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Sri Lanka: Chocolates for a missing son

08-03-2002

Three years ago 45-year-old Visaka Dharmadasa was the carefree wife of a successful businessman in Kandy. Her life was divided between her family and a busy social whirl of coffee mornings and dinner parties. But now all that has changed: in September 1998 her son Achintha Senarath, 23, a second lieutenant in the Sri Lankan army, went missing when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked his camp at Kilinochchi, in the north of the country. Now Visaka’s once cheerful home is filled with sorrow.

" I cannot rest until I know what happened to him. Ammi (Mummy) must know if he is well,’ she said, refusing even to contemplate the possibility that her son may be dead.

But Visaka’s story is not only one of sadness and anxiety. It is also a tale of extraordinary courage and strength. An elegant and articulate woman, Visaka has emerged as the leading spokesperson for the many others who share her plight in Sri Lanka, where several thousand families yearn for news of the loved ones they have lost in a conflict that has claimed more than 64,000 lives.

Visaka has organized the mothers of missing soldiers into lobby groups and met with the major players in the conflict, including the country's president and senior officers of the armed forces and the LTTE. She is now active in two groups that campaign for the concerns of women: Parents of Missing in Action and the Association of War-Affected Women. " In both groups we deal with the worst effects of war, " she said.

Visaka's frequent meetings with the ICRC has also made her a convincing spokesperson for those practices the ICRC seeks to promote, such as respect for wounded combatants and the humane treatment of detainees. Stating that " it is a mother’s right to know whether her child is dead or alive " , she pointed out that since women know the real suffering produced by conflict " they are the best anti-war lobby group you can think of " . " May no other mother suffer our sadness " is one of the slogans used by the campaigners, and as Visaka once wrote in a poem: " Of what use is the country our sons fight for without my son in it? "

Like the many other mothers of children who have gone missing in the war, Visaka clings to the faint hope that some day she will receive news of her son. " I have a box of chocolates waiting for Achintha in my refrigerator " , she said. " Every time we get some special chocolates or sweets, I put his share aside for him. "