His name was Abi, he was six, and the last his family glimpsed of him was in the frenzied moments after deadly shells struck close to the bunker where they had been sheltering. His sisters were gravely injured, his mother too, and the young boy put his arm around her. “Mother,” he sobbed three times.
That scene played out in May 2009, on a patch of blood-soaked sand in northern Sri Lanka where Tamil rebels made a last stand against the advancing forces of the Sri Lankan army. With them were up to 300,000 civilians. Since then, Abi’s family has searched for him without reward, turning to the army, charities even Hindu priests. “I don’t know what happened to him. All I know is that he put his arms around my neck,” said the boy’s mother, Getharagowri Mahendiran.
The family is not alone. Two-and-a-half years after the end of the military operation that destroyed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people remain missing and unaccounted for. Campaigners say the uncertainty and trauma for their families is creating a stumbling block to the government’s efforts to work towards reconciliation in a country scarred by decades of violence.
Figures made available by a project set up by the Sri Lankan authorities in conjunction with UNICEF to trace missing children, suggest 2,592 people, including around 700 youngsters, have been officially registered as unaccounted for. The Family Tracing Unit (FTU), based in Vavuniya, is only mandated with looking for children, and passes details of missing adults to other government officials.
Around 30 children have been traced and reunited since the unit started its work at the end of 2009. Another 20 are in process. In 64 further cases, the names of missing children have been matched to those on the unit’s database. Around 65 per cent of the children’s cases, relate to forced recruitment by the LTTE.
“It is not an easy process. It is very difficult,” said Brig JB Galgamuwa, a retired army officer who heads a team of three female probation officers that scours police and army records, hospitals and children’s homes, for information about the missing. There are suspicions some children’s homes may have engaged in child trafficking. “We are doing our best to help [the families],” he added.
“We are all parents, or else good sons or daughters, and that is why we realise the importance of this issue.”
The uncertainty for people such as the family of Abi, the missing six-year-old whose family is now being assisted by the FTU, adds to the misery of a community still reeling from the war and who may only recently have been released from refugee camps. Yet the work of the unit is highly sensitive, given the intense dispute over the number of civilians killed in the final stages of the military and that both government forces and the LTTE have been accused of war crimes.
Officials say that given the unit’s limited resources and that for someone to be officially counted as missing requires there to be a living relative in a position to register the case, it is likely the FTU’s figures only represent a portion of the total of those people unaccounted for.
“Many people are coming to us, saying can you confirm whether the child is dead or alive, even if you cannot reunite us,” said one official linked to the project who asked not to be named. “With that uncertainty they don’t want to be resettled to their original districts because they feel they should stay here. They also feel unable to go back to work or to return to their fields until they recover their child.”
The majority of cases relate to the period between January-May 2009 when the once powerful LTTE retreated north and eastwards as the Sri Lankan army advanced. As they did so, around 300,000 civilians were caught up with them, the LTTE’s leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, intending to use them as both a buffer and a bargaining chip.
Witnesses have reported that LTTE cadres subsequently shot dead a number of civilians who tried to escape to government-controlled territory.
After the LTTE’s headquarters of Killinochi fell in early January 2009, crowds of civilians flooded east along the A35, heading towards Mullaitivu, close to where the last fighting took place and which remains off-limits to journalists. Today, both in Killinochi and along this rutted road, where the monsoon rains have left it sticky with crimson mud, it seems as if almost everyone either lost a friend or relative, or else is searching for someone unaccounted for.
In a barber’s shop in Killinochi, Ponnathurai Suriyakumar wept uncontrollably as he recalled being forced eastwards with his family until they reached the so-called “no fire zone” established by the government. Numerous eyewitnesses have told how both the government and the LTTE continued to fire on and out of this patch of land, with devastating impact on civilians. On May 8, a single shell claimed the lives of 13 people taking shelter with him, said Mr Suriyakumar, including his eight-year-old son, Sakinder. Mr Suriyakumar, himself badly injured, said his 23-year-old cousin had been missing since that day. “We have no information about her,” he said. “You cannot imagine [the situation there]. Everything was destroyed. It was chaotic.”
A farmer called Bala Singham, who lives close to the A35, said his family fled until they reached the village of Pokkanai, which was seized by government troops. It was there that his brother went missing. “All the people ran towards the army. He was not there. We ran over bodies,” said Mr Singham, who was released from a government camp in May of this year. “We have searched everywhere. We have gone to the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), the police, NGOs. I am still searching.”
In the absence of hard information, many families are turning to priests and astrologers, hoping they can offer insight. Officials say relatives are torn between accepting a family member is dead, grieving and moving on with their lives, and continuing to believe that person is alive. Young women whose husbands are missing are particularly vulnerable. Officials suspect not all astrologers – paid a fee for their services – act responsibly.
In Jaffna, heartland of the Tamil community and a place that has seen intense violence and conflict, a Hindu priest called Sivashanmuga Nandakurkal, said people had long come to him for information about loved ones who had “disappeared”. Yet the numbers had increased since 2006, after a peace-deal with the LTTE broke down and President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the decision to renewed military operations to end to a separatist insurgency that had left up to 100,000 people dead.
“They come with the missing person’s horoscope. Through the horoscope we can tell whether the person is alive or not,” said the priest. “If you are talking recent history, most people are not alive. Only in a few cases is that person alive.”
The priest, who claimed an accuracy rate of 95 per cent, said he would not mislead a relative as to the fate of their loved one. Yet he said in an attempt to cushion their pain, he never directly told someone their relative had died. “In those cases, we say ‘It will be very difficult to find them’,” he explained.
A farmer called K Sathyanantharaja, who grows rice in flooded fields next to the A35, said his father-in-law and sister-in-law had been killed in the fighting, while his 21-year-old nephew was still missing. Having contacted the ICRC but with no results, the family had instead contacted a priest. “We don’t know whether he was taken by the LTTE or the army,” he said. “We approached the astrologers. They said he was still alive. They said he could not come at the moment but that he will return in three or four months.”
The government of Mr Rajapaksa has spent millions of pounds on post-war projects in the north, improving roads and infrastructure, providing emergency shelter, food and financial support, as well establishing large numbers of military bases in territory formerly held by the LTTE. Yet campaigners and Tamil politicians say the issue of the missing remains a source of ongoing trauma. Nuwan Bopege, president of Students for Human Rights, called on the government to release the names and details of captured and suspected former LLTE members still being held.
The circumstances in which the last weeks of the war were fought remains deeply controversial. Earlier this year, a panel established by UN Secretary General Ban Ki -moon found there were “credible allegations” both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE committed war crimes in the final stages. It said tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed and called for an independent international probe. Among the most serious allegation was that the army shelled hospitals in the no fire zone.
The Sri Lankan authorities have rejected the panel’s findings. Its own commission of inquiry on the conflict is due to report to the government later this month. Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, an MP with the ruling coalition and an adviser to the president on reconciliation, said almost all the 11,000 former LTTE fighters held by the government had now been released and that about 200 were to be charged. “The names [of those being held] are with the National Human Rights Commission… The names are available to the next of kin,” he said.
On the issue on civilian casualties, Mr Wijesinha said he believed a total of around 5,000 people may have died, including those killed by the LTTE, as well as those who died as a result of “collateral damage”. He said the government had taken a number of steps towards reconciliation, including economic and social development, but said there was more to be done. He added: “We have to persuade people to work towards a pluralistic society.”
Meanwhile, for people such as the family of Abi, who would now be nine years old, there is little they can do but wait, and hope. His mother said: “I strongly believe he is somewhere.”
Aftermath: Truth and recrimination
After the 2009 operation to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), there were widespread calls for an independent investigation into claims that war crimes may have been committed, but Sri Lanka rejected the demands.
In the spring of 2010, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would appoint a panel of experts to advise him. At the same time, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to examine the events between 2002 to 2009. It is believed the LLRC will report later this month, but many have already accused the commission of pro-government bias and of failing to protect witnesses. “Sri Lanka’s LLRC is not a credible accountability mechanism. Its mandate is seriously flawed and in practice it falls far short of international standards on national commissions of inquiry,” said Amnesty International.
The UN report, meanwhile, found “credible allegations” that both government troops and the Tamils committed war crimes. Among the most serious claims aimed at Sri Lanka’s army was that it fought in a “no-fire zone” and “systematically” shelled clinics. It accused the LTTE of forced recruitment, of using civilians as human shields, and of preventing people from making their way to government-held areas. It said tens of thousands of civilians may have died, most killed by government forces. The government dismissed the allegations.