World Bulletin / News Desk
Their calls for justice, economic support and formal acknowledgement of their status were reflected in a report by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released Tuesday, which argued the lack of a resolution for these families posed obstacles to national reconciliation.
The report said the families suffer from "ambiguous loss" – a form of grief that stems from their uncertainty, prevents closure and causes constant vacillation between hope and despair.
Though 36 percent of interviewees believed their relatives from among the 16,000 missing people were dead, another 31 percent held on to the hope that they might be alive while the remainder were unsure.
“I wait for my husband and my children [wait] for their father. He went missing in 2007 and we never heard of him thereafter. He was trying to eke out a living in a small town, away from our Jaffna home, where there was work. Nobody saw him and nobody heard of him, including the person who employed him,” said Akushla*, 27, who runs a small boutique.
While she continues to run her small business to support her famliy, her mother-in-law, Thangeswari, 61, has made a ritual of awaiting her son's return, which she expects someday.
“The government has not declared him dead. We never saw his body to believe he is gone. He must be alive, somewhere,” she said.
According to the report, many of the families have struggled economically, ending up with spiraling debts because of the loss of households' main earners, the destruction of property during the war and expenses spent in search of the missing.
There were also problems in managing family assets that had been registered under the name of the missing person; a problem compounded by the lack of domestic law to recognize a person as missing.
ICRC spokesperson in Colombo, Sarasi Wijeratne said the families of missing persons have many of the same needs as other victims of armed conflict but also attach distinct urgency to the need to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives.
“This need evolves into other needs: economic, emotional, legal and administrative, as well as the need for acknowledgement of their loss and suffering. The ICRC believes that our recommendations will help the government authorities to put in place a comprehensive response to address these humanitarian needs of these families,” Wijeratne said.
Since the Sri Lankan government crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 after more than 30 years of civil war that killed more than 65,000 people, the country has continued to struggle to push forward with national reconciliation, especially in the ethnic Tamil-majority north where the war was fiercest.