More than two years after Sri Lanka's decades-long conflict officially ended, the whereabouts of 630 children are unknown, according to a government database.
Most went missing during the final phase of the war that ended on 18 May 2009, when government forces declared victory over the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.
According to reports cited by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), 64 percent of those missing were recruited by the LTTE while 30 percent were last seen behind government lines.
During the last phase of the war, more than 300,000 civilians were displaced from areas once under Tiger control, popularly known as the Vanni.
When they poured into camps set up in Vavuniya, just outside the theatre of fighting, many parents were desperate to find their children.
"There were women crying outside my office, asking me to find their children," Piencia Charles, the most senior government official in the Vavuniya District, told IRIN.
In December 2009, Charles set up the Family Tracing Unit within the Vavuniya Divisional Secretariat.
"It's something I felt I had to do. There was no mechanism in place to search for these kids. The parents were in so much pain," she said.
UNICEF assisted the unit with additional human resources, training and a simple database to support the unit's work.
To date, more than 600 children have been reunited with their parents through the unit, with 13 cases pending and under verification.
Another 34 names given by parents have been matched with those on the database, with officers now trying to locate the children.
Recently the number of people coming to Charles for help in finding their children has decreased. However, tracing those still on the list will take time.
"The parents have returned to the villages. The children could be in a foster home or a detention centre. There is lot more paper-work and leg-work now," she said.
One mother's story
Kulasekran Kugamathi, a single mother-of-three, has just returned to her village Allankulam, about 70km from Vavuniya, but continues to search for her eldest son, who was 16 when he "volunteered" to fight with the LTTE in early 2008 so that his two younger brothers could continue with their education.
Thousands of child soldiers were believed to have been recruited and used by the LTTE during the last phase of the conflict, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
"I haven't heard from him since. I know he is somewhere, but I have to work. I don't have the time or the money to look for him," the 44-year-old said in frustration.
Saji Thomas, a UNICEF child protection specialist based in Vavuniya, says once the unit receives information about a child, the details are checked against a database. When a match is found, unit officials interview the child and parent to ensure the relationship is authentic.
"Once the unit is sure, then court proceedings begin to hand the child back to the parents," he said, describing the whole process as a challenge. "Global experience shows that tracing can go on for years sometimes," Thomas said.
Although the unit's mandate is limited to children, it also maintains data on missing adults, with close to 2,000 names registered already.
"I am looking for some funding to set up a unit to trace the missing adults. Maybe by the end of this year I can get something going," Charles said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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