13th July 1997


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The Association for Families of Servicemen Missing In
Action (AFSMIA) was formed by wives and a mother
of three service officers missing in action hoping to
bring together and help the families of those facing
this ordeal. Hiranthi Fernando reports:
Over 2,000 personnel from the Sri Lanka Army, Navy and Air Force are listed as Missing In Action (MIA). In addition, a large number of policemen are also reported to have been captured by terrorists in the north and east. The families of these servicemen have had no further news of their whereabouts or even if they are alive. They do not know what to do or where to go in search of information. The only response they receive to their frequent appeals for news is "We do not know yet." They are torn between hope, uncertainty and despair.

"Nobody has bothered about servicemen missing in action. They seem to have been forgotten," says Druki Martenstyn, President of the recently formed ‘Association for Families of Servicemen Missing In Action’ (AFSMIA).

"We want to make people aware that thousands of families are suffering. If a person is killed, one has to accept it and get on with one’s life. We do not know what has happened to our loved ones. We are waiting and waiting. It is a traumatic situation for the families. If our husbands and children are in captivity, their lives could be in danger."

The ‘Association for Families of Servicemen Missing In Action’ was formed for the purpose of bringing together the families of those missing in action, so they may help and console each other in their common grief. The wives and a mother of three service officers missing in action were responsible for its formation.

Mrs. Druki Martenstyn’s husband Lt. Commander Cedric Martenstyn is missing in action since January 22, 1996. Mrs. Chiranga Palihena’s husband Lt. Thushara Palihena has also gone missing in action since January 22, 1996, when the M/17 helicopter was shot down off Pt. Pedro.

Mrs. Purangani Guna-wardena’s son, Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardena has been missing in action since November 22 1995, when the Y-8 aircraft he was navigating was shot down off Palaly.

"The three of us were brought together by our common interest to trace our missing loved ones," Druki said. "We were perfect strangers until we underwent this trauma. We would often call one another and meet occasionally to console and give strength to each other to face the crisis that engulfed our lives.

The three ladies were mobilised into action after the sudden death of the wife of yet another missing service officer. Unable to cope with the trauma, she had succumbed to a stroke, leaving the children helpless. "We felt that something must be done to bring together the families of those missing in action. It helps to be able to communicate with others in the same plight. One does not feel so alone," Druki explained.

Together with members of fourteen other families who were in the same situation, they formed a core group which met and discussed what could be done. They decided to call for information from families of those missing in action, through notices in the newspapers. Letters poured in initially from 475 families. From these letters it was evident there was need for some action. And so the Association came into being.

The inaugural meeting of the Association held in April this year brought forth an overwhelming response from over 750 families of missing servicemen. They came from far and near, some even camping overnight outside the Public Library where the meeting was held. The families were from different races, religions and diverse economic backgrounds. United in their common grief, they pledged to help each other in tracing their missing loved ones as well as coping with their trauma.

"We at least have some contacts who can help us in our efforts to trace our husbands and sons," Druki said. "From information we have received, we feel sure our loved ones are in captivity. Some of the families from villages are quite helpless and do not know where to turn. We would like to help them to trace their missing family members."

Nihal's parentsA large number of those reported Missing in Action seem to be from the Mullaitivu Army Camp which was attacked in July last year. G.D. Samiel and Somawathie at Yakkala, are grieving about their 26-year-old son Nihal who is missing in action since the Mullaitivu attack on July 17 last year.

"It is almost one year since we were informed that he is missing. Since then we have heard nothing", said Samiel. "We have gone several times to his headquarters at Kurunegala but they are not able to give us any news."

"We get no help from the government or the members of Parliament we elected. We have heard rumours they have been taken to India and are being trained by the LTTE."

"We believe that our son is alive." said Somawathie. "We have consulted many astrologers and light readers who all say he is alive. They have told us that forty eight of them, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, are held in captivity in a dark place, trapped between sea and jungle."

Their two younger sons have been deeply affected by the loss of the elder brother who was their guide and mentor. They have dropped out of school and gone astray. "They do not listen to us any more," the parents lamented.

Lance Corporal IndikaAlso missing from Mullaitivu is Lance Corporal Indika Batuwantudawa from Chandanagama. His mother Kamala lives with her 19 year old son who is not employed. She also has a daughter in the Air Force. "My husband died in April due to shock and grief over the loss of our son," Kamala said with tears in her eyes. "I have gone from astrologer to astrologer. They all say my son is alive and is a prisoner of the enemy. I have gone to Army Headquarters at Colombo and Kurunegala but nobody can give us any news at all. All I can do now is to go from temple to temple to pray and make vows for his safe return."

Janaka's sons"My husband spoke to me on the telephone at 12.30 a.m. from Mullaitivu, that fateful night," said Geethani Kasthuriarachchi, wife of Captain Janaka Kasthuriarachchi who is missing in action. "He did not tell me they were being attacked from morning. One hour later, the big attack came." Geethani believes her husband is alive. A colleague who returned safely, told her that Janaka was in the camp till July 23 when they both left together. According to his story, they had gone to the sea because they could see a Navy boat in the distance. Janaka had swum back to the shore as the waves were too strong and he had a mortar wound on his leg. The other three who were with him had returned to base on July 29.

From the questionnaires filled in by the family members, it is seen that various problems are surfacing among them. Apart from the grief which affects them emotionally, distribution of compensation also leads to much tension and problems within the family.

There are many instances of young couples where the husband had kept the balance between his wife and his parents. With the husband gone, the problems emerge. One young wife was three months pregnant when her soldier husband was reported missing in the Mullaitivu attack. She was living with her parents-in- law after the Mullaitivu attack, who treated her shabbily. She was finally ejected from the house and had to seek refuge at her parents’ home. Her 68 year old father now has to support her and her infant son as well as her younger sister. She has apparently received her husband’s pay only for the months of July and August l996. In despair, she says all that is left for her and her son is to take some poison.

There also seem to be instances where a young serviceman has got married secretly against the wishes of his parents. The Army has also not been informed. As next of kin, the parents receive the salary and compensation while the wife gets nothing.

On the other hand, many elderly parents have been left destitute after the son who supported them was reported missing in action. One young naval rating was supporting his elderly parents who were both sick. After he went missing, the wife packed up and moved to her parents’ house. She receives her husband’s full pay. Although she herself is employed, she does not assist her elderly in-laws at all.

Committee members of the AFSMIA say that their work involves two inter related areas. "Our objective is to trace our missing loved ones and try to get them back", Druki Martenstyn said. ‘In the meantime, the families need guidance and counselling to help them cope with the situation. It is a long- term, tedious journey. Prisoners of War negotiations is a complicated area which needs professional care and skill. We hope to get assistance locally and internationally to get Prisoners of War acknowledged and released".

Committed to the task in hand, the office bearers of the Association have worked hard. They have met the Service Chiefs who have pledged their support. They met officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Treasurer Mrs. Gunawardena travelled to Geneva and met the ICRC officials there. They have communicated with Amnesty International who has apparently written to the LTTE, with no response. They have also met some human rights lawyers. "It is a question of human rights," they asserted. "People in captivity are not acknowledged. The LTTE appear to have acknowledged only 37 prisoners." "Why cannot the ICRC do something?" they ask. International recognition placed on Prisoners of War in Sri Lanka is nil."

Bernard Betrancourt, Deputy Head of Delegation of the ICRC in Sri Lanka assumed his post one month ago. He says, one has to first make a distinction between Missing in Action and Disappearance. Those Missing in Action immediately following a military operation or an attack on a military installation are listed as MIA by the Army or Force concerned. The Army then submits a list of MIA to the ICRC

These lists are forwarded to the LTTE by the ICRC asking if they have information about the persons listed. If there is no response the ICRC presses them again and again for a reply. According to him, the ICRC is unable to act on individual letters from family members concerning MIAs as they have to be officially confirmed by the Force concerned.

"We have forwarded the lists given to us by the Forces. There has been no positive response yet," Mr. Betrancourt said.

The AFSMIA has requested an appointment with the President. "We do not want to act contrary to Government policy, so we want to clarify some matters before we move," they explained.

During their meetings with various people they have been given some ideas they should follow up with the Forces so that identification is possible. "The Armed Forces do not have anybody in charge of MIAs," Druki said. "We would like to ask whether a representative from each force could be assigned to a special unit and located in a central office. The Families of those missing in action would then have a place to go to for information and assistance. When a terrorist is captured, can’t the Missing Persons Unit go in and question them regarding the MIA servicemen listed? If all this information could be put into a central unit and computerised, tracing MIAs may be made easier.

Ajith Kumara's motherOn the welfare side, AFSMIA receives many appeals for assistance. There are for instance families where some of the younger children have become mentally unstable and dropped out of school. The mothers ask for help. Some are suffering financially and others emotionally. The Association has now put together profiles of over 500 families.

They receive fresh letters daily. They are in the process of grouping them on a district basis and categorising the assistance needed whether it be counselling, medical, financial and so on.

They then plan to have meetings in small groups in the different areas so that the families could communicate and help each other. "They would not feel so much alone then," Druki said. "We hope to take counsellors to the districts as well. MIA changes to Presumed Killed in Action after an year in order to facilitate pensions and compensations. The families sometimes get confused by it.

With the daily influx of letters from more families, the Committee members of the AFSMlA realise that it is an enormous undertaking. They would appreciate any assistance from organisations or individuals in achieving their objectives. Initially they need to develop a data bank of service personnel missing in action. Financial assistance towards the running of the organisation or donations of equipment such as used computers or photocopiers or even stationery items would be an asset. Assistance from agencies that could provide professional welfare services and counselling to the families would also be of great help.

We would welcome anyone with expertise which can be useful who is willing to give of their time, say the Committee members of the Association. There is nothing we can give in return other than our goodwill. We are appealing to their civic sense.

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