United in Fear: Travails of Detainee families

(Published in TheSunday Times on last sunday written by wife of Tissainayagam, the journalist in TID custody)

 March 30th, 2008

 By Ronnate Tissainayagam

 It was very early on a Saturday morning, we were all gathering in  front of the Fort Railway Station. No we were not planning to go on a  trip, We were the wives/sisters of the four journalists taken into  detention on March 7th. Saturday is visitor’s day to the Terrorist  Investigation Department (TID). Family members of the detainees have  to gather at the Fort Railway Station between 9 a.m and 12 noon. There  they are checked, bundled into a police van and taken to the TID.

So the five of us together huddled together at the station – half  ashamed and hoping no body would notice us. We reminisced the many  times our husbands/brothers had come to this very station to ‘cover’  various protest rallies but how there were none for them. A man  approached us asking if this was the line for those waiting to board  the train to Anuradhapura we waved him on embarrassed in case he found  out where we were really going.

Suddenly the police jeep appeared and all of the families of the  detainees got up from their own little groups and surged toward it.  There were plainclothesmen shouting at us to get into lines – men on  one side and women on the other. There were very few men going to  visit people at the TID and most of them had come to accompany the  wives, sisters and mothers of detainees.

As this was the first time  that I was doing this I just followed the rest of the families as they  seemed to know the system. The checking began through the hustle and bustle with babies crying and plainclothes men yelling at the families  to keep to their lines. Loud wails from the checking room emanated as  carefully prepared food parcels that the families were bringing the  detainees were man handled and made unfit for consumption.

Finally we were bundled into a large blue police jeep, which one had  to climb into. It was too high for everyone and all the elderly ladies  had to crawl in on all fours or be carried in by the other members of  the family. We were packed liked sardines. For if we got late that was  so much less time to see our loved ones, so we were all eager to go as  soon as possible. One elderly gentleman had a problem with his knee  and therefore he could not bend it but had to keep it stretched out. 

The plainclothesman yelled at the gentleman to put his leg inside the  vehicle. The gentleman being a monolingual Tamil speaker was  bewildered at this barrage of Sinhala. Those of us who knew Sinhala  tried to explain to the plainclothesman the plight of this man. The  plainclothesman then yelled at some people who were already in the van to get down and after they got out, he pushed the elderly gentleman’s  leg inside the jeep and slammed the door shut. The elderly gentleman  was in pain all the way to the TID on Chaitya Road.

As we were dropped outside the TID office on the roadside the plainclothesmen shouted at us to get into the nearby bus that was  parked on the side of the road there, so we could be transported to  see our loved ones. Those of us ‘newbies’ who were able to do the jump  from the back of the jeep by ourselves, scrambled to get the front  seats of this bus. As we neared it, the plainclothesman laughed out  loud the bus had all of its tires deflated. This was his little joke  to rag the newbies who did not know the system!

Another TID officer came up to the broken bus and he asked us for the  names of the detainees that we had come to see. Then came the long  slow wait in the relentless sun. At first we (journalists’ wives) did  not speak with the relatives of the other detainees. Then as the hours wore on we went from timid smiles to exchanging information.

One lady had been a bride of one week before her husband was detained.  Now he had been detained for 3 months and no reason had been given to  him or to her as to why he was in custody. Another had a babe of three weeks in her arms, her husband had also been held for three months without reason being given for detention.

This was the first time that her husband would be seeing this child.  One other lady had to come from Kurunegala every week just to see her  husband. He had been held for six months and not yet been charged.

As we stood exchanging stories in the blistering sun it became clear  that while all of our races, backgrounds and cases were different what  bound us together was fear. Fear of what might be happening to our  husbands inside the TID, fear that neighbor’s might find out our husband’s were in detention and hound us from our homes, and fear that  any of our actions could be misconstrued by the police and TID  officers there and that could lead to the further detention of our  husbands.

All of us, regardless of ethnicity or case had been warned by the TID  officers not to take this matter to court or involve any lawyers. If  we did involve lawyers then our husbands could be held indefinitely we  were told. I, in my desperation to ensure my husband’s freedom was  also thinking that I should not stand up for my husband’s rights. But  then in the blazing sun I realized that for 20 years my husband had worked for the rights of the people of Sri Lanka and that in his own  case he would not want me to stay quiet about his own rights.

In the early 1990’s my husband worked for the Organization of the  Parents and Families of the Disappeared-an organization that worked in the South helping Sinhala families get justice for their children who  had disappeared. My husband was one of those who compiled the  documents that contained the names of the disappeared that then MP  Mahinda Rajapakse took to Geneva in 1992. Today he is being accused of  being a terrorist for seeking justice for those who had disappeared in  the North and East. Here was a man who truly believed in the Rights of  all people in Sri Lanka, who worked unstintingly for peace with  ministers of this government and of members of all parties at the One  Text Initative. He is now being incarcerated for speaking up for the  people of his country.

When I looked at the tired, scared faces around me, I asked myself  whether I should be ashamed of my husband or of my country?

[Ronnate is the wife of journalist JS Tissainayagam who is being held  in detention from March 7th. A fundamental rights petition filed on  his behalf has been given leave to proceed by the Supreme Court. It is  to be taken up on March 31st. Meanwhile the Terrorist investigation  dept has sought a court order seeking to seal up the Tissainayagam  residence. It is also learnt that a detention order for three months  was issued on March 27th against Tissainayagam]=