On the 7th of September 1996, around six in the morning, a dusky girl in her late teens stood in front of the portrait of Goddess Saraswathie that was hanging as kew on the wall. Here she stood erect, with closed eyes and clasped hands, in contemplation for a few minutes. There was a special reason for her to ask for favours from this Goddess on this particular day. She was in the midst of the G.C.E (A/L) examination, and on this particular day in less than four hours she would be answering her Chemistry Multiple Choice paper. Needless to say amongst the pantheon of Hindu deities Saraswathie identified with education since she was the Goddess of learning.
The girls name was Krishanthi Kumaraswamy and she attended Chundukuli Girls’ College, a prestigious school for girls, in Jaffna. This morning her mother cobbled together a meal from whatever available at that early hour. Krishanthi had only a small portion of the meal as she was never hungry enough for a full breakfast. Following breakfast the girl flicked through the notes, in condensed form, she had prepared for the last minute revision. Around 7.15 a.m. the girl, attired in her white school uniform, red tie, socks and shoes took her red bicycle outside the house and walked towards the road, twenty meters from the house. Mother followed her daughter up to the road, wished her ‘good luck’ and watched her mount the bicycle and literally fly away, until she lost sight of the girl.
The name of the affectionate mother was Rasammah Kumaraswamy. She was 59 years of age and a graduate of a prominent Indian university. In 1996 she was serving as vice principal of a school at Kaithady, where her house was located. She was blessed with three children, eldest daughter, Prashanthi, living in Colombo pursuing a course that would lead towards a professional qualification, and the second daughter Krishanthi who was now in the midst of an examination; the youngest Pranavan, a boy going on sixteen awaiting G.C.E (O/L) examination results. Rasammah became a widow in 1984 and to her; life had no purpose if not for these children.
That day when she lost sight of Krishanthi on her bicycle, Rasammah made a beeline to the Hindu temple a few metres away from her house. At the temple she made an offering that didn’t take much time. This was a Saturday, a nonworking day, the lady had plenty of time on her hands. On her way back from the temple she spent a few minutes at a fellow teacher’s house and around 8.15 a.m. left that place. Rasammah directly went home, she was fasting that morning, in other words, she did forgo her breakfast and the next meal for her would be lunch. This she would partake with Krishanthi and her son, who had gone to his private tutor’s residence.
Rasammah was aware that day her daughter’s examination was supposed to commence at 9.30 a.m. and finish by 11.30 a.m. Therefore, she anticipated her daughter to arrive home by 12.30 p.m. or latest by one in the afternoon. In a jiffy she made an elaborate vegetarian lunch and waited for the daughter. As there was no sign of Krishanthi’s arrival or any explanation for the delay a twitchy mother kept walking, to and fro, between the house and the road. Rasammah expressed her concern to her elder sister, Sivapakiam, who lived all alone next door and spent the night with her. In desperation this nonplussed mother came towards the gate and remained riveted to the ground with several thoughts crossing her mind.
This was the moment Kirubamoorthi, a person well known to Kumaraswamy family, came towards Rasammah and informed the dreadful news he had learnt from someone. The alarming news was that Krishanthi had been detained by the army at the Chemmani security checkpoint. Grasping the gravity of the situation Rasammah decided to go in search of her daughter, without dilly-dallying, a decision chimed in by Kirubamoorthi. The boy, Pranavan, who arrived short time ago from the tutor’s residence, placed his mother on the pillion of his bicycle, followed by Kirubamoorthi on his bicycle, rode towards an army checkpoint located in the vicinity of a cremation ground. Krishanthi nor the other three – mother, brother and Kirubamoorthi—returned to Kaithady that night.
Two relations of Kumaraswamy family left Kaithady on the following morning to bring this to the notice of Mr Kodeshwaran, Chief Postmaster, jaffna. Kodeshwaran was considered by the locals as a person who kept his ear to the ground. After listening to what the two from Kaithady stated Kodeshwaran felt in a situation of this nature first port of call should be the nearest military camp. Therefore, these two persons accompanied by Kodeshwaran, went to the Pungankulam military camp and made a complaint about the missing persons. This was done within 24 hours of Krishanthi’s detention.
The postmaster, also being a kinsman of the Kumaraswamy family, strained every nerve and sinew to find out what exactly happened to Krishanthi and the three went in search of her. The army officers, from Jaffna, maintained that the ‘soldiers knew nothing of the disappearance’. Kodeshwaran also spoke to the police and got a nephew of his to provide the police information about sighting the bicycle chain cover of Pranavan – the school boy, went with others looking for his sister. Postmaster’s nephew had seen this chain cover at a cycle repair shop closer to the Chemmani military checkpoint.
At the time when these persons went missing Jaffna was under direct control of the military. The area was a tightly knit network of a myriad of checkpoints and camps. Therefore it remained baffling as to why the local security personnel allowed this to remain shrouded in mystery for more than a month!
National newspapers didn’t bother to even report this matter. To journalists associated with the national media writing anything against the military establishment would be tantamount to an ‘unpatriotic’ act! Under these circumstances, in Jaffna, there were Chinese whispers!
With nothing positive being heard from Jaffna Mr.T. Poopalan, an unswerving human rights lawyer from Colombo, did whatever possible to highlight the incident. He contacted a Member of Parliament, Joseph Pararajasingham, to raise the matter in Parliament. Poopalan also contacted several important persons including the President Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga. The President, naturally, shocked by what she heard, ordered the authorities to conduct an investigation immediately and bring the miscreants to book.
Following directions from the President a military police investigation unit headed by Lt.Col. Gunaratne was sent to Jaffna. Though most of those served at the Chemmani post, on the day Krishanthi went missing were deployed elsewhere, they were brought to Jaffna for interrogation. Many of them admitted raping the school girl. They also admitted killing Krishanthi, Rasamma, Pranavan and Kirubamoorthi. Based on the information elicited from them, 45 days after the persons went missing, in the presence of the local Magistrate all four bodies were exhumed, a few metres away from the Chemmani check point where Krishanthi was detained. Subsequent to exhumation, all persons arrested including the Lance Corporal in charge of the checkpoint were taken to Colombo.
Based on the evidence gathered Attorney General indicted these military and police personnel before a three-member High Court Bench. The trial at bar comprised Judges Nimal Disanayake (president), Andrew Somawansa and Gamini Abeyratne. At the trial it came to light most of the accused persons gang raped and killed the school girl. It also came to light that these criminal elements by killing the other three persons thought they erred on the side of caution by obliterating any trace of evidence, a ploy frequently attributed in Sri Lanka to military establishment to cover wrong doing! This complex trial lasted several months and at the end Judges found five soldiers and a police constable guilty of a several charges including rape and murder. Some government politicians of that period hailed the outcome of the trial as a commitment on their part to human rights and rule of law. However, the disappearance of Krishanthi and others wouldn’t have been investigated if not for President Mrs Kumaratunga’s directions!
Ironically, a slaughter that resulted in the death of 25 Tamils following the soldiers going on a shooting spree at Kumarapuram, six months prior to Krishanthi’s disappearance, didn’t receive same attention. While Chemmani trial concluded within two years of the incidents, the Kumarapuram trial, in contrast, took twenty years! The inordinate delay reminds one of the often quoted maxims JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED.