It has been an eventful journey into a
country that was ruled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam until just four
years ago. There is no sign of that in northern Sri Lanka today, but there are
many reminders in the flattened towns and villages and especially, among the
people who survived the civil war. Everyone has a story to tell, of loss,
courage, and the struggle to return to normal after a bitter civil war that
laid waste much of the north.
An estimated 90,000 people were killed in the quarter century that it lasted. Over a million were internally displaced. Thousands of women have been left without caregivers—their fathers dead in the war, their husbands either killed or reported missing but with no hope of ever finding out what happened to them. Still, life goes on, and people continue to hope and to rebuild.
At Killinochchi (former headquarters of the LTTE), I meet Vijayalakshmi, who was witness to the last days of the war when some of the most fierce fighting took place. In that uncertain time, she had pinned some money on to the clothes of her twin boys, in the hope that it would help them to survive a few days if she killed. No one could be sure they would be alive even an hour later, she said.
Vijayalakshmi mentions a neighbour who fled with her two sons. While they were running for their lives, the elder one was hit by a shell and died. It was an agonising decision but she chose to let her dead boy lie there and take the other to safety. But her younger son refused to move until he had buried his brother in the sand.
As I take the bus to Mullaitheevu district from the A9 highway, I can see that almost half the army units deployed during my last trip in 2010 have gone. Residents talk about their desperation and the starvation in the last days of the war. Selvam, a farmer, recalls with tears how mothers would pick out spilled grain on the road in a vain effort to cook a meal for their children.
As I reach Pudukkudiyirrippu junction, I see a lot of Sinhalese tourists along the army canteen waiting for a bus to visit Prabakaran’s house/ bunker. It is around 3 km from the junction and you see hardly anybody moving along the Odusuddan road that leads to his house.
His bunker is well inside the jungle, and is now the main tourist attraction for Sri Lankan tourists from the south. The dwelling has four storeys. A Tamil friend accompanying me from the junction, a native of Pudukudiyirrippu, insisted that I should visit the war museum, a few miles away. A Sea Tiger gunboat, armoured vehicles, a submarine and various types of guns seek the attention of tourists. I returned to the mall area of Pudukkudiyirrippu to meet people. Many of them are busy building improvised ceilings to houses damaged in the fighting.
Vasantha (name changed) claims her house had more than a dozen coconut trees before 2009. Now it resembles a graveyard. It was her first day back at her native place, She was recently given permission by the army to occupy her house after de-mining. She’d been staying in the Manik Farm refugee camp, believed to be one of the largest in the world. She lost her niece and elder brother in the war.
As I walk down the Mullaitheevu highway, I meet another family settling down. A cluster bomb took Jesudas’s right arm, his mother’s right leg and his father’s life. His major worry, despite the grievous losses he has suffered, is the future of his two elder sisters.
At Mullaivaikal, where the final standoff took place, Amala lost her entire family. Teenaged Amala saw eight of them die in front of her from one shell that fell into their bunker. She now lives with her sister at Maankulam.
For the past three years she has been waiting for surgery as she can’t sit like a normal person because of injuries during the shelling. To make matters worse, an army unit is camped near her house, grabbing the well and the toilet. She is on the official list of those rehabilitated by the government, but her condition still requires treatment.
The Tamils recall a time not long back when they had known no poverty, no mass hunger that is often the typical scene in Third World nations. Sri Lankan Tamil culture celebrates prosperity. It is not rare to find idols of Kamadhenu, the mythological cow that symbolises prosperity.
Global attention has been on Sri Lanka ever since the censure vote in the UNHRC. The story of Sri Lanka’s Tamils today, however, has not really been told in depth.
LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakarn’s bunker.
A young mother walks past the ruins at Pudukkudiyirippu on the first day of her resettlement.
A village church near Malligatheevu, Pudukkudiyirippu.
An auditorium that once belonged to a school in Pudukkudiyirippu.
Jesudas’s right arm was blown away by a cluster bomb. His mother lost her right leg, and his father was killed in the bombing. Here Jesudas is seen with his elder sister inside their tent at Pudukkudiyirippu.
Srirathi looks for a place to hang her son’s photograph. She lost her son in a bombing. She buried him near a tree before running for her life.
A kidney patient being helped by family members.
A displaced family in Jaffna district.
Prabhakarn’s home and bunker are now a tourist attraction for visitors from south Sri Lanka.
A woman inspects what is left of her house after the bombing. It’s her first day back since 2009.
A resettled family at Udairkattu.