Sri Lanka: living daily in a state of anguish and uncertainty
“Disappearance is far worse than death, because when a person dies, when I know that so-and-so is dead, the story ends and somehow or other we close the chapter. But when a person has disappeared, it is an eternal suffering.” A representation made before the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, 12 November 2010.
Every country that has overcome a prolonged conflict, including Sri Lanka, is faced with the challenge of addressing the suffering of families whose relatives are unaccounted-for as a result of the conflict. When the armed conflict in Nepal ended in 2006, around 17,000 people were dead and 3,100 reported to the ICRC by their families as missing. Today, while the fate of many of them is now known, there are still more than 1,400 people on the ICRC’s list of missing persons.
The vast majority of missing people in Nepal – and around the world – are men. Their wives are left in a state of anguish and uncertainty.
Laxmi Devi Khadka has been in the dark about the fate of her husband for over nine years. In 2003, armed people came to her house in Bardia, southern Nepal, and took her husband, saying they wanted to speak to him for a few minutes. He has never been seen again. She says: “I have little hope, but there is still hope until you see otherwise with your own eyes.” More disappearances were recorded in Laxmi’s district of Bardia than in any other district of Nepal. The tree outside Laxmi’s house stands as a daily reminder of her husband. She planted it the year he disappeared. It now stands tall, towering over her house.
Pauline Boss is a professor and clinical supervisor in the doctoral training programme in Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Minnesota and was formerly a visiting professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
(These) people are physically absent, but remain psychologically present.
She explains this concept of loss. “(These) people are physically absent, but remain psychologically present. Even if they are dead their remains have never been found. Family members are preoccupied with the lost person, and think of nothing else, even years later.”
Beyond the anguish of not knowing the fate of her husband, Laxmi – and families of missing people everywhere – face many practical problems. Economically, they have often lost the breadwinner. They also face a multitude of legal and administrative problems. Laxmi Devi Khadka explains: “There is a small amount of land in my husband's name. To transfer ownership of land, you need to show a death certificate. However, I cannot be sure my husband is dead, so I can’t get a death certificate.”
Laxmi is just one of the thousands of women that the ICRC has come across in its work in conflict areas, including the former Yugoslavia, Nepal, East Timor, Guatemala and Peru. "These families all want to know the fate of their missing relatives, otherwise they are left in a state of perpetual doubt," explains Zurab Burduli, ICRC tracing delegate in Sri Lanka. "Until they receive credible information about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, they alternate between hope and despair."
People go missing in almost every situation of armed conflict or internal violence. In the places where the ICRC works, it has been seeking for decades to forestall disappearances, restore family links when they have been broken, and ascertain the whereabouts of missing people. Owing to its unique mandate and well-known role as a neutral humanitarian intermediary, the ICRC has, in many situations, accumulated significant missing-person caseloads. These cases have mostly been filed on the request of family members. In many countries, the ICRC has worked with the authorities to collect and manage data on missing people.
Often, however, the ICRC is not the only organization that is keeping track of cases of missing people, as it is very likely that the bereaved families approach various organizations and national institutions.
In fact, in the aftermath of armed conflict, many countries have endeavoured to address, as far as possible, the many needs and concerns experienced on a daily basis by relatives of missing people.
An adequate national mechanism is required to coordinate all the relevant authorities, institutions and existing information in order to undertake every possible action and measure to trace missing people and to support their families.
Today, these mechanisms can be found in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, South Africa and several other countries. The expectation is that, through these mechanisms, women like Laxmi Devi Khadka can finally find solace and closure on a search that has lasted almost a decade.