Not without my memories

A diary with pages of the past, a carefully wrapped family photograph, a bicycle that has seen better days. What do people take when conflict pushes them out of their homes?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Published:November 27, 2016 12:00 am
indian army, pakistan, surgical strikes, syria conflict, sri lanka, jaffna, sri lankan tamils, displacement, india news, eye story, indian express The things they left behind: After battling the elements on the crossing from Turkey, migrants arrive on the northern shore of Lesbos Island, Greece in October, 2015. This image by Tyler Hicks of The New York Times won him the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, along with three others. The Pulitzer committee said their photographs captured the resolve of refugees, the perils of their journeys and the struggle of host countries to take them in.

WHAT do people carry when they have to leave their homes abruptly for uncertain futures and potentially impossible returns? What do they choose that will remind them of the land they left behind, the community that will be never be one again? As they rummage through their belongings and take a long, last look at their homes, what do they hold on to for a sense of continuity and belonging in a new, and often unwelcoming, environment? In a year marked by conflict and displacement, the old question throws up new answers.

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WHEN the gurdwara loudspeaker started up with a whine and a squeak, the last thing the people of Rajaoke in Punjab expected to hear was an order from the government to leave their homes. It was about 2 pm on September 29, and rumours had been flying since the Indian army announced it had done a “surgical strike” across the LoC.
Rajaoke is a kilometre from the double-row barbed wire fencing. At night, the sodium vapour glow from BSF’s Mangli border post hung like mist over Rajaoke’s fields, thousand acres of which lay between the fence and the border.

The paddy was ripening on the stalk and the harvest was days away. People in the village, in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district, were reluctant to leave their homes and stay in camps 10 km away, but then the past came flooding back. For some, it brought back memories of Partition, for others, of the 2001 troop mobilisation. In those first jumbled-up hours, most families decided their plan of action: women, children and married men would leave first; the oldest person would stay behind to feed the cows and the buffaloes, and, to keep an eye on the house; depending on the situation, the men would return the next morning to tend to the fields.

The next hours were spent deciding what to take. “One family even took their buffaloes. They had a time loading them onto the trolley,” says Kulwant Singh, a 51-year-old farmer, with a short laugh.

Over the last two months, the possibility of being displaced has come to haunt communities living along the line where India and Pakistan meet. Since 2003, when both India and Pakistan began observing a ceasefire, those living in the small villages and hamlets on the international border and the LoC, had dared to hope that their lives had finally changed for the better. They built houses of concrete, painted them in bright colours, began businesses, or threw themselves into the fields they could not tend to before the ceasefire, in anticipation of a permanent peace.

Even though violations of this unwritten ceasefire began way back in 2008, it seriously began to fray over the last two years. But it is only this year, especially over the last two months, that the intensity of the confrontation has rewound life back to the pre-2003 years for the lakhs of people living on a border that has gone from being warm to too hot in just a few weeks.

In Rajaoke, Kulwant and his brother Jiaoun had stayed back with their wives and two other men from the extended family, while their sons and daughters-in-law and their grandchildren had all left over a month ago. They took with them only a couple of changes of clothes. Everything else in the one-storeyed home was left intact, including a long row of gleaming brass tumblers lined on the top shelf of the kitchen like soldiers lined up on the front, plates on the shelf below, and cooking utensils on the next shelf.

“Take anything you want,” Kulwant said, as we sat talking in the home’s vast courtyard the next night, “but can you take your land or your homes?”

A few houses away, 60-year-old Sukhwinder Singh had the same question, in the converse. In his courtyard, stood a tractor. Arranged in the attached trolley were huge metal trunks and several suitcases. The family had decided it would not leave “until the first shells fall”, as Sukhwinder put it, but they would keep their belongings packed and ready in case a quick exit became necessary.

Each room in the five-roomed house was furnished with a bed, an old fridge and a television. “If we have to leave, we will be leaving all these behind, taking only our clothes and rations, and some bedding. What are these possessions,” he said, “compared to the acres of fields that we will be leaving behind?”

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When Syrians began fleeing their war-torn country five years after the conflict in their country worsened, making hazardous trips to an uncertain fate in Europe, most people travelled light. Those with heavier bags had to dump them in the sea to prevent their boat from capsizing.

Efforts by journalists as well as NGOs to document the belongings that Syrian refugees carried into their new lives showed the urgency of departure, aspirations for the future and the life they were leaving behind. Their rucksacks contained travel documents such as passports; medicines; a life jacket — an acknowledgement of the dangers of the journey; a couple of lemons to keep seasickness and nausea at bay; one change of clothes, and, perhaps, something personal, such as a carefully plastic-wrapped and cellophaned family photograph, a chain with a pendant or a watch that a loved one had gifted.

Displacement due to conflict has been a predominant theme of 2015 and 2016. Earlier this year, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that by the end of 2015, more than 65 million people were displaced due to war or disaster.

Syria alone accounts for 11 million displaced people, internally as well as across the country’s borders. Afghan refugees are an estimated 2.7 million. The UN estimates that every 113rd person in the world is a refugee or an internally displaced person. Longer lasting wars, the re-ignition of old conflicts and newer ones are among the reasons why the number of displaced people has been steadily growing.

In their resolute march into the unknown future, Syrians are holding on to wisps of their past. A Mercy Corps project found that the most precious possession with one 14-year-old girl was her father’s carpentry notebooks. Another teenager had taken along a musical greeting card her best friend had gifted her. The friend had been killed in the war two days after the birthday. A 20-year-old woman brought her toy teddy bears with her.

Photojournalist Sima Diab, who asked four people to open their bags for a memorable photo essay in The Guardian, found the barest minimum: painkillers, a bottle of water, a jacket to keep warm, passport, a packet of dates and a life jacket. One person even carried a laser torch with which to catch the attention of rescuers in case of a disaster at sea, a real possibility on that journey.

Nearer home, stories from Partition are replete with how women carried their gold ornaments, knowing that if they managed to cross safely, this would help secure them against the uncertainties of new beginnings.

Conversely, what people leave behind also speaks of their hopes of return. How many Partition stories have been told of money and gold buried under a stone of a house hastily abandoned, to be dug up when the family returned. Or, of house keys left behind with neighbours, with requests to keep an eye on their property until they came back.

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The vans and tractor trolleys on the roads of Punjab, loaded with steel trunks, almirahs, suitcases, pots and pans, take me back to an era in northern Sri Lanka. Displacement had become so commonplace through the 1990s and 2000s that it was not unusual to find families that had been dislocated four or five times in a short span of five to seven years.

Sri Lankan Tamils can still vividly recall the “exodus” — the 1995 evacuation of Jaffna forced on 500,000 people living in the peninsula by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when it became clear that the government forces would capture it. It was possibly the single largest movement of people in South Asia since the 1971 march of the refugees from what was then East Pakistan to India. In under two weeks, the Tigers made sure that Sri Lanka’s victorious march into the putative capital of the Tamil Eelam would be an empty symbol. Everyone left.

The first announcement asking people to leave came on October 30. Last week, in the 21th anniversary of her departure from her home, Jaffna resident Padmini Karunakaran recalled how, at first, she resisted leaving. Her husband, who worked in the Sri Lankan electricity department, was posted in a town near Colombo; their three children, the youngest only five years old, were living with her; her ageing mother said she would not leave. “Plus, we had no place to go,” says Karunakaran. But on November 13, a squad of Tigers came around and said they had to leave. By then, the Sri Lankan military had begun shelling the town. “We left our house with three sets of clothes each,” she recollects.

Apart from clothes and national ID cards, the only other thing from Karunakaran’s house that went with them was her 17-year-old son’s bicycle. “He rode it all the way. Lots of men were cycling, and he joined them,” she says. From Jaffna, as directed by the Tigers, they first went south to Chavakachcheri, where people were living and sleeping in the open. Karunakaran then decided to take her family to Point Pedro, where they lived in a church, and later found a room.

By the time Karunakaran returned to army-controlled Jaffna six months later, her house was destroyed, and everything that they had left behind looted. The house was gradually repaired. Jaffna did not see much fighting thereafter, except for a small phase in 2000, and the family continues to live there. “That bicycle is still with us. My husband rides it quite a lot,” says Karunakaran.

Sri Lankan anthropologist E Valentine Daniel has written about how displacement has affected the Tamil’s relationship with ur — which is both home, and homeland, but much more than that too, encompassing everything that goes into a person’s identity and the idea of self — and how the shattering of this relationship has been one of the lasting legacies of the Sri Lankan war on the Tamil community.

Daniel described the experience of displacement among Sri Lankan diaspora as the constant “presence of absence”of the ur. Possessions taken from the ur into displacement connect to it, and reiterate its absence, in the same way as the memory of what had to be left behind. In Jaffna, during the 1995 exodus, many left behind their dogs. The distraught animals wandered around for days in search of their families and food. Some families returned only to fetch their pets.

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Unlike the Tamils, the Muslims of Jaffna peninsula, estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000, and who were ordered to leave overnight by the Tigers five years before the exodus, in October 1990, are yet to return. Before this eviction, the Muslims thought of themselves as Tamils, but now, they think of themselves as a separate ethnic group in Sri Lanka, though Tamil is their language. The LTTE barred them from taking any of their belongings except their clothes. At LTTE checkpoints out of Jaffna, before the fleeing families crossed over to the mainland, they were frisked by cadres, their jewellery removed and confiscated. Ever since, amidst their efforts to settle down in other places in Sri Lanka and build new lives, their longing to return and what they had left behind was a constant. But their disruption with the ur — in its entirety — has been the severest of all Sri Lankan communities. Even today, more than eight years after the war ended, only about 600 families have been able to go back.

The Jaffna Muslim’s abrupt severance from home and homeland was, in many ways, similar in its suddenness and near permanence, to the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley. The two events happened in the same year, at opposite ends of South Asia, separated only by a few months.

Vimal Sumbly, a journalist-turned Congress activist in Punjab, remembers leaving Kashmir in 1990 with his sister and an uncle, with just a suitcase of clothes. He was 19 and she, 23. Their parents followed a few weeks later. “No one thought it was the last time. We were expecting to return,” says Sumbly. But, he said, what his father remembered to take along was his radio, on which the family listened to the news every night. In 2015, Sumbly returned to Sumbal, 25 kms from Srinagar. “The place had changed so much that I found it difficult to locate it,” he says. When he finally found it, he saw it was close to collapse.

Kuldeep Koul, who has a business in handicrafts in Jammu, also left his home in Srinagar with his family in January 1990. He was 30 then. All he could take with him was an airbag with clothes, academic certificates and property documents. “At that time, we did not think it was permanent,” says Koul. He went back only once, but did not check out the three-storeyed home in Rajbagh area. “We came to know that it crumbled in the floods in 2014,” he says.

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In the first week of October, as shelling intensified, residents of villages along the LoC in Poonch, that stood in the direct line of fire, sensed danger but were reluctant to leave. Everywhere, people asked: “Where will we go? Everything we have is here”.

In this hotspot of the world, where two hostile nations meet and have limitless capacity to destroy each other, construction, paradoxically, is the biggest economic activity: concrete mixers churning away relentlessly on narrow roads, bricks getting unloaded from trucks, iron rods being transported from stores to sites, workers beavering away. Hope, as they say, is everything.