As a journalist I always feel privileged and cursed for the ringside seat we have into peoples lives. Seeing the depths of despair, the agony of loss and the intensity of joy is a humbling experience.
But a seven-year-old with sparkling eyes and a beautiful smile left me lost for words – a rare thing for me – as I covered a story on Sri Lanka’s Presidential Commission to inquire into missing persons.
“Will you give my daddy back?” he asked me. His father, S Arulnesan, was a fisherman who lived close to the border between Killinochchi and Mannar.
With the battle between government troops and the Tamil Tigers intensifying, Arulnesan, his pregnant wife, and their five sons joined the exodus of civilians fleeing the fighting.
Arulnesan’s wife recounts how the following weeks were a blur of shells, explosions, death, disease and hunger as hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in a shrinking pocket of land.
“We had to keep moving every few days because the fighting kept getting closer,” she says.
In a bid to feed his starving family when they were close to the eastern coast, his wife says Arulnesan resorted to fishing with her brother.
But then tragedy struck. “He went out at five o’clock that morning but was arrested by the navy – other fishermen who were at sea told me he was taken in,” his wife says.
And she hasn’t seen her husband since.
Her daughter, born two months later, knows “Appa” (Tamil for “father”) only in a photograph. Jeyaranee got the little girl’s picture scanned into the only family portrait they have. It provides some comfort.
But remembering during our interview was hard for her, and her tears flowed freely. The six children aged 17, 15, 11, nine, seven and five huddled close to their mother, to comfort her and be comforted.
The older three are visibly upset but seven-year-old, Arul Selvan, tries again: “Will you give my daddy back?”
The family is just one of about 20,000 who have lodged complaints with a commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in August 2013.
It will look into disappearances in the country from 1983 to 2009, the duration of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.
But cases from the last stages of the war and after are likely to draw the most interest at home and abroad.
Maxwell Paranagama, a retired High Court judge, is the chairman of the commission. Speaking to me before he leaves for the second days’ sittings, he tells me his team will look at disappearances, who was responsible, and whether the security forces and the Tamil Tigers violated human rights and international humanitarian law.
“Maybe it’s very difficult to find out details about the missing persons, but as human beings we must try our best to find out what has happened to him and we must make an effort to go to the furthest point that we can,” he says.
It’s a mammoth task – the commission invited 50 people a day to appear at Killinochchi sessions. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Critics have pointed out at this rate the process will take years.
But one little boy with sparkling eyes, and thousands of others like him, will wait as long as it takes to find out what happened to their loved ones.