search for the missing in Sri
Lanka By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO - A bloody civil war was reaching
its climax but this Tamil family, who had already
experienced the conflict intimately, had one last
decision to make that would prove to be the
hardest one of all. Fighting during the early
months of 2009, in the last phase of Sri Lanka's
30 year-long civil conflict, was so intense that a
Tamil couple in their sixties was forced to make a
heart-wrenching choice when they fled the bloody
warzone: whether or not to leave behind
Thangamathi, the elderly unmarried sister in the
family who had been mentally handicapped since
birth and required constant care.
Thangamathi's brother decided to leave her at a
home for the mentally challenged, a location that
he hoped would shelter her until his return.
"It was a hard decision, but neither of us
was strong enough to
take care of her, [when
we ourselves] were barely surviving from minute to
minute," he told IPS.
The elderly couple
did manage to survive the last bout of fighting
between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the
separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE), which claimed between 7,000-40,000 lives
according to conflicting sources.
eventually returned to their old home in the
village of Tharmapuram, in Sri Lanka's northern
Kilinochchi district, sometime in early 2010.
But long before their return, while still
living in a government-sponsored welfare camp, the
couple began looking for Thangamathi.
the last three years they have been searching for
her in vain. An acquaintance once told the couple
that she had been spotted among the nearly 280,000
who escaped the last battle in April 2009 but,
unsurprisingly, the information yielded no
"We are still looking, but we
know that it's over," her brother said.
For those hailing from areas like
Kilinochchi, the town that for over a decade was
the showpiece administrative center of the LTTE's
proposed separate state of Tamil Eelam until it
fell to government forces in early 2009,
Thangamathi's story is not rare. In this former
warzone, which witnessed some of the worst
excesses of the war, thousands are still looking
for missing loved ones.
resident of the Mullaitivu district, which adjoins
Kilinochchi, has been looking for three family
members since the war ended but has had no news
regarding the whereabouts of his cousin's husband,
or his two nephews.
He, too, heard that at
least one of his missing relatives was spotted on
May 17, 2009, just 48 hours before the government
declared victory. Nothing more came from that
morsel of information.
The endless search
goes on, and three long years later there is
scarcely more than a faint flicker of hope.
"We have gone to each and every prison, as
well as camps in Colombo, Boossa (in the south)
and several other places. But we could not find
them. It has been three years. But we have not
given up. We are still looking for them,"
Santhirakumar told IPS.
"We have also
informed the police. We do not know where else to
go. My brother-in-law's family has to depend on us
and other family members for survival."
The Department of Census and Statistics
carried out an enumeration survey of the northern
province between June and August last year, the
first of its kind to be conducted in the region in
over two decades.
It found that between
January and May of 2009, 2,635 people were
reported as being "untraceable". This is the
figure that the Sri Lankan government agrees on,
though rights organizations and other advocacy
groups believe the number is even higher.
In Vavuniya, the district located at the
southern-most corner of Sri Lanka's former war
theater, government officials and the United
Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) set up a unit to
trace missing children in 2010.
Charles, the top government official for the
district, was instrumental in setting up the unit.
She said she was motivated to do so after
interacting with dozens of distraught women on a
daily basis, all of them looking for their missing
Though the unit was
initially set up to look for missing children, it
has received more cases on missing adults, which
it passes on to other organizations.
recent address to Sri Lankan diplomats, the
country's defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa,
said that the Vavuniya Family Tracing and
Reunification Unit had received 2,564 applications
by July 2011.
Of those, "1,888 were about
missing adults, and 676 about missing children.
According to the parents who made the tracing
applications, 64 percent of the missing children
had been recruited by the Tamil Tigers," he said.
UNICEF officials in Colombo said that the
Unit was handling 747 cases of missing children.
So far, 40 had been reunited with their families,
while another 30 cases have been cleared' for
reunion with relatives. Officials said that 70
more cases were being processed.
the thousands of missing do not only represent
those who fled during the last stages of the war.
The International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC) is carrying an active five-figure caseload
reaching back over two decades, to a period when
the country was beset by twin insurgencies: the
protracted insurrection of the Tamil separatists
in the north and another, short-lived uprising of
mostly Sinhala communist youth in the south.
"The ICRC's Annual Report for 2011 states
the ICRC in Sri Lanka was handling 15,780 tracing
(including missing) cases as at December 31, 2011.
This figure, which reflects the number of cases
reported to the ICRC since 1990, is the current
(active) caseload of persons who remain
unaccounted for," ICRC Spokesperson, Sarasi
Wijerathne, told IPS.
The ICRC added that
it had received 1,382 new cases, including 369
cases involving minors, during 2011. Of the total
figure, the humanitarian organization has only
been able to trace a mere 136 people, which paints
a grim picture for the majority of anxious
families desperately searching for their lost