In her village of Jalthal, 550km southeast of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, 35-year-old Reena Mecha had for years avoided talking about her husband’s 2004 disappearance during Nepal’s civil conflict.
“At the beginning, there was no one to talk to, no one to understand what I was going through,” Mecha told IRIN. The 2006 peace agreement that ended the decade-long conflict did little to ease her burden. It was only in November 2011 that she found comfort after joining a support group for families of the missing, coordinated by Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), a local rights group.
Some 1,500km away, in northern Sri Lanka, 23-year-old Maheswari has embarked on a similar journey. Her brother has been missing since May 2009, when the entire family fled Kilinochchi to escape fighting between government forces and separatist rebels from the Tamil ethnic group. Some 40,000 civilians died in the final months of fighting, according to the UN.
She and her parents have since returned. “Life is hard, I am trying my best to look for him, but I don’t know where to start or whom to ask [for] information. There are thousands of others like me here [in the former war zone],” said Maheswari, who provided only her first name.
There are thousands still unaccounted for in both these South Asian countries. In Nepal, the tracing unit of the Nepal Red Cross, which helps reunite family members by tracking down the missing, is trying to locate 1,401 missing persons.
Sri Lankan government data from 2011 estimated 2,635 people in the country’s former conflict zone, Northern Province, are “untraceable” (missing). Other estimates are much higher.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded 5,671 reported cases of wartime-related disappearance, not counting people who went missing in Sri Lanka in the final stages of fighting from 2008 to 2009. At the end of 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Sri Lanka had compiled a database of 15,780 cases of missing persons, some of which dated back to 1990.
Mecha in Nepal had one piece of advice for those like Maheswari: It will be a grim and lonely search, and your only solace will be the company of others like you.
Frustrated by lack of answers following his father’s disappearance in 2001, Ram Kumar Bhandari formed a regional group of missing families in the country’s west in December 2007. “Someone need[ed] to take the initiative and get the voice [of the families] heard and the trauma they undergo recognized,” Bhandari said.
By 2009 the group became the National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing (NEFAD) in Nepal and now counts more than 800 families among its membership.
Aside from peer support and a forum for discussion, the activist said associations like NEFAD provide political leverage. “Politicians will listen to a collective voice,” he said.
The Nepali Red Cross is tracing those missing by conducting periodic interviews with their families. Red Cross staff follow up on new leads with government and other officials.
By contrast, in Sri Lanka, there is no national tracing programme thus far, though a local government unit in the northern Vavuniya District carries out local searches. Piencia Charles, who was instrumental in setting up this Family Tracing Unit in December 2009 (but who no longer serves in the north), told IRIN she was responding to the women she encountered daily who cried in her office. The unit’s main task is to find children, though it receives complaints about missing adults as well.
“One of their [families’] main expectations is [to find out] what happened to their loved ones, and after repeated [home visits from us and] no new information, they can get very emotional,” Shubhadra Devkota, a tracing officer with the Nepal Red Cross told IRIN. She said families frequently question whether to continue searching.
Back in Kilinochchi, in Sri Lanka, a church-based counsellor who requested anonymity told IRIN that families of the missing were only now coming out to seek counsel.
She said due to how contentious the issue of disappearances still is – the number of persons missing is disputed – there are few efforts to expand or institutionalize tracing.
“There is a long way to go here. A very long way,” the counsellor concluded.