UNICEF supports efforts to reunite families in post-conflict Sri Lanka
By Sarah Crowe
VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka, 20 OCTOBER 2011- No words are needed. No translations. Her face, her gestures speak a language known across the world - a language of pain, of loss, yet somehow still of human hope. Bent double at 91 years of age, Meenadchy was left for dead in the chaos of the final stages of Sri Lanka’s 27 year war. In peace she longs for one thing: her missing granddaughter.
“My granddaughter was so wonderful, tall and smart, always helping with everything I needed,” said 91-year-old Meenadchy Sellthurai.
Meenadchy’s daughter, Sarojinidevi Thissaveerasingam, 59, explained that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took her daughter. “She came back after a few days but they took her away again,” she said.
Tracing the missing
The rest of the family was reunited in Manik Farms, a government-run camp for the displaced, in 2009. Now, they’re renting a house until their former home near Mullaituvu is ready for resettlement. Like so many others in Sri Lanka, they want to focus now on the living - but they cannot until they find their beloved granddaughter.
The government and UNICEF are assisting in that search, helping to trace the granddaughter and more than 600 other children reported missing.
13-year-old Pushpalatha Puvanendran and her two-year-old old brother are amongst them.
“After my mother died, I was in the bunker with my brother,” she recalled. “I came out of the bunker to look for milk powder to feed him then I got this injury from shelling.”
When her father remarried, both she and her brother were rejected, and now she longs to be reunited with her married sister.
Manarudeen Shahul Hameed Moulavi, UNICEF Child Protection Officer highlighted the challenges that can occur during the reunification process. “It is dragging and taking so much time due to the legal process as well as her sister needing to find a proper shelter in this area,” she said. “The process is going on and they will be reunified soon.”
To date, the tracing unit has reunified 47 children with their families, while 63 other cases have been verified and will soon be home with their families. Children with photographs and birth certificates are more easily traced. By sifting through records at children’s homes and gathering information at displaced camps, a database of 676 children including babies, little boys and girls and teenagers has been set up since 2009.
An established hotline in conjunction with strategically placed posters can have an immediate effect. In one case, a child was reunited with her delighted family the first day the posters were put up. Happy endings like these have given a boost to the unit, and the government agency responsible is pleased with progress.
"I am very happy to tell the international community and national community that we are mandated to look for the missing children,” said Mrs Piencia Sarojinidevi, a Government Agent in Vavuniya. “We are here to address the issues, this unit is not only tracing the children, it’s also a counseling unit. It’s a wonderful achievement.”
A new Sri Lanka
Tracing missing children and reuniting Sri Lankan families is critical if the country is to move on. Throughout the north, warning signs of uncleared landmines still mark parts of the jungle, while the burnt out shells of abandoned homes and schools cast their crooked shadows across the land. Despite this standing testimony to old battles, a new infrastructure is beginning to emerge. Modern clinics and hospitals, fresh schools and roads, they’re all being built for the next generation, a generation - the country hopes - that will bask in the glory of a truly united future.