Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Michael Keller (Home for Human Rights, Sri Lanka): Michael worked as a summer-school teacher, a research assistant at a counter-terrorism consulting firm, an intern at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris, and a consular intern at the US Consulate General in Naples. At the time of his fellowship, Michal was in the fourth of a five-year program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, pursuing a BS and MS in Foreign Service. He speaks Italian, French and German.

Attacks and disappearances

09 Jul

Thursday morning I found an interesting e-mail in my inbox. It was from the US Embassy, warning me to avoid Batticaloa on the east coast – the scene of an assassination two days earlier – and informing me of Wednesday’s suicide bombing in Colpetty, Colombo. Funny, I thought: I’d just returned from Batti, and I live in Colpetty!

It just so happens that my boss and I arrived in Batti (a city controlled by the military by day and the LTTE by night) the day after the shooting of an LTTE politician and two other men on the street in broad daylight. If no one had told me, though, I wouldn’t have known because things seemed to have gotten back to normal quite fast.

After two days in the east, we arrived back in Colombo less than 12 hours after the suicide bombing – Colombo’s first since 2001 – at the police station up the street. Again, beyond the station’s blown out windows and the gruesome photos of body parts on the front pages of the papers, nothing had changed i n the city… no panic, no shock. It seems as though Sri Lankans are all too familiar with this sort of violence. I, meanwhile, am not, and being so close to all the madness for the first time has finally exposed me to the reality of life in Sri Lanka.

Two other recent events brought that reality into sharper focus. On a weekend trip to Mannar, a barren island only a few dozen kilometers from India and controlled by the LTTE at night, I witnessed a morbid celebration. After passing at least 15 military bases over less than 100 kilometers and being stopped at two of the countless checkpoints (one word from Mr. Xavier – “Lawyer” – was enough to allow us to be waved through) we pulled into Mannar town in time for dinner.

Our road, though, was momentarily blocked by a brightly lit flat-bed truck and a small crowd of people. “Great,” I thought, “a religious festival!” Sort of. On the back of this truck was an arrangement of the photos of at least half the nearly 300 male and female LTTE suicide bombers (“Black Tigers”) who’d sacrificed their lives in the hopes of creating an independent Tamil state.

A loudspeaker broadcast their names and praised their brave actions. I would guess that the truck made another appearance after the Colombo bombing, though the LTTE officially denies involvement in that attack.

The second dramatic event occurred a few days ago. I shouldn’t reveal too many details about it, but essentially HHR has been approached by a man who claims to have escaped from a government detention center. His story may be false, but according to him he was arbitrarily “disappeared” – like tens of thousands of other Sri Lankans – over 15 years ago!

He says he was tortured and forced to work as a domestic servant for one of his captors. The part that shocked me most was his claim that there are over 200 men in similar situations at the same detention center that he would like to see released. Though his wife has died, his daughter no longer recognizes him, and his body looks 20 years older than he actually is, he wore a big smile during our meeting and had a light in his eye.

HHR is starting to investigate his claims; if his story checks out, it will try to pressure the government both domestically and internationally to release the remaining men. Needless to say, the fate of those men has contributed a certain sense of urgency to my work.

Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Posted Jul 9th, 2004

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