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Death from white vans: the logic of terror

People disappear, snatched from the streets at all hours of the day by gunmen in unmarked vans. Bodies sometimes appear, shot execution style or riddled with bullets. Sometimes the missing become the ‘disappeared’ and are never heard from again. The effect on the rest of the community is terror.
And, as Sri Lanka’s military, emboldened by recent successes, prepares to step up its campaign against the Tamil Tigers, the rate of killing is inexorably going up.
In August alone, at least 67 Tamil youths and young adults disappeared in the Jaffna peninsula, according to Thurairaja Surendraraja, the coordinator for Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission (HRC).
These are apart from the dozens whose bodies have been found shot dead, sometimes with marks of torture.
The HRC puts the number of the disappeared alone from the Jaffna peninsular since December last year at over 400. Apart from the missing, scores of bodies have been found; dumped by roadside, on beaches, thrown in wells.
And people are disappearing – and bodies appearing - in other government-controlled parts of the island too. In Trincomalee, in Batticaloa, in Vavuniya and even in the capital, Colombo.
And whilst they have reached new highs for recent times, ‘disappearances’ are not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka’s conflict.
Earlier this year reporters with The Toronto Star visited Jaffna to investigate the rising numbers of killings and disappearances - which the paper subsequently reported, had “created a culture of fear among Tamil civilians.”
Even by July, more than 100 Tamil civilians had been killed and 255 had been reported missing in Jaffna so far this year, according to Mudiappah Remadious, a lawyer at the human rights commission.
The strong evidence has Remadious convinced that the Sinhalese-dominated security forces are behind at least 40 of the disappearances and most of the killings.
The rest are under investigation.
A Roman Catholic priest who’d also been recording the human rights violations unfolding around him worried that a government plan to terrify Tamil civilians was working, especially in Jaffna.
“It’s schematized killing,” he told the Toronto Star. “To threaten the people. To keep them under pressure. To send the message that the government can save the life and the government can destroy the life.”
The Sri Lankan military, however, told the paper that its soldiers have nothing to do with the disappearances or killings.
“Civilians get caught in the crossfire also, but there are no organized killings,” says Sri Lanka Army spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe. “And about the disappearances, of course the army is not responsible for this.
But when pressed, Samarasinghe admits that there may be “a few bad eggs.”
“When you take 1,000 people in the army, you get one or two corrupted people, right,” he says. “If we find them and they are found guilty they will definitely be court martialled and punished.”
But not everyone is convinced.
“There is very good evidence that the security forces have once again started killing civilians and quite indiscriminately,” a Western diplomat in Colombo, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Toronto Star.
The HRC, the priest and several diplomats agree that neither the police nor the judiciary is seriously investigating most of the killings and disappearances, the paper reported. “They worry signs of a government cover-up suggest the orders to carry them out may have come from Colombo.”
“You basically have an apparatus in terms of law enforcement and institutional culture, that created this problem in the past, in the nineties. It was never effectively dismantled,” an international analyst who also spoke on condition of anonymity told The Toronto Star.
“Things are switching back to their old ways and tactics,” the analyst said. “Maybe it’s too far to say it’s a calibrated strategy, but the signals and so forth come from the top.”
The terror experienced by the relatives of the victims and other members of their community is multifaceted.
It comes not only from the casual nature of the abductions and killings.
There is the impossibility of finding out what has become of loved ones. Then there is impossibility of securing action from the police –especially when the security forces are suspected of being responsibility.
In another of several urgent appeals issued by Amnesty International in the wake of disappearances in Sri Lanka, this time in the case of several aid workers with the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, the typical elements of a military abduction are present.
Amnesty quoted witnesses as saying that “some of those involved in the arrest or abduction were wearing plain clothes and that some had their faces partially covered with black cloth.”
“The [abducting] group arrived in two army vehicles and one white van.”
Yet, when “relatives made inquiries about their [victim’s] arrest and apparent ‘disappearance’ to the [local] army camp … the army denied the arrests.”
Last week the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) observed: “In Sri Lanka a white van without a number plate is a symbol of terror and the disappearances that occurred in all parts of the country.”
“Commissions on Disappearances in the South during the last few years of the 1980s have documented at some length how armed men, travelling in white vans without number plates abducted thousands of people who were never seen again,” the AHRC statement said.
The AHRC was referring to the tens of thousands of Sinhala youths who ‘disappeared’ or were abducted and killed by Sri Lanka’s military and, especially, state-backed paramilitary groups during the crushing of the armed insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) during the late eighties.
When Sri Lanka’s conflict resumed in 1995, in the wake of early military successes against the LTTE, gunmen in white vans quickly began again claiming victims amongst the Tamils.
Amnesty International’s 1996 report notes: “at least 55 people "disappeared" after being arrested by members of the security forces in the east and in Colombo. The bodies of 31 people abducted in Colombo between late April and late August were later found in lakes and rivers in the vicinity.”
“Among them was Vijendra Naresh Rajadurai who had been forced into a white van at Wellawatte, Colombo, on his way home after work. His body and those of four others were found some 60 kilometres to the northeast of Colombo. The victims had been held prisoner, tortured and then killed by strangulation or drowning.”
“Now such vans have reappeared and do so frequently in the Jaffna peninsula,” the AHRC said last week. “The suspicion of the family members is that such [abductions] are done either directly by the military or with its approval.”
“Such complicity will not come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of the extent of the disappearances that have taken place in Sri Lanka in recent decades,” the AHRC says. “The reports of the Commissions appointed to investigate these earlier disappearances place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the state agencies.”
And as in the JVP era, the victims of today’s abductions border on the indiscriminate. Those with even the slightest suspicion of supporting the Tamil Tigers is being murdered.
Press reports say even supporters of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Sri Lanka’s oldest Tamil party and now part of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have been abducted and killed in the Army-controlled peninsula.
Sri Lanka’s security establishment has an operating logic, the AHRC points out: For many Sri Lankan “political leaders as well as some military and police officers, disappearances were the most practical method of dealing with insurgency.”

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