They cannot simply open their mouth, except for eating. Is this not the state of terror? Is this not a state of war? Although the provincial council election was held and a provincial administration is established as a result, I do not think that the ground situation has changed. The provincial administration does not have adequate power to change the situation upside down or even to improve it.

There is nothing that can terrorise them anymore. Every method has been used on them. If you see the film, you would see that they cry, scream, wail and mourn, but you would notice an absolute sense of struggle for justice there. They want to continue their struggle. Even if their instincts say that their loved ones are not alive, they want to see their dead bodies, they want justice, they want the government to be accountable.

For them, their loved ones were taken or surrendered right in front of their eyes. They now want the government to show their whereabouts.

JDS: Why do you think that the Sri Lankan state is using these kinds of terror tactics to terrorise innocent civilians, even four years after defeating the LTTE militarily?

Leena: It is simply because of the fact that Sri Lanka is an authoritarian state. It is an ultra Buddhist nationalist state. They use this cheap nationalist drug to keep people in control and to divide people and communities. Other reason is that the Rajapaksa government takes no note of this so-called international pressure. They simply ignore people giving them lectures about human rights, justice, humanity and good governance. I think the international pressure should be exerted on Sri Lanka in a tangible manner, until such a time they are held accountable for all these crimes.  

JDS: Your comments on the difficulties you faced while making this film?

Leena: Nobody knew that we were doing this film. It was totally an under-cover film. You can name it as guerrilla film making, but we had no other way to do this. I was detained for many times and interrogated for many hours, my tapes were confiscated. Once I was even asked to leave the country. I had to live with the risk of authorities coming and taking you for interrogation. More importantly, I had to do this without further compromising the safety and security of the people involved. It was not so easy, but I will still try to work on more such films on Sri Lanka.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.