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Forced into fighting and still missing

Aug 10, 2010 10:40:28 PM- transcurrents.com

by IRIN News

Parvathi Kumar has no idea whether her son is in detention, or worse. He was abducted by the Tamil Tigers in January 2009, and she has not heard from him in more than a year.


Allagamma Sivam is still waiting for her son to return - pic by: Udara Soysa

"We really do not have any information about him," said the 59-year-old from Mullaitivu, a small town on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. "I suffer every day thinking about my son. Please bring him back to me."

Kumar fears her son, who was forced into battle, is now among many thousands in military custody even though the war has ended. She has no idea where he is, or if he is still alive.

The government maintains it is working to reunite detainees with their families, but activists say it is virtually impossible to find their relatives because of the lack of information about who is detained or where they are being held.

"One main problem and controversy is the secretive and conflicting figures different government officials give about the number being detained," said Ruki Fernando, head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the Law and Trust Society.

"Most appear to be detained around Vavuniya, but this is not clear. I've heard of other places."

As many as 11,000 former Liberation Tamil Tiger Eelam (LTTE) fighters were detained initially but 6,900 remain in detention - including 600 who will either face charges or "long-term rehabilitation", according to Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of parliament from the country's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance coalition.

Rights activists say information about the detained has not been made public, and there is no central list specifying where people are being detained.

However, Wijesinha said the government had compiled lists of names from families and ensured that all those in rehabilitation centres had access to family.

"We [the government] have faced all sorts of allegations, but it was agreed that a system is needed, not to deal with the allegations, but to assuage the worries of parents," Wijesinha told IRIN by email.

"Most of them were forced into combat by the LTTE, and their studies, etc, were disrupted. It is essential to equip them with skills that will enable them to move back into being normal members of society."

He said they were being given training "in select vocations", such as primary-school teaching and driving.

Detention concerns

International human rights organizations are very concerned about the continued detention of alleged LTTE members and reports of alleged mistreatment.

Detainees have not been permitted to challenge their detentions in court and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does not have access to them.

Although an increasing number of families has gained access to relatives detained by authorities for "rehabilitation", some have not had any contact, Amnesty International said.

The watchdog group said many families had not been informed of prisoner transfers.

Meenakshi Ganguly, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) spokesman, said it was concerned that these combatants had no access to lawyers and that there had been no legal process to review the detention.

"The international community, including donors, should also demand that ICRC [gain] access to the detention camps," Ganguly said.

Lack of contact

The difficulties of resettling after a civil war have not helped. People attempting to leave displacement camps to return to their home villages voiced fears that they would face even greater obstacles maintaining contact with detained relatives, according to Amnesty.

Wijesinha says the government was collecting names from families to help confirm whether their relatives were alive.

"The relative paucity of queries thus far suggests that numbers floated about regarding deaths are exaggerated, but obviously it is in everyone's interests to clarify uncertainties," Wijesinha said.

Uncertainty is what one mother, Allagamma Sivam, finds hard to bear. She says her son was kidnapped by the Tamil Tigers in August 2000 and forced to fight against the government. But even though the war ended more than a year ago, her son, now 34, is still missing.

"My husband died in a shell attack in 2008, and my son was my only hope to live," said Sivam, a 53-year-old teacher from Anandrapuram, in the northern Kilinochchi District.

[IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but its services are editorially independent. Its reports do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations and its agencies, nor its member states]