Soldiers missing in action: Anguished families still knocking on doors | Sunday Observer

Soldiers missing in action: Anguished families still knocking on doors

Geethani Kasthuriarachchi at the memorial (Pix Samantha Weerasiri and Gayan Pushpika)
Geethani Kasthuriarachchi at the memorial (Pix Samantha Weerasiri and Gayan Pushpika)

On March 3, the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army remembered its fallen heroes in a commemoration ceremony at its headquarters in Boyagane, Kurunegala. Despite being a particularly hot and humid day, almost 5,000 family members of the regiment’s soldiers who lost their lives during Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long conflict attended the event to pay respects to their loved ones.

In its fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) the Vijayabahu Regiment lost 132 officers and 2,868 soldiers from various ranks in the line of duty, the Army almost 25,000.

But some despite being declared dead, remain missing in action to date. According to the Army 3488 Army soldiers are counted as missing in action.

The parents, wives, children and relatives of these missing soldiers attended the memorial still latching onto hope that their loved ones might someday return.

Supported by a walking stick, 89-year-old Kurukulasuriya Kulathilaka stood tall throughout the memorial, refusing to be seated even for a moment. Seated beside him was wife Ranmenike Attanayake (80). The aged couple though barely able to walk had decided to attend the event in memory of their only son, Major Athula Kulathilaka of the Vijayabahu Regiment.

On July 18, 1996, during the Battle of Mullaitivu, the Sri Lanka Army camp in the Northern town was overrun by the LTTE, while the rescue operation later, found little traces of survivors or remains of the Base.

Major Kulathilaka at the time aged 27 was declared missing in action following the LTTE assault on the base. While Major Kulathilaka’s parents had envisioned a career in law for him and hoped he would follow in the footsteps of his sisters who were studying to be lawyers at the time, he, however, chose the Army.

“He insisted that he wanted to join the Army,” Kulathilaka said, adding that since their son’s disappearance they have left no stone unturned in the hope of finding any information on what happened to him 23 years ago. In desperation to find their son, they even sought help from the occult.

“We even went to soothsayers who told us he escaped with nine others but was later captured by the LTTE in Muttur,” she said. Based on the revelations by the sooth sayer, the couple had travelled to Muttur. “We searched all over but found no trace of our son,” Ranmenike said.

Not having seen the remains of her loving child, Ranmenike says to this day at times she feels her son would come home. “I keep thinking that any moment he will come home and call out saying Amma and Thatha,” she said.

Though the war ended nearly a decade ago, the couple refuses to lose hope. “They should have searched for our child and other missing soldiers,” Kulathilaka said.

To Geethani Kasthuriarachchi (53), the memories of July 1996 remain vivid. As the LTTE attack on the Mullaitivu Base intensified, her husband - Major Janaka Kasthuriarachchi, a Brigade Major made one last call home. “It was around 12.30 a.m. when he called,” she said adding that the conversation revolved around their two children, aged three and 11 months at the time. “I remember he cried during the conversation and said he would contact us, but we never heard from him again,” she recalled.

Inquiries made at the time by the brother of Major Kasthuriarachchi who was a journalist revealed that the Major had been captured alive by the LTTE. “I now know everything that happened to him till July 27, 1996, but what happened to him after his capture is yet unknown to me,” she said.

Just as Major Kulathilaka’s parents did, Geethani too had gone in search of her missing loved one. Registering with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geethani says she even joined an association of missing persons and wrote to the various government organisations as well as other organisations. “No one could tell me as to what happened to my husband,” she said.

Perhaps experiences of Major H.P Nandana of the 6th Battalion of the Vijayabahu Regiment who survived the Mullaitivu battle in 1996 may hold some clues to the fate of the Sri Lanka soldiers taken as Prisoners of War (POWs) by the LTTE.

Surrounded by the LTTE that fateful day, Major Nandana recalls the heavy losses they faced. As the LTTE continued its attack preventing any rescue operations, those in the Mullaitivu camp had little hope of survival. “The LTTE announced in Sinhala that all soldiers should surrender and they will be handed over to the ICRC,’ he recalled.

According to Major Nandana, following the announcement many decided to surrender as they had no other option. “I watched as they left the camp to surrender,” he said. Having been wounded in his leg, he decided to stay behind.“I hid in a ditch but if I was able to walk, I too would have surrendered,” he said.

When asked as to what happened to those who surrendered, Major Nandana said he is unsure as not many bodies or POWs were returned after this particular battle. “However, after the soldiers left we heard shots ringing out and shouts asking them to stop shooting,” he said, hinting at the tragic end that his colleagues may have faced at the hands of the LTTE.

It is believed between 600 - 700 soldiers of both the Sinha and the Vijayabahu Regiments surrendered that day though none made it back home alive.

According to Army Spokesperson Brigadier Sumith Atapattu, some Army POWs were brutally killed by the LTTE after capture, others went missing during battle. “During the war, our Forces could not retrieve some bodies so they are also counted as missing in action,” he said.

According to authoritative sources, though some bodies were returned by the LTTE, they were severely mutilated at times, making identification near impossible.

Though the possibility of her husband’s return remains slim, when the ICRC came calling recently inquiring if she would grant permission to hand over information about him to the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) founded in September 2017 Geethani readily did so. “The news I receive may not be positive but I would like to get answers,” she said.

However having visited the OMP office last year, Major Kulathilaka’s father said the experience was less than satisfactory. “I felt my plight was not taken seriously and there seems to be more focus on the North and the East,” he said. “We are tired now and cannot exhaust ourselves any more on pointless pursuits,”his wife - Ranmenike said, adding that it is unlikely they will visit the OMP again.

While the OMP was established by the government in September 2017 to provide assistance and relief to families of the missing including that of the Armed Forces and Police, there has been a lack of interest on its part, since inception. During the inaugural meeting of the OMP held in Matara last year with the families of the missing, family members of soldiers missing in action were notably absent, opting to attend a memorial in honour of their fallen loved ones instead.

“I believe the lack of interest may be due to the fact that the Army takes care of the families well,” OMP Chairman, President’s Counsel Saliya Peiris told the Sunday Observer. However, he said that while understanding that many may still want answers, the lack of awareness about the Office could mean the families are apprehensive to reach out to the OMP.

But since then there have been some positive improvements as well. “We met some families of the missing in Armed Forces during outreach meetings and during the OMP meeting held in Kurunegala,” he said.

According to Brigadier Atapattu, the Sri Lanka Army has been encouraging the families of the missing to reach out to the OMP. “We have not placed any restrictions and in fact asked them to provide their details as well to the OMP,” the Brigadier said.

The OMP has now identified the reluctance of the families of the Armed Forces to come forward and engage with the Office. “We hope to connect with the families in the future and make them understand better about the OMP,” Peiris said adding that the OMP has already obtained the lists of armed personnel declared missing in action.

“The OMP is not for one section is society, but for everyone whose loved one was forcefully made to disappear or is missing, this includes even the Armed Forces,” he stressed assuring the OMP would in the near future reach out to the families of the Armed Forces.

But the parents of Major Kularathna are not easily convinced. After years of knocking on doors to find her lost son, Ranmenike feels no one to date has made a genuine effort to search for her child and other missing soldiers.

“They celebrate the war victory every year with great pomp but there has been no genuine effort to find answers as to what happened to our children,” Ranmenike pointed out adding that this has caused much grief and pain to them. “We feel hurt, a human cannot be thrown away like a discarded plate, they should have done more to find our children,” she said with a tinge of emotion.