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International Conference on the Missing : opening statement

19-02-2003 Statement

by Mme Visaka Dharmadasa, Parents of servicemen missing in action (Sri Lanka).

First of all I wish to thank the ICRC for giving me the opportunity to share a bit of my ideas with you.

As all of you may know thousands of families around the globe undergo severe mental agony for uncertain periods of time not knowing the very existence of their loved ones.

Main problems faced by the families of unaccounted for can be classified in to three categories.

They are:

  1. Psychological problems

  2. Social Problems

  3. Economical problems

When we speak about the psychological problems, we know that when a family member’s very existence is doubtful, the trauma that the family has to undergo cannot be described in words. As we all know death of a family member, how ever much painful it is can be accepted, but not knowing the fate is very different from any other experience that one may encounter in a life time.

The anxiety for the return of the person missing is intense and has a tendency of increasing even after decades. I see this very special and rear phenomenon as the most disadvantageous aspect of healing. As well this adds to ones mindset, not to accept that the person is dead even if it is confirmed after some time. When all this is taken in to consideration, it is understood that the mental agony of the immediate family of the unaccounted for is severe and long lasting.

The second is Social problems, unlike the psychological problems the social problems varies from country to country as well individually. In a country such as Sri Lanka, where there are extended families, this problem has a big impact on the parents and siblings of a married person who is missing.

The main reason for the aggravated social problems is due to the unawareness of the intensity of the mental agony of the family, by the society. All families of those who are unaccounted for suffers from the feeling of isolation, this happens often due to the family’s reluctance to participate in social events, and lengthy period of grieving also makes it difficult to integrate into the society or to go back to ones previous lifestyle.

The social problems faced by the wives of those who are unaccounted for are much more severe than the parents. In social structures such as ours, it is very difficult for a single woman to lead a family with out a man even if she is economically independent. A young wife has to undergo much insult for the belief that her bad luck caused her husbands death.  This accusation first comes from her in-laws and it creates a situation that she has to leave the husband’s house with her children if she has any. Even in her own parents'house, she may be regarded as a bad omen and will not be invited for family functions etc. From the village and elsewhere there will be many remarks about her bad luck. This situation prolongs as she is unable to remarry because she is not aware whether her husband is alive or not, and she will be waiting for his return, which often become a very long wait.

When we speak about economical problems, it depends a lot on the situation of the missing person within the family, if he or she is the sole breadwinner, then it is a very sad situation often this becomes the fact. As well it depends on the particular person’s working condition, whether he/she was entitled for a pension etc., But yet, no matter how wealthy the family was, this situation can create a very big set back on their economical situation solely because the family is mentally disturbed for a ve ry long period of time which will have a big impact on their regular business. When we take this aspect in to consideration, one must remember, though how much trivial a single person reported missing can be seen on the surface, the trouble it will create, eventually will have a great negative impact in numerous ways on the society as a whole.

As parents of Servicemen missing in action in Sri Lanka, we understood that there are few prominent factors, which increases the missing issue. One of the main factors is failing to identify the dead bodies. If we can really minimize the problem of unidentified bodies, there will be a huge decrease of the missing. As well if the powers will act according to the Geneva conventions which mentions the declaring of the detainees and respecting the dead etc., it will greatly help those who are earnestly trying to see and end to this very painful situation.

We wish to request all powers, no matter what their situation, whether they have ratified the Geneva conventions or not, to respect and act according to these basic humanitarian requirements such as wearing and respecting the Identification discs, and declaring the detainees. As such acts will be more beneficial to their own power at all times, and will bring them respect from all those who promote human rights.

It is timely and very important that the Governments and the other relevant authorities recognize the role of families Associations of those who are unaccounted for, and give them the required support. As they play a very crucial role on solving missing issue and reducing the impact on the families as well these associations has the capacity and the ability of building bridges across the divide which will help tremendously in healing and reconciliation processes.

On behalf of all those families who are undergoing server mental pain due to the unawareness of the very existence of their loved one, I wis h to thank the ICRC, specially for their understanding that this issue has to be addressed and for bringing all of us together.

In conclusion, I wish to request from all those who are present here today, let us find a common ground taking in to consideration all the restrictions, obstacles, fears, anxieties and expectations of all those who are in one way or another related to this issue and come up with a declaration which will enhance the rights of the families and minimize their sufferings due to this problem As we all know, that when one decides to hide a person’s existence, he does not hurt that individual only, but a family and the society as a whole, Let us not allow such violence of basic human rights to be continued.