WHEN Shanthakumar Kamala fled the inferno of fighting in northern Sri Lanka in 2009, she was clutching a number of glossy photographs to her chest, but little else.
Shanthakumar holds out the pictures now — one of a smart lad in school uniform, one of him wearing a Boy Scout kit — and sobs that she wants her son, Thanuraj, back.
Like hundreds of other children, he went missing in the harrowing final months of fighting between Sri Lanka’s military and the Tamil Tigers (known as the LTTE) in 2009. Inspired by a few children who have been found by their families, his mother continues her desperate search.
In February 2009 the depleted Tamil Tigers pulled a sleeping Thanuraj, then 16, out of a roadside bunker and conscripted him. They issued his mother a printed card certifying that her family would not have to give up another child to the fight.
Crammed into a strip of scorched beach — the last bastion of the rebels — Shanthakumar endured weeks of intense fighting in the hope that her son would reappear. But on 17 May 2009, as Government troops closed in for the final assault, she joined a surge of frightened civilians who escaped into Government territory. President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory over the LTTE just two days later.
A monumental task
The authorities struggled for months afterwards to find and match separated family members. It was a monumental task. Hospitals brimmed over with the wounded, camps overflowed with the displaced and the battlefield was littered with bodies.
There was initially little record-keeping. Later, Sinhalese-speaking Government officials hurriedly took down unfamiliar Tamil names phonetically — something that continues to complicate the tracing of missing persons.
Children proved most susceptible to separation. Some, like seven-year-old Rajeswaran Vidushan, were injured and moved from hospital to hospital before ending up in an orphanage. Vidushan’s sister and grandparents died in the shell attack that left him with a mangled leg.
Others, like 16-year-old Subramaniam Lilymalar, lost track of their parents after they were rushed away for treatment. Lilymalar’s wounded mother and sister were admitted to one hospital. A second sister and her father were taken to another. She herself recovered from leg injuries at a third hospital before being taken to a children’s home.
Still more were torn from their parents as they fled the fighting, over narrow bridges, across treacherous waters and through cratered roadways. Some were enlisted by the rebels; some were put on different buses to various camps. Some lost sight of their families at checkpoints or were taken into state custody.
Family Tracing Unit
Around 2,000 children were reunified with their families in the early post-war period. But as parents continued to search, the Government and UNICEF jointly set up the Family Tracing Unit (FTU) in December 2009.
It had received 690 applications by September 2011 from families looking for missing children. Of these, 490 were LTTE conscripts. Only 29 children have rejoined their families.
Workers at the FTU trawl through piles of records every day. These include police, hospital and orphanage logs, as well as logbooks from camps for the displaced. Even when a child is traced, it takes months to “process” the case: to verify identities, to find birth certificates and other documents (most parents ran from the fighting with photos, not documents) and to secure court approval to hand the child back to its family.
Despite the low rate of reunification, the FTU is a place of hope for mothers. Kamala has given Thanuraj’s details to the database. Vidushan’s mother found him through the unit, and Lilymalar got her family back too.
Many families call in regularly, just to check for news. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they just hang up. But they never stop trying. The country is united but many of its families are not.