JAFFNA AND BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka — For tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka, photographs of the missing are treated as family treasures. In the north and east of the country, the former war zone for the 26-year-long civil war, they are everywhere. They grace the entrances of the mud-wall houses or are hung inside high on the wall next to pictures of deities, sometimes garlanded with strings of lights or flowers. Many families risked their lives for these photographs, salvaging them during the last desperate months of the war, by keeping them tucked inside clothes while dodging artillery shells or stray bullets.
There are no official assessments of the missing in the Sri Lankan conflict, but some researchers believe that more than one-fifth of the families in the former war zone could be still searching for a missing person. Since the end of the war in 2009, there have been only feeble steps to build a national tracing mechanism to locate the missing or determine their fate, and the United Nations and other international actors have called for an independent investigation. But the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led Sri Lanka until his surprise defeat in January’s presidential election, blocked all meaningful attempts at accountability. On August 17, Sri Lanka will hold elections for its 225-member parliament, and many of the families of the missing have new hope for an end to impunity. The elections could pave the way for a stronger government committed to investigating alleged abuses during the final phase of the war and, finally, telling them what happened to their loved ones.
Tambu Rasakumar, a 78-year-old fisherman in Jaffna, lost all three of his children to the war. He knows what happened to one of them — his daughter joined the armed separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and was shot dead in battle — but his two sons disappeared. He says one was in Army custody; the other went out fishing and never came back. Rasakumar says he has put his faith in the new president, Maithripala Sirisena. “For so long we were made to feel like we were not wanted in our own land,” Raskumar says. “We have paid a high price with our children for the war; at least now our national leaders should care about our pain.”
The exact number of the missing has remained contentious, because it is so closely linked to the controversial issue of the number of civilian deaths and casualties during the war. It took almost six years for the Sri Lankan government to come up with a figure, and even then only for the north. In April 2015, the Prime Minister’s office said that there were an estimated 50,000 households headed by single women in the Northern Province, out of about 250,000 households for the entire province. Privately, government officials say there are an equal number of such families in the country’s east as well.
Independent estimates are also imprecise, in part because Rajapaksa’s government severely restricted journalists’ and humanitarian workers’ access to the war zone. A 2011 report by an advisory panel to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon found that the number of civilian war deaths from 2008 to 2009 could be as high as 40,000. University Teachers for Human Rights, an independent human rights group based in Jaffna, in the former war zone, put the figure at up to 90,000. No independent investigation has yet been able to conclusively determine who was responsible for those deaths.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has registered 16,064 cases of missing persons since 1990, but those numbers do not reflect the full toll of those who disappeared during the intense fighting of the last few months of the war, and in its aftermath. The Rajapaksa government repeatedly blocked all requests by local or international humanitarian organizations to survey the missing, concerned about any data that might support the growing calls to investigate allegations of wartime abuses and the targeting of civilians. In 2014, Rajapaksa finally gave the greenlight to the ICRC to conduct an island-wide survey of the missing, but it was not permitted to investigate those cases.
The ICRC’s director of operations, Dominic Stillhart, toured Sri Lanka in March, two months after Sirisena’s election, and hopes to receive permission from the new government to set up an independent body to look into the thousands of cases of missing persons. The ICRC will submit its findings, and an updated survey, toward the end of this year.
S. Devika’s husband, Selvarasa, is one of the missing. A 37-year-old mother of two teenagers from the village of Unnichchi, Devika tears up recalling how her husband would try to shield his family from the reality of war. “He would always try to be normal, make the family laugh,” she says. In mid-2007, the family had to flee fighting between the government forces and the LTTE. But with a field full of paddy about to mature, Selvarasa stayed back to tend it. The last time Devika saw him, he was standing near the field while she escaped with their children. She registered his case years ago, but has gotten no information about what happened to him. Even after numerous trips to police stations and various government commissions, she says, “the only thing I have got in return is this pile of papers that say I have registered at this and this place.”
Some families have simply given up. Nagarasa Madmarahini, 35, says her husband went missing in June 2007, after going to a police station to register their family as displaced. “He never came back,” Madmarahini says. Officers at the police station, told her he never arrived; every subsequent visit to government offices, commissions and the ICRC have ended with the same message, she says: “We don’t have any information on him, we will get back when we get any, please leave your contact details.” Madmarahini has stopped searching for answers and instead is wholly focused on providing for her child. “It is too much to think of the past, he is never coming back,” she says, tending to three cows, her main source of income.
While they have not been able to provide much information about the missing, ICRC officials say they are trying to provide financial stability to the families left behind. The ICRC has provided one-time grants of $400 each to more than 3,000 families in the last three years to help set them up in small businesses, like poultry farming or dressmaking. “Financial security is vital for these women,” says M. S. M. Kamil, head of the economic security department for the ICRC in Sri Lanka. Without it, they may be vulnerable to trafficking, and there are already reports of women from the former war zones who turned to prostitution after their partners went missing.
Sirisena’s surprise victory in January was due mainly to widespread criticism of Rajapaksa over corruption and nepotism, but votes from the former conflict areas also played a role. Sirisena campaigned on a platform that rejected Rajapaksa’s hard-line nationalist policies, and voters in Tamil-majority areas supported him. The new president is now under pressure — from those voters as well as from western governments and international organizations — to show progress in investigating wartime abuses. Sirisena and his prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, have pledged to set up a new national investigation mechanism, including a Truth Commission modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a new judicial mechanism to hear abuse cases.
But Sirisena had refused to allow any kind of international involvement other than on an advisory basis; many in his party and likely coalition allies are extremely sensitive to what they consider outside interference. So his focus so far has been on extending the reach of the existing government investigation bodies. Sirisena’s staff say that he is planning to extend the mandate of the Presidential Commission to Investigate Into Complaints Regarding Missiong Persons, and will seek suggestions from the Tamils in the north and east on how to expand its powers. To do more than that, Sirisena risks losing some support among the majority Sinhala community.
Whatever the outcome of Monday’s parliamentary election, the new government will soon have to deal with the fallout from the release of a major report by the United Nations Human Rights Council on war crimes during the last phase of the conflict. The President’s Office is expected to receive a draft of the report at the end of August, and the report is likely to be made public in early September. The report is expected to include the names or identifiable details of those linked to abuse. Sirisena will need a strong government to hold those people — some of whom may be his political allies — accountable for their actions.
Not all the families of the disappeared trust the government to investigate. Vallipuram Amalanayagi, 41, whose husband when missing while working in the family’s rice paddy in the eastern village of Pawakkodichennai in February 2009, is collecting signatures for a petition to the United Nations demanding an international investigation. She and several other women are searching on their own and plan to hand over their letter to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances during a planned visit to Sri Lanka later this year. Speaking to Al Jazeera by phone from Mannar, more than 150 miles away from her village, she says, “I will never stop, I can’t stop,” she says.