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Feb-08-2012 22:21printcomments

The Defeated

Sri Lanka’s Tamils pick up the pieces after a war that defined—and shattered—the lives of a generation.

LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP PHOTO
LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP PHOTO

(NEW DELHI ) - ON THE AFTERNOON OF 19 MAY 2009, at around 1:20 pm, a ration shop accountant named Sivarajan ran to the front of the winding lunch queue in the Anandakumaraswami Zone 3 refugee camp to serve rice and sodhi, a watery concoction of chillies and coconut milk. Swarna, a former militant, sat in her tent nearby, yelling at her mother for having told an army man from the morning shift that their family belonged to Mullaitivu, on the northeastern coast, where the war between the Sri Lankan Army and the separatists—“Tigers,” she called them—was still raging.

At that moment, they got a text message on their mobile phones from the government’s information department. Addressed to all Sri Lankans, it proclaimed, in Sinhala—a language neither Sivarajan nor Swarna could read—that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the man who led a 26-year-long separatist battle for a Tamil Eelam (state), had been killed by the army in a lagoon just a two hours drive north of where they were. So when the news was announced in Tamil over a loudspeaker that evening, they did not believe it. When it finally sank in, they realised—neither with remorse nor relief, but mere wonder at its very possibility—that in an instant the war they had been born into had left their lives.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

ONE

IT HAD TO BE INAPPROPRIATE to want a bath when shells were raining from the sky. But for the fifth day in a row, it was all Siva could think of. Crouching with his wife, daughter and six others in a hastily dug five-foot deep hole in the ground that was dissolving in the nonstop downpour, he was going crazy with the thick layer of mud on his skin. It itched, and he was sure he could smell blood and shit on it.

Above Siva’s head, across the coconut orchard of Kombavil village in Puthukkudiyiruppu region of Mullaitivu district, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Army were exchanging gunfire. Aircraft ejected shells into the area, which had once been home to about 50 families; since April 2009, it had been transformed into a dizzying two sq km maze of felled trees and underground bunkers dug and redug by the army, LTTE and fleeing, hiding villagers. Below the rain rivulets and the rattle of machine guns, about 3,000 people cowered underground, packed like iron rods in a truck, judging danger and safety by the ebb and rise of the sounds of battle. They were petrified, but more unbearably, they were hungry.

His ears ringing, Siva looked around him in the bunker. It was mid-April, more than six months since they’d been on the road. They were now left with only half a sack of rice, and a couple of charred semi-rotten coconuts they had collected from the bombed orchard. There was no way to cook anything. The wood was too soaked to build a fire, and his wife Latha had dropped the salt packet when a bullet whizzed past her head. Siva’s daughter, Dhanusuya, was curling up around her mother. Only five years old, and she already knew to go to sleep when her stomach was rumbling. He looked at his wife’s pregnant belly. Please oh please let the baby be all right, he thought.

Siva was a doting father, the kind of man who easily wove bedtime stories starring animals that talked philosophically, stories whose endings often involved the triumph of a smart rabbit, deer or turtle over the powerful lions and panthers. He was a dutiful son—he regularly sent money home to his aging parents—but did not think he could ever live under the same roof with them. His hair was greyer than it should have been at 39. He stood taller than six feet, but slumped heavily, which made his legs look disproportionately long compared to his torso. Sitting in the cramped hole in the ground, unable to venture out for days on end, he often cursed his long frame for his incessant hunger.

Nearly three years before Siva would find himself huddled in a bunker, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, launched a military offensive on the separatist Tigers in Trincomalee, on the east coast. The Tigers had forcefully closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru waterway to cut off the water supply to some 15,000 villages nearby. Negotiations to open the gates failed, and the Sri Lankan Air Force attacked the LTTE bases. At the time, this had seemed to Siva like just another fight in the 26-year-long cycle of attacks and counterattacks between the predominantly Sinhala armed forces and the LTTE. He had gone about his life unbothered, until Tamil men and women from the east, their whole lives bundled into little plastic bags, started to pour in closer to Siva’s home, to the northern part of the island. They were everywhere. And, soon, so was the army.

In January 2009, a combined force of infantrymen, helicopter gunships and naval commandos captured Siva’s home district, the LTTE’s last military base of Mullaitivu. For the previous six months, his family had been running from the war in a helplessly confused fashion, into uniformly bomb-ravaged northeastern islets, led and misled by bewildering stories of deaths, injury and betrayal.

ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP PHOTO


Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard near a rocket launcher in Mullaitivu in late January 2009, days after the army captured the district, and the LTTE military base.

Thin slivers of sunlight crisscrossed in the bunker. The gunfire stopped almost as soon as the rain did. Ants began to crawl in. Siva woke his daughter, and told Latha that it was time to move again. The six-person family they were sharing the bunker with declined to follow; they had been waiting for 55-year-old Mahendran to return since he had ventured out the previous night to get food for his grandson.

As Siva and Latha shoved aside the logs covering the bunker, hopped up and stretched their legs, they saw a motionless man lying flat on his stomach just 100 metres away. The wet soil around his bald head was red. As they got closer, they saw white specks in the blood. Oh god maggots, Siva thought, and closed his daughter’s eyes. They walked around the body. When he reached the road with the image of the fallen man still clear in his mind, Siva realised it must’ve been Mahendran. Because it wasn’t maggots he’d seen but spilt rice, no use to anyone now.

Siva had held one job all his life, as the only bookkeeper at the government ration shop in the small town of Mallavi in Mullaitivu. He earned a government salary of LKR3,000, but was paid another LKR3,000 by an LTTE-appointed contractor, who actually ran the store. Siva had once been proud that he was a top class accountant. He could forget a face, but never a number. “Useless,” he now thought. “What is the point of mathematics in war?”

But like a man who knew no other way, Siva continued to count everything. When his family had left home in Mallavi eight months ago, they’d carried stoves, vessels, three bags of rice, several bottled spices, gold jewellery, tables, cots, wires, a sewing machine, and even the doors of his house, all in a tractor they hired for LKR15,000.

Siva also packed four lorries with all the stock (rice, lentils, oil, kerosene) from the ration shop where he worked—and swaddled the ledgers and receipt books in plastic covers. He knew that sandai kaalam (battle times) were times of scarcity; he assumed he would be one of the few with food to sell, and he wanted to keep track of the inventory.

In January 2009, when the army entered Mullaitivu for the first time in more than a decade, Siva was selling rations to roving refugees at an inflated price: a handful of rice went for LKR30, which would ordinarily have purchased an entire kilogram. He justified it as “cost price plus war tax”. As whole villages were evacuated, almost the entire Tamil population from the north moved en masse towards the ‘No Fire Zones’ created by the army in Puthukkudiyiruppu in the final phase of war. The price of essentials doubled, and then tripled. By April 2009, only three months later, you needed to exchange a boat or an autorickshaw to buy a handful of rice. Petrol and diesel pumps were closed, and people were using kerosene, which sold at LKR1,500 per litre, as fuel for lorries and tractors. The cost of running a tractor or bike was so high it was better to simply abandon them.

Siva had long been certain that the battle around him was just a blip. Soon, he believed, it would be over, and he would go back to Mallavi with his ledger books and leftover rations to resume his life. It was the blind confidence of a man who had spent more than half of his 39 years perpetually ready to get up and leave, who had moved house 12 times, none by his own choice, but always thanks to a battle, an air raid, an eviction order from local LTTE leaders. For Siva, displacement simply meant settling somewhere else, however temporarily. As his favourite song went: ‘the ground beneath our feet quivers, shifts, and caves in/ how we’ve learnt not to fall, but just to run to the other side’. He didn’t even complain anymore.

But Siva’s incessant dislocations had never taken him outside of Vanni, the sprawling mainland of the Northern Province in Sri Lanka composed of four Tamil-dominated districts. Named after medieval Tamil feudal chiefs called Vanniars, the Vanni had been a virtually impenetrable bastion of the Tamil Tigers since the 1990s. Growing up in Vavuniya district’s Nedunkeni, Siva was taught that Vanni was where his country really began. It was, after all, the working prototype of what Eelam, the separate homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils, would look like. The Tigers ran everything there: a working state complete with an army, air force, navy, police, trial courts and a bureaucracy that issued motor vehicle licenses, food ration cards and Tamil Eelam citizen ID cards. Kilinochchi was the political capital, and the more densely-forested Mullaitivu district, where Siva moved in his late 20s, was the LTTE military base. When the Sri Lankan Army gradually penetrated into the Vanni from January 2008 to May 2009, it wasn’t just attacking the military might of the LTTE: it was laying siege to the fiercely defended idea of Eelam.

In Mullaitivu, while it was ostensibly the Sri Lankan government that ran a post office, police station and ration store, there was no doubt about who was really in charge. Even as Siva carried on his government job through the civil war, making copious debit and credit entries, the LTTE was the invisible boss he feared, respected and ultimately worked for. For him, the seemingly natural loyalty of a Tamil man for the Tamil militants had never been quite easy.

As a boy in the Vanni, Siva had spent several orange evenings running through the lush paddy fields of Nedunkeni, looking for water snakes, newts and his favourite prey, chameleons, to chase, pee on or stone. He would do it for hours, until night fell or his mother called him indoors for homework. A few days after his sixth birthday, while he was aiming carefully to whack the raised head of a chameleon, Siva saw a young man pedalling his cycle furiously across the thin pathway running through the field. The man’s right hand was on the handlebar, and his left hand gripped a pistol.

ROGER HUTCHINGS / IN PICTURES / CORBIS


Tamil Tigers in the early 1990s, when they constituted the strongest voice of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

It was the first time Siva had seen a gun. He didn’t think it would be a good idea to tell his parents, but unable to contain his excitement, he told a young uncle, who grinned and advised him to forget about it. “It’s just one of the boys, Siva,” he said.

For days after that, Siva went to the same field, hoping for another sighting. Who could the boy be? Who might he have killed? How did he get the gun? Did the gun make a tishkkyaon! noise like in the movies? Who’d taught him to use it? Shrouded in mystery, the vision of the cycling boy, his gun glinting in the evening light, grew more and more romantic. That weekend, when his mother served him dinner, Siva brought it up.

“Amma, I saw a boy with a thuppakki (pistol),” Siva said, in a most casual tone.

His mother looked at him with the disapproving, worried expression that usually appeared when one of her children failed an exam or got into a fight.

“What kind of nonsense goes on in your head?” she asked.

“Amma, really, I promise. I saw ...”

“Talk to me one more time about guns and some dangerous boys with stupid ideas, and you can forget about entering this house again.”

For years Siva’s parents were terrified that their son would be swept up in the collective frustration of rioting 20-year-olds all around and join a militant outfit. So they locked him in the house, and forbade him from joining Jaffna University, which was renowned for its liberal arts faculties and notorious for its pro-LTTE student politics.

Helplessly, Siva often thought about the cycling boy with the pistol. He yelled at his parents for his house arrest; but he was also pretty sure that if he ever signed up for arms training, he would be outed as a coward. “The world needs farmers and accountants as well,” he told friends who urged him to join the LTTE. “Everyone cannot become a Tiger.”

In what seemed like an endless April in 2009, as he walked through the falling rain and shells for the sixth day in a row, Siva looked at the fraying ribbon of a road ahead of him, and the hundreds of mud-covered people plodding along in the same direction. All of them were moving as if chained together, following blindly the person in front, and staying ahead of the person behind. Siva knew that all of them had, at some point, confronted the choice between being a warrior—with all the respect and power it brought—or a peasant. He wondered idly if he would have felt less helpless if he had a gun.

Through all these months, as his wife and daughter slept under trees and in schools closed for war, Siva kept making elaborate trips back to the ration shop on his motorbike to replenish stock. Each time, he found new families in Mallavi raiding kitchens in half-broken homes and hiding in toilets. When returning from one such trip, Siva made a wrong turn into a road blocked by a high wall of rusted rocket shells. When he returned to his family, Latha had delivered their son.

TWO

LOOKING DOWN FROM A MANGO TREE that had just begun to flower, Swarna cursed herself for losing her Type 56 assault rifle. It was a souvenir from her first successful operation after joining the LTTE, gleefully stolen from a burning Sri Lankan Army camp in Omanthai in 1997. She was 17 then, the second commander of the squadron, and had made sure every one of the nine girls she led came back alive. They looted everything from the camp except Sinhalese books and what Swarna called “dirty films”. The operation was so successful that Prabhakaran himself sought her out so he could shake her hand and praise her for being the kind of woman Tamil Eelam needed.

Now she’d gone and lost her gun to the very same army—to Sinhalese boys half her age, boys she wanted to shoot right now, as she watched them rip the camouflage shirts off her squadron members down below. The girls were screaming in Tamil, except for one who seemed to be repeating the word epa like a loud and shrill chant. That wasn’t how the Sinhalese word was usually used, but Swarna had often heard it shouted by Sinhalese policemen and the army. “Epa!”, when they didn’t want you to sell apples by the road in Jaffna. “Epa!”, when you tried to drive on through the checkpoint at Vavuniya. “Epa!”, Don’t!, when they kneeled, hands tied in front of her gun.

One army man was snapping off the cyanide capsules hanging like pendants from the girls’ necks. Another short chap rammed the butt of his rifle into one girl’s hipbone. As she clutched at the pain and crumpled to the ground, he kicked dry leaves and sand into her face. The front of his boot hit her nose. Writhing in pain, the girl folded her hands towards him. But he was already unzipping himself, and pushing her on her back. Swarna looked away.

One rainy afternoon, when Swarna was 13, her school cancelled the post-lunch session. Some athletic men and women walked into her class, wearing long black shirts over their blue jeans. They started by talking to the kids, advising them about getting good grades, and then joking around about the rotund headmistress. Swarna stared at them in awe, knowing they were Liberation Tigers—like her father. They had brought along a stereo and started to play some music on it. Swarna and most of her classmates, having grown up largely in LTTE-controlled areas, had heard the songs before, blaring from speakers on Martyr’s Day in November or the Tamil New Year in April. The songs were full of powerful imagery: the strong Palmyra tree of Yalpanam (the Tamil name for Jaffna) standing upright in all storms, except when uprooted and burnt by dark hands that resented its growth.

Just as she was humming to herself, an akka (elder sister) asked Swarna and another girl to come to the front of the class. They were asked to perform to a song that rang through the room: “Panirendu vayadhinile tholil thuppakki potukkittu (Just 12, look at how she holds the rifle over her shoulder).” Swarna today believes she was in a trance when she marched, danced and carried a wooden ruler over her shoulder, trying to imagine being on the frontline without fear, her heart full of pride for her Tamil people. When she finished, one of the Tiger women patted her back. “The song is about a 12 year old,” she said. “You are 13.” Then, in unison, the group said, “One from every family”.

Seven girls—including Swarna—signed up with the LTTE that evening.

At that point, in 1993, the Tigers were the strongest voice of the Tamils. Their militant empire had spread all across the north, especially in Vanni, and into parts of the east. As guerrilla armies go, the LTTE had managed by now to spearhead “a protracted people’s war”—a war that they intuited had to begin in the minds of the Tamils.

What the LTTE fought and recruited girls like Swarna for was ‘Tamizh Ilankai’, a Tamil Lanka that had begun to take shape quietly in many Tamil minds from the time the British gave Ceylon independence in 1948, leaving behind a nation deeply fractured.

The first person to openly demand that Tamils snap ties with the island and create a separate nation was a politician—and a moderate nationalist at that—whose fury had first been stoked by a law that made Sinhala Ceylone’s only official language. “The Tamils of Ceylon have been tricked and betrayed,” C Suntharalingam, Ceylone’s first minister of commerce and trade, fumed in an open letter to the prime minister in 1957. “They must go all out and save themselves ... from Sinhala colonisation and establish in the first instance an independent Tamil Ilankai.”

Next came a republican constitution that said the Sinhalese were the original inhabitants of the island, and that their greatest duty was to protect Buddhism. With a roar of enthusiastic ayes in a majority Sinhalese Parliament, multiethnic Sri Lanka, with its Tamils, Malayalis, Burghers, Christians and Muslims, was declared a Sinhala-Buddhist country.

Swarna knew about Suntharalingam and the constitution, but to her, all that was a pointless prelude to the real story—the part where she came into the picture, when she learnt about the massacres of Tamils, the denial to them of jobs and college seats they had come to expect. She didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was initially a reaction to proselytising Christian missionaries and Westernisation. That when the majority locals felt threatened by British culture, they set up more Buddhist vernacular schools and printed more Sinhala text books. Literature, mass media and political meetings all began to spread the message of Sinhala superiority, of the need to defend the indigenous culture of the ‘Lion Race’. The first victims of this new chauvinism were not the Tamils, but the Sinhala Christians in the south and the west; after them came the Muslims, the Indian Tamils who worked in the central tea plantations, the Malayalis, and, finally, the biggest minority, the Sri Lankan Tamils.

As state persecution increased, Swarna’s generation began to see the elderly political leadership as being too submissive and willing to compromise. Since Independence, Tamil leaders were in fact protesting ethnic oppression by holding fasts, protest marches, sit-ins, and blockades. When they came back home, however, they were drenched in sweat and frustration. “The leaders in my area didn’t come back like victors,” Swarna says. “They came back like people who had just hit their heads on a wall and returned with nothing but a mozhai (big bump) on their foreheads.”

Swarna and her friends grew up imbibing the fears, wishes, and bitterness of their parents, teachers and their community. They were surrounded by cinema, books, song, myth, superstition, schools, and political and religious leaders—all of them talking only of fears and threats. And when they felt the doors of employment and education shut on them, they believed the discrimination had gone on for too long.

Every time Swarna must explain her anger, she speaks of Tamil maanam (honour): an intangible, glorious, exclusive thing that she believes only a Tamil can ever understand. “It’s inside, you know, and it gives us strength,” she says, slamming her chest with her right hand closed into a tight fist. “Without it, you don’t feel anger, you’ll only end up feeling shame. Anger is what you need to defend yourself. And when you feel it burning inside, you can’t drink a glass of water and sit at home. You must go out and unleash it.”

Many politicians unleashed this cherished anger through democratic protests. They were optimistic about change coming from the government, a feeling the Tigers did not share. Instead, the Tigers ignited, fed and thrived on a destructive rage of impatience.

In July 1983, the simmering hate between the Sinhalese and Tamils exploded on to the streets. Mobs lashed through Sri Lankan Tamil ghettos in Colombo, raided shops owned by Tamils, dragging out owners and customers, beat and stabbed them, and tore off their limbs. Riots erupted across Sri Lanka. An estimated 3,000 Tamils were killed (a death toll that is still hotly contested; the government maintains that only 400 died). The largely Sinhalese police looked on and did nothing.

It was the first time there was strong evidence of government complicity, the first time it was clear that the government had targeted thousands of civilian Tamils. That it was provoked by the Tigers’ killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers weeks earlier did not matter to the bereaved Tamils.

To Swarna, the details of the bloody carnage are frozen in a single image: that of her mother wailing, rocking back and forth on her haunches, clutching her long hair at the temples. “They want to finish us,” Swarna remembers her mother repeating in a mad loop. “They didn’t even spare babies and women!”

There was no turning back. Demagogues like Velupillai Prabhakaran started to stoke deep passions, appealing to language, religion, Tamil soil and Tamil blood. The killings strengthened not only the mass support for a separate Tamil nation, but also the feeling that violence was the only way left to achieve it.

Barely a month after what Sri Lankan Tamils across the globe now call Black July, the LTTE started to recruit young women. They produced a document titled Women and the Revolution, a Tamil copy of which Swarna had to burn when she would later leave her home in the ‘last war’, the one that would end the conflict. It outlined the role of women in the Tamil liberation struggle. A woman should learn to defend herself, it said. A woman is the embodiment of Tamil culture, it insisted. Swarna, like all LTTE combatants, was given a new name when she joined. She was called Tamizhazhagi, a woman as beautiful as Tamil. Scores like her who joined dreamt of their roles in a historic victory, never imagining that they would die, as most of them did, on the frontlines of a losing war.

Initially, the women were involved only in political propaganda. But from mid-1984, they began to receive military training, and a women’s guerrilla unit was established. By the time Swarna joined the LTTE in 1993, women manned checkpoints, bunkers, and learnt to make and use ammunition. They directly participated in combat against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

Swarna’s hardest moment in the LTTE was the haircut. After a 10-day training at the Siruthai Puligal facility, all 20 girls of her batch were asked to form a line under the harsh sun. One by one, their heads were shaved. Symbolically, they were being sheared of their femininity, lest it cripple their readiness for war. Practically, it did what easily identifiable smocks in rehab facilities do: it prevented recruits, especially minors, from escaping back to their normal lives. Swarna went through the haircut ritual for the eight years that she was a fighter. Each time she bowed her head under the razor, it brought on a fatalistic impulse. She remembered that she had no identity but that of a combatant, no freedom to run if she ever let herself feel fear. Running her hand over her prickly scalp, Swarna felt like a part of something larger. It was a por (war), but she believed it was a porattam (a revolutionary struggle). In recognition of her commitment, she was one of the few batches of girls that were taught satellite technology, and she became a navigator for GPS-dependent weaponry.

A number of Tamil women—some who fought and some who did not—still insist that under the reign of the LTTE they felt like full partners in their community’s struggle, with a greater sense of equality and freedom from harassment. During the civil war, Tamil women invested in political and social change: they came together to demand that only female soldiers from the Sri Lankan Army body-search female civilians from the Tamil community, to rally for the release of family members from detention, and to create a movement in which they were not just playing a supportive role.

Swarna is aware of the other side of this coin: women who fled from forced recruitment, who lost their family members, who were shown no mercy if their missions failed. She had herself dragged back many girls who were forcefully recruited and then tried to escape, identifying them in markets and crowded streets by their shaved heads—sometimes to save them from the thrashing and humiliation reserved for deserters and sometimes to bring them back to duty. “Women don’t tend to kill easily,” she says. “To become stronger, we need more training.”

What Swarna desperately wanted to do was join the Black Tigers, the small, elite suicide squad established in 1987. At that time, there were, according to different estimates, between 300 and 2,000 female suicide bombers. They were regular combatants picked for their inconspicuous looks and vanilla personalities, but also for their mental resilience and iron commitment to Eelam. Almost always, they were personally approved by Prabhakaran. They were taught to make and detonate bombs, speak chaste Tamil and some Sinhalese. Women were also asked to read translations of international feminist literature. “Anna (Prabhakaran) knew that women are no less powerful than men,” Swarna says. What Prabhakaran also knew was that female terrorists could be more effective than men, because they were unanticipated and underestimated.

For Swarna, being a suicide bomber was not about ambition. It was, to her, like a coveted white-collar job in the insurgency. One woman would be sent alone on a mission. Her death would mean that her people would be a step closer to Eelam. She would be remembered forever; her bravery would inspire generations. In mid-2005, taken in by the glamour of sacrifice, and the chance to meet Prabhakaran in the flesh, Swarna pestered her unit leader (also a longtime friend) to nominate her for suicide training. The middle-aged leader, however, told Swarna she was far too valuable to lose.

“That’s just sentimental talk,” Swarna spat. “Black Tigers are respected the most. Come on, you know I will be good. I want to die for Eelam!”

“Please understand,” said her leader.

“Give me a reason. One good reason.”

The unit leader cursed. “It’s your own fault,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Who asked you to get married?” she said. “And then have children also?”

THREE

WRAPPED TIGHT IN THE ONLY EXTRA SARI Latha had decided to hold on to, little Dhanushan was born in an abandoned school converted into a hospital. There was one doctor for what seemed to be nearly 200 people. Latha remembers feeling iffy about him—he looked too young, this Dr Devan, and he didn’t even have a stethoscope.

And, of course, he was covered in dried blood. People were screaming, crying, bleeding and dying all around him, and he looked like he was a second away from storming off.

The night Latha’s son was ready to be conceived, Devan gave her an undivided three minutes of his attention. After the birth, over her newborn son’s high-pitched wail, the exhausted doctor said to her, “This was the easy part. Go now, and keep him safe. I don’t want to ever see you again.”

When he recounts the ‘last war’, the fourth and final phase of the conflict, Siva is almost always guilty of forgetting Dhanushan’s birth. He hadn’t been there—he was lost somewhere 20 kms away, looking for food. But for both Siva and Latha, the birth of their son barely registered among the volley of other perils they had to dodge; the birth was a predictable event, almost a chore. Siva mentions it almost as an afterthought, when he explains why they had to dump the enormous sacks of foodgrains on the way somewhere. “Money and food were of no use when they were just dead weight. Oh, and it was cumbersome when we had one more child to carry.”

On the 10th day of their walk to safety in Vanni, they waded through a muddy river to reach Ottisuttan. The shells were still falling, making big, hot splashes. No one was screaming anymore. Few were even talking. Everyone was tired, walking towards an unknown haven like zombies. Ahead of the long stream of bobbing heads, Siva saw a toddler fall down every few minutes, inadvertently breathing in and swallowing large gulps of the dirty river. His mother was already holding three babies, and the child had no choice but to feebly hang on to the trailing end of her sari. Later in the refugee camp, when Siva would see the boy being treated for his tiny lungs, poisoned by the inhaled gunpowder, blood and rotten flesh, he would feel like he was watching a scene on TV. After 10 damp, gruelling, fearsome days, he was inured to the death and desolation that surrounded him. He was carrying his daughter on his shoulders, and his pregnant wife and newborn son were some 100 metres away. His family was all he had. He didn’t want to help anyone else.

It took Siva and his family 16 days to reach the army-patrolled road, which was really just an avenue of sludge. At least 50,000 dirty, drenched people were dragging their feet, bags and last shreds of optimism through it. One man dropped his basket of chickens. Before he could bend to retrieve them, some five grubby hands snatched the birds away. “We have become animals,” Latha said, as they slid into the human chain. “At this rate, we are going to end up eating each other soon.”

Siva touched the shoulder of an elderly man walking by him. “Aiyya, where exactly are they taking us?”

“You don’t know?” the man asked.

You don’t know?” Siva threw back.

ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP PHOTO


Injured civilian Tamils receive treatment at a makeshift hospital inside a camp complex in the northern Sri Lankan district of Vavuniya in July 2009, two months after the civil war ended.

The man shrugged. “No one is telling us anything.” He lifted his grubby white shirt smeared with mud and what looked like snot. Near the knot of his lungi, a small transistor black radio pressed against his wrinkly skin. “We can try BBC radio whenever it catches a signal,” he said.

Throughout the last phase of the war, the BBC Tamilosai broadcast, thanks to its shortwave frequency, was the only source of information for tens of thousands of Tamils lost in the labyrinthine battleground in northern Sri Lanka. It had also prevented Siva from making “the world’s worst decision”.

The Sri Lankan Army was announcing over loudspeakers across the Mullaitivu district that Tamil civilians should go to Devipuram, a ‘No Fire Zone’. “Tamil makkale (people), you will be safe in Devipuram,” the voice repeated over and over in a Tamil thickly accented with Sinhala. “There are no bombs there, no shooting. We will give you food. Come to us, come to us. Move towards Devipuram. Move!” The Tamils had by then sensed that this war was different from the others they had been through. Fewer Tigers seemed to be around in uniform, and the longer the fighting went on, the more army there seemed to be. They sensed defeat. They had begun to trust whoever was there to give instructions.

As hundreds of families changed direction and made for Devipuram, the old man with the radio flagged Siva down. Devipuram was being attacked. Hundreds—the BBC’s source couldn’t confirm the exact figure—could be dead.

“Why would the army send us there then?!” yelled Siva. Latha started to cry.

Thambi, the Iyakkam [LTTE] doesn’t care about us anymore,” replied the radio man. “You think the army will?”

Continue to part two of this report.


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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.