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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2732

Sri Lanka: A vital lifeline for families torn apart

Colombo, 26 July (IRIN): Shanthi Rajah (not her real name) left her home in the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi recently to get medical treatment for her six-month-old baby, risking their lives while crossing battle zones to reach a hospital.

After several weeks of no communication, her anxious husband asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to trace his wife and child, who had headed for Vavuniya, a town in the government’s control.

Thousands of Sri Lankans, separated by fighting between the security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are turning to the ICRC and its local partner, the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC), to trace missing family members.

In the war-torn districts of northern Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and eastern Batticaloa, people are increasingly using the organizations’ Restoring Family Links programme.

In the capital, Colombo, Gayathiry Balakrishnan of the SLRC searched hundreds of patients’ records at the National Hospital and found that Rajah and baby had been transferred from one hospital to another.

“As soon as I knew they were at the Children’s Hospital, I went there,” said Balakrishnan. “When I met the wife, she was so happy to get the message from her husband. She was all alone and had no way of contacting him.”

Through the ICRC’s offices in the capital and in Kilinochchi, where the Tamil Tigers have their headquarters, Rajah was able to send a message to her husband, saying the child was being treated and they expected to return home soon.

A difficult search

Red Cross volunteers go to great lengths, sometimes facing hostility and encountering danger, to locate people who may have moved several times or left for a foreign country. After months of work, the agencies recently connected a long-lost Sri Lankan Tamil father living in an Indian refugee camp with his two daughters whom he had not seen in 17 years.

In the embattled north, the agencies even rely on the LTTE’s radio station, the Voice of Tigers, to broadcast the names of people for whom messages have been received.

“The conflict has made this programme more important than ever,” Surein Peiris, the SLRC’s deputy director-general of operations, told IRIN. “In these circumstances, the greatest thing we can do for a family is to give news of whether a missing person is dead or alive. Just knowing that is of great consolation to the family.”

Much of the agencies’ skills were honed in the aftermath of the tsunami when thousands of people used the agencies' communication links, including satellite phones, to find friends and family.

“Most of the requests to trace family members now come from the north and east,” Chithiravel said, adding that an expanded tracing unit and specialised training of 45 volunteers in 26 branch offices had helped the agency notch up many successes. “Now that we have the human resources and plenty of experience, people have the confidence that we can find their family members.”

The requests are not only to track down people separated by the conflict but also Sri Lankans who have gone to work abroad and lost contact with their families. About 1.5 million Sri Lankans are employed overseas, mostly as house help in the Middle East.

“Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka because of the conflict, migration and disasters, we have had a lot of practice in dealing with missing people,” noted Sara Blandford, the ICRC’s tracing delegate.

Thousands of messages

Last year, almost 3,500 family messages were exchanged, according to the ICRC, and so far this year, 1,548 notes have been sent. The SLRC helped 3,236 people in 2006 and has handled 1,665 requests this year.

“The conflict has made this programme more important than ever,” Surein Peiris, the SLRC’s deputy director-general of operations, told IRIN. “In these circumstances, the greatest thing we can do for a family is to give news of whether a missing person is dead or alive. Just knowing that is of great consolation to the family.”

Much of the agencies’ skills were honed in the aftermath of the tsunami when thousands of people used the agencies' communication links, including satellite phones, to find friends and family.

“Most of the requests to trace family members now come from the north and east,” Chithiravel said, adding that an expanded tracing unit and specialised training of 45 volunteers in 26 branch offices had helped the agency notch up many successes. “Now that we have the human resources and plenty of experience, people have the confidence that we can find their family members.”

The requests are not only to track down people separated by the conflict but also Sri Lankans who have gone to work abroad and lost contact with their families. About 1.5 million Sri Lankans are employed overseas, mostly as house help in the Middle East.

“Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka because of the conflict, migration and disasters, we have had a lot of practice in dealing with missing people,” noted Sara Blandford, the ICRC’s tracing delegate.

Thousands of messages

Last year, almost 3,500 family messages were exchanged, according to the ICRC, and so far this year, 1,548 notes have been sent. The SLRC helped 3,236 people in 2006 and has handled 1,665 requests this year.

- Asian Tribune -

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