Thousands of victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war remain unaccounted for

“I STILL believe he’s alive,” says Tharsini Santhirabose with a glazed, fixed smile. She last saw her husband, a fellow guerrilla for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in the final days of the civil war that ended with the Tigers’ obliteration in 2009. Up to 40,000 civilians were killed, according to the UN, along with most of the remnants of the 10,000-strong separatist army and perhaps 5,000 hangers-on. The chances that Ms Santhirabose’s husband will reappear are virtually nil.


No one knows precisely how many died or disappeared in the war. A fervently Tamil-nationalist Catholic bishop claims that, after the 26 years of fighting, 147,000 people, civilians and fighters, remain unaccounted for. The foreign ministry says that more than 65,000 queries about missing people have been received since 1994.
A few thousand former Tiger “cadres”, as they are known, have re-emerged from government “rehabilitation” camps. Many Tamils believe that secret detention camps still exist. Others claim, bizarrely, that the government has sent thousands of defeated fighters to undisclosed destinations abroad. Many also say that the Sri Lankan army’s reluctance to give back land now used as army bases is because they do not want mass graves to be discovered.
One of 12 children of a poor fisherman, Ms Santhirabose, now 34, says she volunteered to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam when she was 15, along with three of her siblings, and married another fighter when she was 20. Her parents now live in Canada; several siblings are in France. As a registered ex-combatant scratching a living from farming, she says she is watched by the authorities and discriminated against. She still has shrapnel in her head from an old wound.
Her loyalty to the Tigers’ cause and to its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed in the final battle, is unshaken. She says she has no regrets about joining up, despite Prabhakaran’s record of brutality: the Tigers suicide-bombed buses and banks, forcibly recruited children and routinely assassinated any perceived foes, Tamil and Sinhalese alike. “The war was lost only because he was betrayed,” she laments, citing a close lieutenant who defected with several thousand fighters in 2004.
“In those days life was good. We slept safely. No crime. We had our own economy.” Like many Tamils, she suggests that foreign governments should intervene. “Does the world think it is right for the Tamils to be treated as slaves?”

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