By Major General Mohanti Peiris
As defined in the Office on Missing Persons Act, a missing person is someone whose fate or whereabouts are reasonably believed to be unknown or unaccounted for and missing. But for many of our people today the definition of a missing person is something more personal, more perplexing and more painful. For them family now means an empty chair at a table, clothes hanging on a rack that have not been worn in years, an embrace that is forgotten because no one thought it would be the last, hurt deep in the heart that would never be diminished with the passage of time and a vacuum that could never be filled. A missing person is a loved one to whom a goodbye was never said and the endless stream of questions that follow their absence. How did they go missing? Where are they today? Will I get the chance to see them again?
Decades later it is not fair that they must still suffer the plight of not knowing. It cannot be easy to turn away from their pain.
The search for the missing began nearly 30 years ago. The first commission investigating missing persons was set up as far back as 1991, but the story of the missing thus far has not been one of hope or reassurance. It is a story marred with helplessness, and un-kept promises and an endless long road on which they stumble along. Individuals went missing in the 1970s during the political insurrections of the south. Young lives were dispelled with no one to account for their absence. This was not the end. 30 years of civil war held in its grasp the lives of so many, marking no difference between race, cast, or creed. Families in the North and East whose children were taken from their homes, who were split apart by terrorism, and soldiers around the island who never made it back to their camps and loved ones; these are few of the thousands who are missing today. They are lives unaccounted for that need accounting.
Over the years, efforts have been made to address the issue of the missing. Multiple commissions were set up in 1991, 1994, and 2013 to conduct investigations into the missing. However, these commissions did not follow through to completion. One primary challenge was that investigations were limited to certain time periods and did not address all contexts during which individuals went missing. The lack of proper data and information led to incomplete and inaccurate statistics. Investigations were ineffective and inconclusive and therefore many cases were left pending. According to a report made by the ICRC, there were as many as 16,000 cases of missing persons remaining as recently as in 2016. 7 years after the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka had not yet successfully addressed this primary and pressing issue of its people.
It was essential after all those years to finally find a remedy for the problem of the missing and a preventive for its re-occurrence in the future.The Act to establish the OMP was passed in parliament in 2016, and with a 7 member commission is ready to begin investigations into all reported cases of missing persons. This includes not only those missing in relation to the conflict that took place in the North and East Provinces, but also those missing during the political and civil unrest in the South, armed forces or police who are identified as missing in action, and all enforced disappearances during and in the aftermath of the conflict. This is the chance for the OMP to address grievances made by those of all ethnic and religious backgrounds in all geographical areas of the country. Establishing this office is for the sole purpose of searching for the missing which is a need for our nation.
The office is a transparent and independent body. There is no prosecution through the OMP. Its main purpose is to bring relief to affected families who are suffering the loss of loved ones. What matters is that these families, be it from the North or South get a chance to search for the truth about what happened, receive answers to their questions, and hopefully find relief from the years of pain and uncertainty.
The office has been set up based on the recommendations made by the Consultation Task Force on the Act to establish the OMP. This task force proactively engaged with the victims and affected families around the island, getting their feedback and concerns regarding what can be done to redress this issue. It is their views and worries that matter. Without paying heed to their concerns, the OMP cannot address their grievances.
It has been a long and painful wait for the victims and their families. For parents who lost their children, for families who lost their loved ones, this Office on Missing Persons is a beacon of hope. It is a chance for the answers they have been waiting a long time for, and a necessity for a nation that will resolve and reconcile.