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Sri Lanka: waiting for news

26-01-2005 Feature

Helping families who have been separated by war or natural disaster to restore contact with each other is a key activity of the ICRC and has been an important part of its response to the tsunami disaster in Asia.


In the wake of the catastrophic tsunami, some people in isolated areas of Sri Lanka did not have access to a landline or mobile phone to make contact with each other.

For this reason, tracing teams made up of ICRC delegates and field officers, together with volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, have been visiting camps daily to offer a satellite and mobile phone service to people anxious to tell loved ones that they are safe. The service is part of the ICRC's global protection work, which also includes the search for missing persons using the Internet and the reunification of families separated by front lines in times of war.  

At the Kumulamunai welfare centre in Mullaitivu district, fisherman's wife, Ramalakshmi, spoke to her brother-in-law in London for the first time since the disaster on January 13, using a satellite link provided by the ICRC. She was one o f ten people who used the service that day. 

" Even though my sister in Colombo had told my brother-in-law that I was alive, he was very relieved to hear my voice, " she remarked afterwards.

Ramalakshmi's story is typical of many who became caught up in the tragedy of the waves.

In 1990, she and her husband, Sebastian, came to Mullaitivu for the fishing from Udappu in the north west, but couldn't get back when fighting broke out between Sri Lankan government forces and fighters from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Being poor, they built a hut on the beach, raised five children, and survived by selling the fish he caught. 

When the monstrous waves struck on the December 26 Sebastian was out at sea. Ramalakshmi was at home with her 14-year-old daughter, another daughter aged ten, her twin boys of eight, and the youngest son, aged five. As she heard the waves approach she grabbed the twins while her eldest daughter gathered up the other children, and they rushed to safety on a patch of high ground. Out at sea her husband was also safe but the family's thatched hut and all their possessions were destroyed when the waves roared inland. 


Today the family lives with hundreds of other displaced persons in the Kumulamunai camp, but feels ill at ease. " We are well looked after, " Ramalakshmi says, " But I feel claustrophobic in such a big crowd. "

In recent days, Sebastian has returned to the sea. Other men in the camp have gone back too and have caught record numbers of prawns. The fishermen take it as a good omen, but Ramalakshmi is afraid. " I can't go back to that beach, " she says. " And I was sad when my husband went. "  


The future is filled with uncertainty. And when Ramalakshmi's brother-in-law asked her on the phone what she and the family were going to do now, she had to tell him she didn't know. All she could say with any certainty was that the whole family was alive and no one was missing.

Others have not been so lucky. In Sri Lanka, weeks after the disaster, several thousand people are still unaccounted for, and the painstaking work of matching up names gathered in the camps with those in the central data base at the ICRC's delegation in Colombo continues.

For Ramalakshmi's brother-in-law, and for the relatives of the nine other people who made calls in the Kumulamunai camp last Thursday, the pain of not knowing is over. Others are still waiting for news.