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Monday, September 27, 2021

The Big Picture: Sri Lanka’s Forever War

As a new president takes over in the island country, the Tamils in the north hope things will change.

Written by Arun Janardhanan |
Updated: January 18, 2015 10:40:08 am
The army on the streets of Colombo. But it’s in the troubled Northern province that the army is a constant presence. (Express photo by:  Arun Janardhanan) The army on the streets of Colombo. But it’s in the troubled Northern province that the army is a constant presence. (Express photo by: Arun Janardhanan)

As a new president takes over in the island country, the Tamils in the north, once the bastion of the LTTE and the theatre of the civil war that was crushed in May 2009, hope things will change. Can a new order heal old wounds? Text and photographs by Arun Janardhanan.

One country, two people.

‘The war may have ended but it’s scary’

A week after Maithripala Sirisena took over as president of Sri Lanka, a group of friends, mostly Tamils who live abroad, decided to drive down 358 km from capital Colombo in the south to Jaffna in the north. With their country having democratically overthrown Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man many see as having crushed the civil war with brute force, the journey was high on symbolism and the men in high spirits. This new political start, they hoped, would finally reunite their country that had been torn apart by the war and its aftermath. But at the Omandhai army checkpost, 50 km from Jaffna, they were asked to show their ‘defence clearance letters’. The group had none and they were sent back to Colombo. “Nothing has changed,” says Ravindran, who was part of this group and who only gave his first name. “The only difference I could spot in the army was that they had probably started smiling at people.”

Five years after the war, Sri Lanka continues to be two countries in one: the Tamil-majority north, once the bastion of the LTTE and whose towns and villages bear indelible scars of the war, and the rest of the country that’s Sinhala-majority, known for its sunny beaches untouched by the bloodbath of the north. Like Ravindran and his friends found out, it’s not easy moving from one part of the country to the other. If he had to do so, he should have, like many others, waited in queue at the headquarters of the defence ministry in Colombo and got what is popularly called ‘Jaffna Clearance’ before driving down the silky smooth highway that leads from Colombo and many other cities in the south to the north.

The Rajapaksa regime had flaunted the infrastructure in the north — there are multi-lane highways connecting it to the south and the railway route between Jaffna and Colombo was reopened in October 2014 — as proof of its reconciliation efforts. But not everyone’s impressed.

“What good are these roads,” asks Chandraleela, a resident of Mullaithivu, a strip of a town in the north, who works for war-affected families. “They are good only for the army to run their trucks. People here have nowhere to go. You won’t find a single factory here in the north. The only jobs here are fishing and farming, but people can’t even do that. The navy intimidates traditional Tamil fishermen and stops people from farming along the coastline, so most of them are forced to do menial jobs. And then, there is constant surveillance by the army and the CID. They watch everything — where you go, the conversations you have, the people you meet. The war may have ended but it’s scary,” she says.

K Sarweswaran, a provincial council member in Jaffna who was earlier a political science professor at the University of Colombo, says five years is too little time for wounds to heal. He says, “About 1,46,000 people are still missing from the northern areas of Mannar, Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi. They used all kinds of deadly weapons and bombs to wipe out the Tamil population during the last leg of the war. Over 30,000 people were herded and cornered in a 4-sq km area at Mullivakkal in Mullaithivu district where they were killed or buried alive. It’s not easy to move on.”

It isn’t, especially when the army is such a strong presence in the north — they are at every key junction and on main roads. And if you don’t see them, it’s because they are in plain clothes.

Sarweswaran says that of the 20 army divisions in Sri Lanka, 15 are in the Northern Province, while three others are in Eastern and two in the Sinhalese-majority Southern Province. Reacting to Sirisena’s statement in The Indian Express that his government will not withdraw the army from the Northern Province, he says, “Over 25,000 acres in Mullaithivu and at least 25 villages in Jaffna’s Palali are occupied by the army.”

Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, a former member of parliament and leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, says, “The army has taken over everything here. They even do farming and compete with the locals. They sell their vegetables at Thinnaveli market in Jaffna at cheap rates. Then, they stop fishermen from farming near coastal areas and persuade them to flee to Australia in boats. All this is to make sure the Tamils are thrown out of their own country and the demographics of the north changes,” says Ponnambalam, the son of Kumar Ponnambalam, a defence lawyer and human rights activist who was killed in Colombo by unknown people in 2000.

Known Tamil hardliners such as Ponnambalam and Anandhi Sasidharan continue to talk about the “meaninglessness in voting for authoritarian Sinhala leaders”. Ponnambalam says the decision of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of Tamil parties which rules the Northern Provincial Council, to support Sarath Fonseka, “an army commander who killed our people”, in the 2010 elections, and the vote for Sirisena, “the then defence minister who ordered the massacre”, in the 2015 elections, had destroyed the morale of Tamils. “This political narrative is going to be detrimental to Tamils in the long run,” he says.

Sarweswaran, the Jaffna provincial council member, drips sarcasm when he says, “The president of Sri Lanka is the most powerful president in the world. Even the impeachment of the president is a long difficult process and you are not even allowed to file a suit against the president. Our president is beyond the constitution and law.”

Scarred for life

‘They asked me to join LTTE, I never did’

Gangadharan Mathivadani with her children and father. Her husband was killed and daughter paralysed in the bomb attacks on Mullaithivu. (Express photo by:  Arun Janardhanan) Gangadharan Mathivadani with her children and father. Her husband was killed and daughter paralysed in the bomb attacks on Mullaithivu. (Express photo by: Arun Janardhanan)

It must have been around 11 in the morning, recalls Gangadharan Mathivadani, when she heard the plane in the distance. Minutes later, the air force plane was right over their house in Puthukudiyiruppu, a small settlement near Mullaithivu, raining shells. One struck her husband, killing him on the spot, while another struck her seven-year-old daughter Bhavatharini. “Doctors say the shell pieces damaged her spine. She is paralysed waist down,” says Mathivadani at their house in Mullaithivu.

Bhavatharani, a painfully shy 12-year-old, sits on a wheelchair, hanging on to her mother’s every word. A tutor now comes home to help her with her Class VII books.

When the army shelling on Mullaithivu had intensified towards the end of 2008, Mathivadani, who was pregnant with her third child, had left with her husband, her parents and their two children to a relative’s house near Puthukudiyiruppu hospital. That’s where the bombs struck on February 4, 2009.

“I had to keep my husband’s body for two days before I could bury him. I was busy doing what I could for Bhavatharini. She was taken to a hospital. Almost a week later, on February 12, volunteers from the Red Cross took us in a boat to Trincomalee. Though I was heavily pregnant, I carried Bhavatharini in my arms throughout that night on the boat. I ran out of painkillers to give my daughter and she cried all night,” says Mathivadani.

Her 85-year-old father Mahalingam, a school teacher at Mullaithivu, says he always kept a distance from war and weapons, but they turned around to wreck his daughter’s life. “Many of my students were LTTE sympathisers. They would ask me to join the outfit, but I never did,” says Mahalingam.

His granddaughter Bhavatharini is among hundreds of children who were maimed in the final months by a war machine that simply pummelled anyone in its path — young or old, sympathisers or those neutral like Mahalingam. In a war with few witnesses, there are no definite numbers of the dead and injured, except figures that talk of “tens of thousands killed”. There are stories of how doctors in makeshift hospitals were forced to amputate children’s legs without anaesthetic. Human rights’ groups said there had been at least 35 attacks on hospitals in those months. According to Suresh Premachandran, a TNA MP representing Jaffna in the Sri Lankan parliament, “Government data shows 1,700 people were completely paralysed.”

Surrendered, then missing

‘Tamils have voted for another Rajapaksa’

On the morning of May 18, 2009, two days after the Lankan army declared an end to the war, Anandhi Sasitharan’s husband Elilan sat in one of three buses packed with men, women and children. That’s the last Anandhi saw of Elilan, an LTTE ‘leader’. Defeated and demoralised after a crushing end to their dream of a Tamil Eelam, they knew that the only way to survive was to turn themselves in.

“It was Father Francis Joseph, a former principal of St Patrick’s College in Jaffna, who took him and the others. Fr. Joseph knew Sinhalese and English and considering his influence on both sides, the mediating agencies had got him to facilitate the surrender of the LTTE leaders. They went in three buses. There has been no news of them ever since. The army simply said they didn’t know,” says Anandhi, now a councillor of the Northern Provincial government.

General Sarath Fonseka, who headed the army in the final days of the war and who resigned towards the end of 2009 to fight the 2010 elections against Rajapaksa, alleged that many of the LTTE leaders who surrendered had been shot and killed on the orders of the country’s defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Anandhi says after her husband went missing, there were many people who called her to say they had spotted him at the Batticaloa army detention centre. “But we have no access to these places. Two years ago, the government admitted in the UN that they would release the names of people in these secret cells. Nothing came of that. These detention centres must all be probed,” says Anandhi, who lives with her three daughters in Jaffna.

She says that while her politics makes her feel empowered, there are hundreds of women whose husbands are either missing or dead and who get harassed by the military. “There have been at least two cases of rape registered with the police. Many others went unreported,” she says.

Anandhi had strongly protested when the TNA decided to vote for Sirisena. “Tamils have voted for another Rajapaksa. Where is the difference?” she asks.

The internally displaced 

‘I still have my land papers. I want to go back’

The Palali High Security Zone at Valigamam where the army has built a golf course, a five-star hotel and presidential bungalows. The Palali High Security Zone at Valigamam where the army has built a golf course, a five-star hotel and presidential bungalows.

An asbestos sheet with a hole is what divides Vinasi Manickiam’s home from that of her neighbour. Manickiam has been living here, in one of the 150-odd shanties at Valigamam, a wooded area in the north-western edge of the Jaffna peninsula, for the last 25 years, ever since the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) evicted her family from their house and land in Chayyatti near Valigamam. The Valigamam settlement is one of 34 centres that house 4,800 internally displaced families in the Northern Province. While some of Manickiam’s neighbours came with her, others said they were brought here at the height of the war.

The army occupies the land where Vinasi Manickiam’s house once stood, she can no longer go there. The army occupies the land where Vinasi Manickiam’s house once stood, she can no longer go there.

Manickiam’s daughter Jorani was 20 when they left their house in Chayyatti; she is now 50. But Manickiam still longs for the house she left years ago. “We lost our land and had to shift to this jungle when the IPKF came. I still have all the documents for that land. I wish I could go back,” she says wistfully.

But she knows there’s no way she can. Manickiam has kept track of the major upheavals the country has gone through — the IPKF long left; instead, it’s the army that now occupies over 6,000 acres of land in Valigamam that once belonged to people such as Manickiam. The area now goes by the name ‘Palali High Security Zone’, where the army has built a golf course, a five-star hotel, presidential bungalows and other army installations.

settlementthe Valigamam settlement is one of 34 centres that house 4,800 internally displaced families in the Northern Province. the Valigamam settlement is one of 34 centres that house 4,800 internally displaced families in the Northern Province.

Nobody can hope to get past the army here, not even the Chief Minister of the province. A day before the election results, C V Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, told The Sunday Express: “At many places in Valigamam, the army insisted that I, the Chief Minister, should get a clearance from the defence ministry. A clearance to visit my people?”

The missing children

‘Will Sirisena bring my daughter back?’

In Mullaithivu, there are many women like Natarasarasa Sulosana (below) and Kathir Kamaneethar Padmambika whose children were taken by LTTE. In Mullaithivu, there are many women like Natarasarasa Sulosana whose children were taken by LTTE.

“Can someone bring my daughter back? It doesn’t matter if she has lost a limb or turned insane,” says Natarasarasa Sulosana, 55. Her daughter Dharanya, 18, was in her first year of college when the LTTE took her away.

“It was around midnight that they came and knocked on the door. They had no weapons, but were in LTTE uniforms. They asked us for one child. There were families who had hidden their children. We hadn’t, and had no time to save her. They simply put Dharanya on their shoulders and walked off. She was crying loudly,” says Sulosana, holding a plastic bag that has Dharanya’s photograph.

Kathir Kamaneethar Padmambika's children were taken by LTTE. Kathir Kamaneethar Padmambika’s children were taken by LTTE.

That was on September 23, 2008, in the last few months of the war. The LTTE, fighting with its back to the wall, had issued a diktat that every family in areas under its control should give up one of their children to fight for an independent Eelam or State. As the war peaked before the bloody climax in May 2009, many children and youngsters such as Dharanya were abducted by the LTTE and later allegedly either killed or arrested by the army. In Mulliyawalai, a small town near Mullaithivu in the Northern Province, mothers like Sulosana continue to wait for their children to return, in the steadfast belief that they are alive — somewhere in the army detention centres in the forests of Anuradhapura, Trincomalee or many such secret locations.

With Dharanya gone, Sulosana, her husband Nataraja and their younger daughter Dhanuja fled their village towards the end of 2008. They first went to Puthukudiyiruppu, a small town known for the bunker complex of LTTE leader V Prabhakaran, and then kept moving till they got back to their house in Mulliyawalai. While in Puthukudiyiruppu, Sulosana suffered severe injuries when the army shelled the house they were in. “I was in hospital for more than six months after the war and then another two years in a refugee centre in Vanni district,” she says, holding up her left palm that’s twisted out of shape.

It was during their days in the Vanni relief camp that they heard of their missing daughter. “One of our relatives told me he had spotted Dharanya at an army detention centre near Mannar. He said Dharanya had asked after us and wanted us to know she was alive. When we got to the detention camp, army officers made us wait and finally told us she was in hospital. They didn’t tell us which hospital or what had happened to her. They sent us back and didn’t let us enter ever again,” says Sulosana.

Suresh Premachandran, a Tamil National Alliance MP representing Jaffna in the Lankan parliament, says more than 20,000 women had submitted petitions before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up in the aftermath of the war, reporting that their loved ones had gone missing.

Many like Sulosana wait for some kind of closure. “We still wait for Dharanya because we have not been told by the army or the government that she is dead,” she says, before suddenly perking up. “My daughter must be 24 years old now. She was very good in English. She was always against the war. Will Sirisena bring her back?”

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