Father Nandana Manatunga, a human rights defender and director of the Human Rights Office, was awarded the 2018 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. (Photo: HRO)
Sri Lanka has the dubious distinction of having the second-highest number of disappearances in the world.
Thousands went missing during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection of 1987-89. About 60,000 people were killed or disappeared during the youth-led insurrection.
Thousands were killed and disappeared during the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 when the country's army defeated Tamil rebels.
According to the UN, the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone, while other independent reports estimated the number of Tamil civilian deaths at more than 100,000. Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations.
Father Nandana Manatunga, 60, a well-known human rights defender and director of the Human Rights Office (HRO) in Kandy, has played an instrumental role in giving succor to the families of victims and providing a channel for them to tell their stories.
His work has been internationally recognized and he was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2018.
Among those who attend monthly meetings of relatives of victims of enforced disappearances at Father Nandana's office is D.G. Yashohammy, 78, a Buddhist from Wattegama.
Her 22-year-old son was abducted by a group of men in military uniforms during the JVP insurrection.
"I have been looking for my son ever since. We went to army camps and police stations and they all said that our children had not been brought in," she said.
"This is the same story for all of us. Father Nandana has created a platform for all of us to tell our stories.”
Ashoka Weerasinghe, whose son was abducted in 1989, said families could speak about their disappeared loved ones and release their trauma during the regular meetings and workshops.
"These fairs and other programs have brought us together. We thank Father Nandana for giving us the opportunity to alleviate our grief. He spends at least half of his life on the work. The priest is a very happy person who is pleased to see us happy," she said.
Tamils from the north and east join the program once a year. On the first Friday of the month, women gather at the HRO in Kandy. The teams from Kandy, Jaffna and Mannar gather in their own places.
A revolving fund has been set up for each of these groups, providing financial assistance for those in need or who require legal aid.
The HRO was started in 2008 to work with people of different faiths. The office provides protection, legal aid, security, health and trauma counseling to victims of rape, torture, abduction and other serious rights violations.
Father Nandana, who was ordained in 1986, said all these programs are implemented to heal the serious wounds of their minds.
"We want to keep all these stories alive, otherwise the next generation will want to know what happened to them,” Father Nandana told UCA News.
"We have empowered victims and their families from different parts of the country and have challenged religious leaders to stand by the victims and campaign for reform of the police and the judiciary.
"As a priest, I protect, promote and safeguard the rights of the victims of all human rights violations. It is my mission following the teachings of Christ. All religious leaders have a moral obligation to advocate for human rights."