Last year, in a village in the east of Sri Lanka, Selvi Ratnarajah opened her door to find three masked men pointing guns at her face. They pushed inside and screamed at her to turn off the lights. When she refused, they shouted for her husband, Ravanana, dragged him into the street and forced him at gunpoint on to the back of a motorbike.
“I went out of the house and ran and ran through the bush,” she said, fingering her husband’s tattered ID card. “I could see the lights of the motorbike ahead and I saw them stop by a bridge. Then I heard shots. I ran towards the noise and I could hear someone breathing. It was dark and there were no lights and I was screaming for him. When I found my husband, they’d shot him in the mouth. He was trying to talk to me. I tried to scream again, but no sound came out. Then he died.”
Ratnarajah says she has no idea who took her husband or why. “When they came to the house, all they said was that he was being taken for questioning, but nobody has ever told me why he was taken,” she says. “Everywhere there are men with arms. We don’t know who they are and what is happening with the fighting, and I don’t know who to trust. I saw him being taken from the house but nobody will listen to me. My husband was never accused of anything.”
As the Sri Lankan military mounts a spring offensive designed to eliminate the Tamil Tigers and end their bloody 26-year struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, the civilian population of the Tamil-dominated regions is terrorised, displaced and fears the worst.
As rebel soldiers melt back into the civilian population, and the number of those displaced by the fighting swells, tales of brutality and intimidation are legion. Meanwhile, people are simply disappearing.
This is an extract of a longer article on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in the days before the government finally crushed the last remaining Tamil Tiger forces, which first appeared in The Observer on 5 April 2009. Click here to read the article in full.