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Dead or alive? Parents of children gone in Sri Lanka’s civil war have spent 15 years seeking answers
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Dead or alive? Parents of children gone in Sri Lanka’s civil war have spent 15 years seeking answers

  • PublishedMay 18, 2024

MULLAITIVU – For 15 years, Rasalingam Thilakawathi has been trying to find out what happened to her daughter at the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Or if she might still be alive.

The last evidence she has is a photo from a newspaper that shows her daughter, who was 19, sitting inside a bus along with others. The photo, according to the newspaper, shows captured Tamil Tiger fighters in the last stages of the war in May 2009.

Now, 15 years after the end of the long battle between Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger separatists, Thilakawathi searches for answers. Was her daughter among the 100,000 people killed in the 26-year-civil war? Many more people are missing.

“Tell me whether she is dead or alive,” the mother, who lives in Moongilaaru village of Mullaitivu district, asks authorities again and again. “If you shot her tell me that you shot her, I will accept it.”

In the years since the war ended, many of those who lost children or other family members have grown too feeble to actively search for their loved ones. Others have died.

“I don’t want to let go but I can’t walk properly now,” says 74-year-old Soosai Victoria who has been searching for her son who went missing at 21. “I am praying for him to return. I believe that he is there,” Victoria said.

On Saturday, a memorial service marked the 15th anniversary of the war. It took place on the strip of land in Mullivaikal village where the civilians had pitched their tents for the last time before the whole area fell under government forces. Thousands of people were believed to have died here.

The island nation of Sri Lanka has been riven by the conflict between the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils, who are Hindu and Christian. The mistreatment of Tamils sparked a rebellion, with Tamil Tiger fighters eventually creating a de facto independent homeland in the country’s north. The group was crushed in a 2009 government offensive that UN experts say killed tens of thousands of Tamils, many of them civilians.

Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations. The government was accused of deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals and blocking food and medicine for those trapped in the war zone. The Tamil Tigers were accused of conscripting child soldiers, holding civilians as human shields and killing those trying to escape.

Many blame the United Nations for failing to step in to stop the bloodshed.

Farmer Subramaniam Paramanandam recounts how he and a dozen others begged U.N. officials and other international humanitarian groups not to leave the battle zone.

As the Tamil Tigers retreated under a government onslaught, Tamil civilians fled with them into their shrinking territory.

“We heard that the international organizations were packing up to leave,” Paramanandam recalls the exit of the last batch of humanitarian workers. “Hearing this, about 10 or 11 of us ran to their offices. We pleaded with them with clasped hands asking them not to leave.”

Their pleas were not answered, and fighting escalated.

“Our sufferings can’t be put to words and we only had our trust in the U.N. and the international organizations. Nothing happened,” he said.

Severe criticism against the U.N. led then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to set up an internal review panel to look into its actions during the last phase of the war.

Its 2012 report said the relocation had a severe impact on the delivery of humanitarian assistance and reduced the potential for protecting civilians.

Citing the report Ban said it concluded that the U.N system failed to meet its responsibilities.

“This finding has profound implications for our work across the world, and I am determined that the United Nations draws the appropriate lessons and does its utmost to earn the confidence of the world’s people, especially those caught in conflict who look to the organization for help,” Ban said.

In Vejle, Denmark, people gathered from all over Europe to remember slain Founder of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran died in 2009, but in the proceeding years, some have come forward to say Prabhakaran is alive and living abroad, collecting money on his behalf. His family is trying to dispel the myth he is alive.

Thilakawathi and other parents of missing children have demonstrated and protested, and said they will continue until they get answers. She has visited state security agencies and government-appointed commissions but hasn’t received any information. She said her daughter was recruited as a child soldier by the Tamil Tigers three years before she went missing. She worked in their computer department, fearing her siblings too will be taken if she left them.

Many parents have refused to accept death certificates for their children without information on what happened to them.

Sellan Kandasamy left his injured wife as he crossed over with his family to the government-controlled area when fights were nearly ending. He hasn’t heard from her since.

“She wasn’t registered and we were not allowed to ask for details. We requested that someone stayed with her but we were chased away with poles. So we had to leave her on the rubble and leave,” said Kandasamy as his tears welled up in his eyes.

Paramanandam himself has lost three sons, one fighting for the Tamil Tigers and two who were not part of fighting went missing as their family moved to escape shelling.

Paramanandam’s plea now is that the U.N ensures that there is accountability for the excesses committed by both sides.

“Whatever happened should be investigated truth must be found out there should be accountability and there should be assurance for such things not to happen again.”

A new U.N. Human Rights Commission report recommends establishment of an independent prosecution and a special court to bring perpetrators to justice. It also says that the international community should initiate prosecutions in their own countries.

“This report is yet another reminder that tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who were forcibly disappeared must never be forgotten,” U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said. “Their families and those who care about them have been waiting for so long. They are entitled to know the truth.”

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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