by Rev B.J. Alexander
THE DISAPPEARANCE of Fr. Herbert happened on August 15, 1990. As in the cases of a multitude of disappearances in the NorthEast Tamil areas, Fr. Herbert's remains still an unsolved mystery!
Eugene John Herbert, S.J. was born in Jennings, Louisiana, USA, on October 9, 1923. He joined the Jesuits on 14-08-41. After completion of Jesuit studies, he volunteered for the Ceylon Mission. He was accepted in 1948 and arrived that September. He served a year in Batticaloa and another in Trincomalee at the Jesuit Colleges. He was called to Poona for the study of Theology and ordained in March 1954. He returned to Ceylon in April 1956. Fr. Herbert was assigned to St. Joseph’s College, Trincomalee as a teacher and sports coach. He was named principal there for a brief period. Jesuit schools were taken over by the State in 1970. In 1974, Fr. Herbert was sent to Batticaloa to work at the ETI, the Jesuit/Methodist technical institute. He became its director. At the same time he took on basketball coaching at St. Michael’s College, Batticaloa, where he achieved national championship status over several years. Until his violent disappearance in 1990, Fr. Herbert served the community with utmost diligence.
When I asked (April ’05) Fr. Miller - a fellow Jesuit and life-long friend of Fr. Herbert: How did the American Embassy react to the disappearance? He replied: "The American embassy hardly reacted at all. In spite of my calls to the embassy, no direct interest was shown by the Ambassador. They reacted as if we were far outside their responsibility. At no stage did anyone from the embassy visit the area or make any local inquiries. I was the vice-chairman of the local Red Cross. As soon as the chaos quieted, we sent out work crews to clean wells in the area. The crews were instructed to look for some evidence of the incident. No bodies were found in wells, or evidence in ash piles, of which there were a number. About two dozen Tamils had been killed in the same vicinity around the same period. No evidence was found of Fr. Herbert. All was removed."
Fr. Miller, April 2005
Describing the sequence of events, Fr. Miller said: "After the massacres in the Kattankudy mosque (over hundred) and in Eravur town (over a hundred), most of the Tamils in Valaichenai fled to refugee camps fearing revenge attacks. Left behind were the sisters in the convent, with resident girls, and the parish priest and a few of his flock."
"Belligerent bands of Muslims moved through Valaichenai, threatening and firing crackers. Bishop Swampillai prepared to send a convoy, vans and trucks, to bring these people out. But until it was ready, the Bishop requested Fr. Herbert to go to Valaichenai, to ‘protect’ the Catholics. His presence was to be a help to security. He went there on August 13 1990. The convoy - I was with it - headed out on August 15 about 10:30 am; the bishop phoned Valaichenai from Batticaloa early saying we were coming. Fr. Herbert told him he would leave immediately as he had to get to the Technical Institute of which he was director. The bishop asked him to wait. But Fr. Herbert felt they were safe enough there and he would come through himself safely by scooter."
That would have been true but for one thing, Fr. Miller continued. "Fr. Herbert decided to bring with him on the pillion of his scooter a Tamil boy, a student of his technical school. He told the worried parish priest that he would deviate around the Eravur main road along a side road to avoid any mobs. He was seen part of the way in by an ICRC staffer going out, and was seen by some of those in the refugee camp at the University Campus just north of the Tamil town of Chenkaladi. In the Moslem town of Eravur, a number of Tamils had been killed by a group named Jihad and others in retaliation for the Kattankudi massacre. Fr. Herbert reached Eravur about 9:45 am. There are no witnesses as to what happened next."
Looking back, Fr. Miller remembered: "In retrospect, Fr. Herbert rode on his scooter, with the Tamil boy on the pillion. He would have passed alone. But he obviously was somehow stopped. An attempt to take the boy from him would have driven him to defend the helpless young lad. The mob was probably equipped with crowbars and sledge hammers. He could not have won the fight. They would have proceeded to ‘finish him off’ and hide all signs of evidence. Nothing was ever found. No evidence of the Father; not the boy; not even the Vespa scooter." [Fr. Miller admitted that a foreign Diplomat later mentioned to him that he had witnessed a red Vespa scooter in the back of a police station, half way between Colombo and the Habarana / Dambulla area!]
The Official Statement
What was the official line on these matters, I enquired? Fr. Miller noted: "There was an official government statement, claiming an exhaustive search, which DID NOT TAKE PLACE, and asserting that Fr. Herbert had fallen afoul of the LTTE who were very active there at the time. NOT TRUE. And with whom he had severe problems, ALSO NOT TRUE. The army blames the LTTE. THIS IS FALSE. We blame the OFF-DUTY ARMY and OTHER LOOTERS at work there [Eravur] that day."
Fr. Miller further added: "The official statement was sent by the Government to the US Embassy and in response to questions from Washington. The Embassy here accepted the statement, though I went both to the office of the President and met his personal secretary, and to the US Ambassador, telling both that the Army report was TOTALLY FALSE."
A few years after the event, a Moslem labourer at the hospital, drinking after work, confessed in the middle of the conversation to a Tamil Catholic labourer, about Father Herbert’s death. "What could we do? He cried, "Father came to fight with us." Fr. Miller agrees that this comment was made under the influence of spirit, but "in vino veritas." According to Fr. Miller, later attempts to re-start the conversation with the Moslem labourer were stone-walled.
Another Catholic priest who was stationed at Iruthayapuram recalled that a Moslem lorry owner told him that Fr. Herbert and the Tamil boy had been intercepted. The boy was taken away and beaten to death, and Fr. Herbert was told he could go. But he refused to do so. After three days he met his violent death.
We thank God for the life, service and martyrdom of Father Herbert. He was a man who held no grudge or hatred against anyone. There are many around the world who were his students; they would no doubt remember him with affectionate gratitude. He has influenced and inspired many to stand for justice and peace.
We also wish to remember other priests in Batticaloa who met similar fates:
Fr. Chandra, who was shot dead at the bishop’s house.
Fr Ambrose, while on a mercy mission during internecine rioting, sustained head injuries as a result of mob attacks in Kattankudy and remained in coma until his demise.
Fr. Selvaraj (my college mate) who disappeared in June 1990 and is now "presumed dead."
And we also remember Francis Bertram, the pillion rider of Father Herbert’s red Vespa on that fateful day. May these righteous souls rest in everlasting peace!
I conclude this act of remembrance with Scriptural verses: "Now what have you done? [God said] The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. (Genesis 4:10).
During the time of his death, Fr. Herbert’s earthly possessions were: a canvas bag of personal belongings, clothes, his prayer book, his rosary, keys of the ETI and the Jesuit Residence. These were never recovered.
May the spirit of Eugene John Herbert live on! "Though he is dead, he still speaks." (Hebrews 11: 4). Let there be inspiration to love all humankind.
Posted August 9, 2005