The Ongoing Search for Missing Relatives
By Maryam Azwer
Shanthi* recalls standing at the Vattuval checkpoint in Mullaitivu, waiting to board a bus with her family, on May 18 2009, when the war was finally drawing to a close. The military had been calling on all those who had been with the LTTE to surrender. Shanthi’s husband was one of them, and surrendered when the military called him away.
“He was carrying our child, and they asked him to leave the child and go, so he went. I was standing there with my other two children. I never saw my husband afterwards,” said Shanthi.
She has been trying to find news of her husband – any news at all – since then, but has had no luck. Countless other women, like Shanthi, amidst economic and other post war difficulties, continue to try and locate the whereabouts of husbands or sons or brothers who surrendered, and of whom the military or Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) have not released any information on.
“We don’t have proper meals. Each meal is so hard to earn for. I don’t know what to do. I’ve looked everywhere for my husband. I have checked all the lists that the government releases. I have been to the TID office in Vavuniya three times, but I can’t find out anything,” Shanthi says, breaking into tears over the phone.
During its sittings, even the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) heard submissions from people like Shanthi, who had witnessed their relatives surrendering to the armed forces at the end of the war, but had not heard of them since.
The issue has even previously been raised by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). “We don’t know how many people have gone missing after surrendering, but according to the LLRC report, from the statements made by the people who gave evidence to the LLRC, the number is 1,018. But it could be much more than that. Most of them surrendered during the last four days of the war,” said TNA MP and lawyer, M.A. Sumanthiran.
Ananthy Sasitharan, speaking on behalf those who continue to search for information on their missing relatives, said that “To my knowledge there are around sixty people who are openly searching for their relatives and questioning authorities. Apart from this, there are around two hundred to three hundred people who are afraid to search openly. They say things like ‘if they find out I am his wife, they might arrest me also’,” she said.
According to the government 11,968 LTTE cadres surrendered to the military at the end of the war. As of now, 10, 949 men and women have been rehabilitated and released, while 629 remain in rehabilitation centres.
Military Spokesperson, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasuriya, said that none of those who had surrendered are in military custody at present, as they had been handed over to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the police, or sent for rehabilitation.
Government Spokesperson, Keheliya Rambukwella, when contacted for a comment, said that “There are certain legal procedures that have to be practiced. The AG’s department will have to go through every file of whoever had surrendered.”
When questioned regarding the claims of relatives, that they had over the last three years received absolutely no information, Rambukwella said that “Military intelligence will have to look into what has happened, and investigations are going on in certain areas.”
Meanwhile, the relatives of these missing persons say that they have tried every option available to them, in trying to obtain information. According to Ananthy Sasitharan, the most recent attempt was last month, following a Ministry of Defense announcement on May 13, that relatives of those who had surrendered could obtain information at the TID units in Colombo, Vavuniya and Boosa.
“Some of the people went, but no information was made available. When we called the TID office in Vavuniya, we were told not to come, as there was no such information,” said Sasitharan.
According to Sumathiran of the TNA, this has been a recurring practice. “On February 3, 2011, the government had a bilateral discussion, signed and gave us a document saying that there is this information that is being made available at the TID offices. That was never made available, and now they again notified people that this is available,” said Sumanthiran.
“What they are talking about is totally different from what people are looking for. They are talking about the names of persons who were arrested by the TID, and who are yet in TID custody, and those who have been released by the TID. That’s the information that they are supposed to have. Now that information, people already have. People visit their relatives in the TID custody, at least those who are officially in TID custody. It is those who can’t find their family members, son or husband or brother, or whoever who’s gone missing, that’s the person who wants information,” Sumanthiran said. He said that hundreds of people had told the LLRC that they had witnessed their relatives surrender, and in some cases personally handed over relatives who were formerly with LTTE, to the military, but now they couldn’t seem to find them anywhere.
“They want information with regard to that, and that information is not being given at these TID office. So this is not compliant with either the government’s undertaking to us, or what they are saying now to the international community,” said Sumanthiran.
Neeladevi Anandaraja did not see her son, Anuraj, surrender to the armed forces, but says at least two eye witness accounts can confirm this. “He was at the Omanthai checkpoint on May 15, 2009, waiting for a bus. Somebody had pointed him out to the military, and he was taken in for inquiry. An acquaintance of mine was there, and she saw this and told me,” said Anandaraja.
A few days later, she said, she received another call, from another acquaintance who had previously been with the LTTE, and had later left and become a CID informant. “He also said that my son had been taken in by the military.”
She said she had approached the ICRC, who had not accepted her complaint as she had not personally witnessed her son’s surrender. “Later, I made a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in Vavuniya. I know some Sinhala, and I have been making inquiries, even at all the rehabilitation centres. The officers at the rehabilitation centres were very supportive, and helped me look for my son, but I couldn’t find him. I even went to Boosa twice, and there was someone named Anuraj there, but he was from Batticaloa and was not my son. I am still searching for him, everywhere,” she said.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.