How it all began
In September 1998, when the Kilinochchi Sri Lankan Army complex was attacked and overrun by the Tamil Tigers, 609 Sri Lankan Army personnel were reported missing in action. This high figure served as a call to action for the parents and family members of the missing men.
In October 1998, parents of the missing military personnel along with villagers from Walgampaya Danture held a candlelight vigil to bless those missing as well as to draw the general public’s attention to the issue. At this very successful event we proposed that on a specified day the whole country light a lamp to bless the missing and ask for their speedy return home.
In November 1998, a small group of missing personnel’s parents came together to discuss ways and means of addressing the issue. The group agreed that all necessary steps should be taken to know the fate of those reported missing, as well as to secure the release of all detainees. It was further agreed that only by bringing peace to this country can further disappearances be prevented. The Association of Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action (PSMIA) was formed to work towards peace from the heart of the conflict – the battlefront.
Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action proposed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) register all missing individuals and initiate tracing requests for them. The ICRC Colombo delegation, however, informed us that there was no provision to open tracing requests without official recognition of the missing by their commanding force. We learned that the Sri Lankan Army takes more than six months to give such information to the ICRC as it requires a lengthy process involving the Court of Inquiry. An ICRC brochure regarding missing people in action clearly states those disappearances must be reported within six months for effective results. We found this situation disturbing and set forth to ensure the issue be addressed.
PSMIA wrote a letter to the head of the Colombo ICRC delegation, visited the Sri Lankan Army Headquarters, and met the Director of Personnel Administration requesting him to take the necessary steps to speed up the process. As a successful attempt, by the end of December 1998, the Ministry of Defense provided the ICRC with a list of those missing from Kilinochchi.
To announce the formation of our organization we held a flower offering ceremony on the 27th of March in Gatambe, Kandy. All families of those missing from Kilinochchi were invited. An estimated 800 people from across the country attended bringing thousands of flowers. Various donors provided sounds, food, and refreshment for the occasion. Buddhist and Catholic priests addressed the gathering along with poetry readings by mothers of those missing in action. After the offering the flowers were collected and floated down the Mahaweli River. Thousands of flowers floating on the gentle waters were a deeply moving sight. TNL TV network provided the media coverage of the event. At the end of the meeting ICRC’s mailing address and telephone number was given to all parents for registration at the ICRC Colombo office. A five-member committee was then formed to carry on the work of the organization.
One of our primary goals were to reduce the high number of missing servicemen. This number was high partly due to the Sri Lankan Governmental authorities’ lack of interest in identifying dead bodies. PSMIA hand delivered letters to the ICRC and the Sri Lankan Army explaining the urgency of the situation and suggesting steps to reduce the number of those missing in action. We suggested the ICRC take still and video photographs of all the bodies upon contact, comparing them with photographs on file for verification of the dead. We also asked the ICRC collect all items which could be used for identification and most importantly to advise all combatants to wear and respect identification discs (dog tags).
We requested the Sri Lankan Army wear identification discs at all times, irrespective of their station. We asked that all service personnel have their dental records and personnel details in computerized and securely stored files that all possible means of identification by family members be kept, that the Sri Lankan Army take still and video photos of the bodies, and most importantly, that they promptly accept the bodies before they begin to decompose.
Finally, we asked the ICRC, LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army to agree on a mode of transfer for bodies so that a plan of action is in place.
In addition to these suggestions, PSMIA requested that the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE follow the Law of War and International Humanitarian Law regarding the treatment of wounded and captured personnel.
We strongly felt that wearing and respecting identification discs will reduce the number of missing; therefore, one of our major projects was to ensure that the combatants from both sides do so. We prepared a booklet featuring photographs of soldiers wearing the identification discs with a request in English, Sinhala, and Tamil so that they would wear it and respect the tags for the sake of their families.
The booklet was launched in Anuradhapura on the 22nd of October, 1999. Participants included the Deputy Minister for National Integration, Mr. Dilan Perera, the Brigade Commander of the Anuradhapura Sri Lankan Army, the Sri Lankan Army Director of Additional Directory of Welfare, as well as many senior officers of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and police officials. The audience was a massive crowd of more than 3,000 family members of those reported missing in action. Nine hundred gas balloons were sent by the parents with messages of peace to the Northern areas. This was the first occasion that the parents of servicemen called for peace in public. That same day we sent a copy of the booklet together with a request letter to the LTTE leader, Mr. Prabakaran.
It is certain that most of the soldiers who are reported missing are dead. Eventually, when mothers receive the news that their loved ones are no more, they will need a place to share their feelings about the loss. For this purpose, as well as to establish a connection with the mothers of Northern and Eastern areas, we decided to create the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW). The primary objective of the AWAW is to achieve peace through socio-economic development with active participation of the affected women.