People making a difference: Visaka Dharmadasa
After her son went missing in action, this Sri Lankan woman launched a nonprofit that helps trace soldiers like him.
KANDY, SRI LANKA
The photo of the young man in uniform sits on a corner of a glass-fronted cabinet, facing the front door. Second Lt. Achin Tcha hasn't been home since he went missing in action Sept. 27, 1998, during a fierce battle with Tamil Tiger rebels.Skip to next paragraph
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Visaka Dharmadasa hasn't given up hope that her son will walk through the door again. His remains, and those of over 600 other servicemen missing from the battle, were never recovered, though many unidentified bodies were later found burned in a mass grave. For the families of the fallen, uncertainty over the fate of their loved ones compounds the sorrow.
Without a body or a proper burial, grieving is stalled and paralysis sets in, says Ms. Dharmadasa, who runs Parents for Servicemen Missing in Action, a nonprofit group that she founded in 1998. In a landmark case, it successfully sued Sri Lanka's military over its failure to use DNA testing to trace missing soldiers.
But as Sri Lanka hails a hard-fought victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after 26 years of civil war, Dharmadasa worries that more families are facing the same agony.
"Over and over again, we have told [the government] don't cremate the bodies. And right now, God knows what's happening," she says.
Sri Lanka's military has said 6,261 soldiers died and nearly 30,000 were injured during a three-year offensive. More than 22,000 LTTE fighters died over the same period.
The military insists that all fallen soldiers are now recovered and that families are afforded proper funerals, another issue for which Dharmadasa's organization has campaigned. But she says the military still hasn't carried out DNA tests on unidentified bodies fallen in battle, despite the court ruling.
In 1999, she persuaded the International Committee of the Red Cross to directly assist some 3,000 families in tracing missing relatives. She also lobbied for all soldiers to be issued dog tags and for all those killed, including rebels, to be photographed.
Dharmadasa's campaign has made her a workaholic, she admits. Most evenings find her taking calls and answering e-mails at her home office in Kandy, the former royal capital in Sri Lanka's central highlands. In 2006 InterAction, a US-based coalition of aid groups, recognized the value of her work by naming her its Humanitarian of the Year.
On a recent morning, over cups of milky tea, she explains how she used to help with her husband's business. He is her second husband; she divorced the first for adultery when she was 22 and was left with two sons. She remarried and give birth to a third son.