The Story Behind the Storyteller- Mandana Ismail
By Jithendri Gomes
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive —Mandana Ismail
Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, a household name in the media field, her story is definitely one of resilience and strength.
It all begins with her being a typical teenager, enjoying her life post-school and exams. Her mother, as with most parents, is also worried about Mandana ‘wasting’ her life away and what will become of her future. She was quite literally forced into a job interview, to which she showed up purposely underdressed in protest to annoy her mother. It even took her by surprise when she was asked to report to work the very next day, giving her less than 24 hours to prepare for what life had in store for her.
It has been a journey full of triumphs and trials. She dedicated her youth to the Sunday Leader under the mentorship of Lasantha Wickramatunge, a legend in Sri Lankan media. Lasantha was the founder of the Sunday Leader, and a virulent critique of human rights violations, corruption, and other abuses of power by the State. In 2009 he was murdered in broad daylight on his way to work. “He was a big brother, a father, a best friend, a confidante, and my boss and mentor all at the same time. I wouldn’t be here without him.” She remembers the first award she won for the business journalist of the year, which took even her by surprise but also gave her confidence and confirmation of the work she was doing. “I hated maths and business studies in school so you can imagine my surprise. If I won an award for something I was not the best at, I knew I was doing something right.”
Over the years many stood in the way of her telling the untold stories of the war. Amnesty International reports that during this time in Sri Lanka, “the organisation has found that since the beginning of 2006 at least ten media workers have been the victims of unlawful killings; at least two have disappeared; while others have been tortured and arbitrarily detained under emergency regulations (ERs) granting the government sweeping powers…Investigations have stalled and no one has been brought to justice for the deaths of media workers including cases dating back to 1990.” Despite the resistance and the atmosphere that existed she believed that both sides of the war must be told and that is exactly what she did. It even led to her and her family, including her at the time 10-year-old daughter, being held at knifepoint. Many discouraged her from returning to journalism and the country altogether, but being the force of nature she is, that is exactly what she did. This time without the support of her mentor whom we had lost by then and with the institution she dedicated her life to disowning her. Slowly but surely, she rebuilt her life again in Sri Lanka, becoming the only journalist who had gone through a similar experience till now who returned to the island. She is a patriot to the depths of her being and didn’t see herself living anywhere else despite her own country threatening to take her life and of those whom she loved most.
She remembers the day Lasantha was murdered, she was just a few cars away from the incident. “We lost Lasantha on a Thursday, but the whole staff mustered up the courage to take turns between the hospital and the office to make sure we met the deadline on Friday. Because we knew that is what he would have wanted, for the paper to go out despite losing its heart and soul.” This edition that she refers to carried a posthumous editorial written by Lasantha, in which he blamed the government directly for assassinating journalists as its “primary tool” for controlling the media, a deeply courageous decision given the context.
Her support system comprises mainly of her parents, husband, and daughter. “On the day of Lasantha’s funeral, it was my daughter’s first day in school. And I just couldn’t be there for her as a mother should have been. We couldn’t be joyous, there was no kiribath on the table that morning and I went dressed in a white saree to send her off and it was my mother who stayed on with her that day as my husband and I left to attend the funeral. My parents have been supportive of me and my work throughout, from encouraging me to write despite the obstacles to bringing up my daughter.” She speaks dearly of her father who was her cornerstone and lost recently. “He was the one who told me to always tell the story, the ones that no one else will. And his loss was unbearable and I felt like I had lost my source of strength. Amazingly my daughter has now taken that role in my life. Despite what she had to go through as a child, her passion for people and standing up for their rights makes me very proud as a mother. She is the one who encouraged me to get back to my activism work.”
It was a time that no one could question anything or anyone, she refers to it as a fight against the state machinery, one that would label anyone who opposed them as a traitor and that is when she launched a union for journalists in 2013. “After Lasantha’s murder, it is the lack of protection for journalists in this country is that made me move towards activism. Thankfully I had friends and family who helped me during the tough times, but what about those who don’t? The union is available to help journalists who need help with legal matters or in general to protect themselves and their rights.” It is one of the first of its kind and she continues to offer leadership and finding support to assist all those who seek help.
She is hopeful for the future. Born to a Sinhala mother and Muslim father, married to a Catholic she proudly says that her 18-year-old daughter now practices Hinduism. “It’s a celebration all year long in our home!” She believes in freedom, the freedom to believe what resonates most with you, and the freedom to live the life it entails. And she believes that her country will honour that freedom concerning one another and she will live to see the day to witness it.
(Jithendri Gomes currently serves as the operations administrator for both Global Unites and Sri Lanka Unites. She also writes as a freelance journalist and was last associated with The Sunday Morning. She is currently also following her Masters in Development Studies and Public Policy at the Open University of Sri Lanka.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
- Sri Lanka Sunday Leader’s Mandana Ismail Abeywickrama flees, BBC News, 18th September 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24148142
- People cannot be fooled continuously by false promises — Mandana Ismail Abeywickrama, Sunday Observer, 6th January 2019, http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/01/06/news-features/people-cannot-be-fooled-continuously-false-promises-%E2%80%93-mandana-ismail
- ‘Principled journalism brings danger’ — Mandana, jdslanka.org, 9th September 2013, http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/interviews/media-a-culture/387-principled-journalism-brings-danger-mandana-ismail-abeywickrema
- Sri Lanka: War against journalists continues; another editor fled the country, Sri Lanka Brief, 18th September 2013, https://srilankabrief.org/sri-lanka-war-against-journalists-continues-another-editor-fled-the-country/
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