Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: Parents Of Missing Soldiers Yearn To Know

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Apr 7 1999 (IPS) - When Janaka Thenuwara, a young Sri Lankan navy officer was freed by his Tamil rebel captors, after a year in custody, he vowed to set up an organisation to campaign for the release of all prisoners of war and an end to the civil war.

Thenuwara, who quit the navy after his release in October 1998, is convenor of the two-month-old Parents for Peace Organisation (PPO) of government soldiers who are either detained by the LTTE guerrillas or have gone missing in the war.

“During the first six months I was mistreated and brutally assaulted. But after seven months their (rebels) attitude changed and I received more humane treatment,” recalled the ex-officer.

Tamil separatist militants, demanding autonomy or a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil people have been waging war since 1983. More than 75,000 people have been killed in the ethnic conflict raging in the island’s north and east.

The PPO and other groups like the 1000-member Association of Families of Servicemen Missing in Action say between 500 and 2,000 military personnel are missing in nearly 17 years of war.

Last year, the Association met President Chandrika Kumaratunga who “promised to set up a special unit that would help coordinate efforts to find missing persons,” said Druki Martenstyn, the president.

Military authorities do not have a figure for personnel “missing in action” in view of the technical problem of listing. When the body is not traced in conflict, they are listed as missing, a spokesman explained.

Then a year later, the untraced person is listed as killed in action – and is added to the file of those who have died in action – for purposes of paying compensation and other dues to families of the deceased.

This system, however, is very hard on families. PPO member Kanthi Weeraman recalls how her only son Priyanka, an airforce pilot, vanished in January 1996, on a flight from the northern airforce base of Palaly to Vettilaikerni, a northern beachhead secured by the military in rebel-controlled territory.

“He was ferrying more than 39 men. But there was nothing, not even a shoe or a piece of shirt to indicate that there had been a crash. When we heard the news my daughter-in-law was three months pregnant,” she said.

The military has not been able to explain the mysterious disappearance of the aircraft. “Why is it that no one cares?” asked the weeping mother, who believes that her son is alive.

Hoping to persuade the authorities to follow up on cases of missing government troops, and also end the war, the POP is planning a peaceful one-day protest campaign opposite the main railway station in Colombo on Apr. 9.

They also hope to submit a petition attested by at least 100,000 signatures to the government, and call a peace march to the northern town of Jaffna, where the majority of people are Tamils.

No one in the group blames the Tamil rebels for the lingering war, and believes that the island’s minority community equally want an end to the war.

“A mother’s love is the same whether the mother is Sinhalese or Tamil. I know what I feel is what any other mother would feel,” Weeraman observed.

POP said it felt “deeply for the mother, child and wife from the North who paid exactly the same price for a war which was neither created nor orchestrated by us,” in a statement.

Each story is heart-breaking. Nalika Sajjath, just 23, has a husband who went missing after a rebel attack. She knows he’s alive but in rebel custody – he has been writing to her through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

E.P. Nanayakkara’s son – a naval captain – is officially listed as dead but was seen in a rebel camp. He has been missing since his aircraft was apparently shot down on Jan. 20, 1997, while heading to intercept a private ship that was believed to be carrying arms from Thailand for the Tamil rebels.

“The moment we heard the news, his grandmother suffered a stroke and became paralysed and his sister who was expecting a baby had a miscarriage. But now Capt Janaka Thenuwara tells us that he saw my son in an LTTE camp,” she says.

Most are angry with the authorities, accusing them of apathy and callousness in dealing with inquiries.

One parent recalled the reaction of Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, when several parents of missing defence personnel met him to find out more about their children.

“Without any emotion, he claimed that more than a thousand died at Mullaitivu (where Tamil rebels overran a huge military base). Had he forgotten that our sons fought until the bitter end there?

“He also waved his hand in dismissal and said they had reports that the Tigers lined up several soldiers and shot them dead. Why do they talk like that?” asked the anguished parent.

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