sithamuA few weeks back I was approached by a body called the Oxford Research Group, asking about a workshop on the recording of casualties during the conflict in Sri Lanka. This seemed a good idea because, as we have expressed in the draft National Policy on Reconcilation, we must address the anguish of those who do not know what happened to their loved ones. I believe we took too long over preparing census returns and, even if that was understandable given concentration on physical returns and restoration for those who remained, we must remember that concern for the dead is a continuing problem for the living.

Now that we have received some sort of a record from the Census Department, which fits in with figures I cited a couple of years back on the basis of extrapolations (and which led to my being attacked by both sides as it were), we should build on this to issue documentation to all who have suffered bereavement. I believe it is true that, in some cases, those who are missing have gone abroad, but this is where we need to work coherently with foreign governments to try to match identities.

I am told that many governments will not share information with us, but we should, while recognizing any concerns they might have, press for statistics, as to the numbers at least of those who have sought asylum in the period beginning January 2009. Given that some individuals may have gone from India, we should also seek statistics from the Indian government, which has informed us of substantially large numbers entering India during the first part of that year. But precision is lacking, and we should pursue this. And I believe a coherent programme together with the ICRC and IOM will help us to match some of those who are seeking asylum abroad with those recorded as missing here.

But we must also recognize that a few thousands have died, and in the case of some of them parents and relations are uncertain about what took place. We need to put together the information we have, including conveying information to their relations about the combatants who were killed, and with regard to whom, at least till May, government had details – as we found when they were able instantly to identify Issipriya who it was claimed was not a combatant.

The Oxford Research Group had spoken to a friend in England who was here for the recent Asia Pacific Academic Consortium Public Health Conference, and who had involved me in a session on Health and Peace – at which I was faced for the first time with statistics about the number of war widows left behind by our soldiers who had been killed, another statistic which is too little known.

I was told that the ORG concerns seemed genuine, which is something one can never be sure of, given the various groups gunning for Sri Lanka. I wrote accordingly to the Ministry of Health and the Census Department, to suggest a workshop, and felt this was the correct thing to have done, when I met a member of the group who was in Sri Lanka recently.

I hope the Ministry, which I believe should take the lead in this matter, responds positively soon. We must, as the draft Reconciliation Policy has it, ‘facilitate the acknowledgement of losses and suffering on all sides’, and the State should accordingly take steps to clarify matters and bring closure to those who still suffer.