Can Poetry Bring Back the Disappeared?

September 25, 2015


On August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, Amnesty launched “Silent Shadows” – a poetry competition in Sri Lanka to mark the decades of enforced disappearances experienced there.  That sentence raises at least four questions:

  • Why enforced disappearances? Enforced disappearances are a particularly heinous form of human rights violation.  Government agents detain a person and the government later denies any knowledge or responsibility for his or her whereabouts or status.  The victims are often tortured and in fear for their lives, while their relatives live with the agony of uncertainty over their loved ones’ fate. 

  • Why Sri Lanka? Over the past 30 years, at least 80,000 disappearances have been reported in Sri Lanka.  It is second only to Iraq in the number of disappearance cases submitted by relatives to the UN.  In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the fate of the disappeared person is still unknown and those responsible for the disappearance have not been held accountable.
  • Why a poetry competition? Poetry and the arts can be a means for reflection and release of deeply held feelings.  A poem’s expression of suffering may not remove that suffering or its cause but may help in some way to alleviate the pain.  Poetry may also provide a more powerful voice for those living with their relatives’ unresolved disappearances to this day.
  • What are the details for the competition? Writers must be Sri Lankans living in the country or who have emigrated in the past 20 years.  Poems may be submitted in English, Tamil or Sinhala and cannot exceed 1,000 words.  The competition closes on October 31, 2015.  The winners will be announced by Amnesty on December 10, 2015 and the winning poems will be published by Amnesty in a trilingual book in 2016 and posted on the AI website.  Winners will receive a copy of the book but no cash award.  For more details, click here.

While this poetry competition may not actually bring back any of the disappeared, we hope that it puts their fate back on the agenda as Sri Lankans discuss how to move toward a future in which everyone’s human rights are fully protected in the country.  If you know any Sri Lankan poets (or aspiring poets), please share this with them.  We’d like to get as many entries as possible before the deadline on October 31.

The photograph is taken outside the Palais des Nations in Geneva where activists and families of the disappeared from Sri Lanka and Argentina stood together in solidarity to commemorate the disappeared in Sri Lanka.  The event was organised by AI Switzerland and the Sri Lanka team.  The photograph shows the group gathered with the banner reading "our friends and family will not disappear". Behind them is a sari which was designed by mothers of the disappeared in Sri Lanka to commemorate the missing.