Reportage

The Defeated

By ANONYMOUS | 1 February 2012
LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP PHOTO

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.

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.

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 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.

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?”

The radio man told them about his 18-year-old daughter, Vinoda, who he thought was stuck somewhere in Puthukkudiyiruppu, unable to join the rest of his family. Vinoda was one of the over 5,100 people the Tigers were holding as human shields. The army and navy had taken over the island’s entire coastline for the first time in decades, cutting off any escape route by sea. A thinning group of Tigers was cornered in a two sq km area. They built high bunds around the area, lit circles of fire along the perimeter and forcefully held thousands of terrified civilians, hoping the army would hold its fire. They didn’t. Shells continued to fall over thousands of civilian hostages. One night, Vinoda’s husband, panicking and losing his mind, decided to make a run for it. When he tried to break through the bunds with some 20 others, the LTTE shot them all. Later, when Vinoda was reunited with her father at a camp for the internally displaced, she would tell him that when the army finally rescued her, she saw charred bodies lying along the periphery of the battle zone.

As night fell, Siva found a temple for his family and the radio man to sleep in. Just as they lay down, a couple of young LTTE fighters ran in. Stripping down to their underwear, they dug a shallow pit in the mud, and dumped their weapons, green uniforms and cyanide capsules into it. Then they grabbed Siva’s extra lungis and ran out. They were trying to blend in as civilians. Being unarmed and vulnerable was the only way they would be safe.

Siva thought about how he had once felt protected by the ‘boys’, who had for the past three decades appointed themselves the sole leaders of 2.5 million Sri Lankan Tamils. Now, he felt, being a government ration shop clerk had probably been the safest identity he could have had.

SWARNA HAD FALLEN ASLEEP ON THE TREE, and woke up coughing furiously. Remembering where she was with a start, she slapped both her hands over her mouth. It was eerily quiet; in the past five months of the escalating last conflict, mornings had come unceremoniously, without even the chirping of birds. Below her, the carnage was over. Five naked girls, their bodies twisted in the last moments of struggle, lay still on the ground. Where were the others? Where had they gone? They didn’t even know how to get around the dense forests without her.

Swarna pressed her throbbing knee. Her old injuries, the ones that had dragged her out of the war and into family life, seemed to be burning again.

Swarna’s had been the first wedding in Vanni after the 2004 tsunami. She’d met her husband while lying injured in a battle in Mannar. A missile shard had hit her square in the abdomen, and after running through bramble for an hour, she had collapsed from excessive bleeding. A combatant who happened to pass by lifted the half-unconscious Swarna, threw her on his left shoulder, and continued to run, still shooting with his right hand. “I was hurting, but I was embarrassed … My clothes were fully torn from here to here,” Swarna says, her finger making a straight line from her stomach to her inner thigh.

When she came to the Mullaitivu Base Hospital, Swarna found a man lying in a stretcher next to her. His shoulder was in a cast, and almost his entire body was punctured by tiny shrapnel. The doctors told her it was he who had saved her life.

When no one was around, Swarna asked him his name. “Deepan,” he replied, giving her his LTTE name.

When they were discharged from the hospital, Deepan and Swarna were declared unfit for battle. She was transferred to the LTTE’s films division, while he was made a jeep driver. In a few months, they decided to get married.

The wedding was held in Pudukkudiyiruppu, in early 2005. Swarna was a Hindu and Deepan a Catholic, but after they joined the Tigers, they had forsaken religion and any faith in god. They came to their wedding ceremony in fatigues, and in place of a mangalsutra or a ring, Deepan tied a thick yellow thread with a golden Tiger-tooth pendant around Swarna’s neck. This was followed by a satyapramanam, an oath. “Even though we’re married,” they vowed, “we will place our nation, our Tamil soil, our Tamil people above each other. We will pick the gun over any birthday, family function, or consideration of love and kinship.” It was an oath every Tiger man and woman had to take if they chose to marry while serving in the LTTE.

At the LTTE’s inception, Prabhakaran had banned marriage, relationships and sexual activity among the cadres. It was part of a rigid disciplinary code for combatants, which included bans on smoking, drinking and gambling. Believing that lust would distract combatants from the call of duty, and that family life would make them selfish, Prabhakaran ruthlessly enforced celibacy. He is known to have defamed, excommunicated, and even murdered those who strayed from his diktat. One of those who he allegedly killed was a dear friend and cofounder of the LTTE.

Soon, however, Prabhakaran himself fell in love. Several versions of the story of his first love exist, all told with varying degrees of glee and irony, but always in a guilty whisper, as if even after his death, talking about his personal life would reduce Prabhakaran’s carefully constructed larger-than-life persona. According to one story, a pretty young girl came to the leader’s attention through a newspaper report. She was on a hunger strike to protest the killings of hundreds of Tamils by the Sri Lankan Army, and Prabhakaran sent his close friends to find out more. Eventually, he decided to meet the girl in person. He ended her weeklong hunger strike with a glass of juice, and then, struck by her dedication to the Tamil cause, asked for her hand.

Another theory had it that the girl had accused Prabhakaran of not caring enough about his cadre, and letting them die like cattle without so much as an apology for their martyrdom. She is said to have challenged the LTTE leader to stop her from fasting unto death. Prabhakaran is said to have abducted her to silence her accusations, but when tongues started wagging about the leader living with a girl, Prabhakaran announced a wedding.

Whatever the version, soon after his own wedding, Prabhakaran revoked the anti-sex and anti-marriage rule. It was a big relief for several clandestine lovers in the LTTE, but the stigma, as Swarna realised when she tried in vain for several postmarital years to become a Black Tiger, seemed to have remained. A married woman would always be suspected of infidelity, of loving more than just Tamil Eelam. She would be considered weaker, unless she proved otherwise.

In the ‘last war’, Swarna was appointed navigator and cameraperson. She had not been in a battle for years; her hair had grown long, and she felt unfit. Still, a month before she would find herself hiding up a tree, she had been put in charge of a group of girls between nine and 13 years old. Within a minute of meeting the group, Swarna smelt their fear. The girls didn’t want to be there, and it was written all over their faces.

Swarna, her younger brother, father, and husband had all joined the Tigers voluntarily. They’d undergone intense training before they were sent off to fight with their platoons and stayed in quarters built specifically for troops. Swarna sent her two sons to LTTE-run crèches where they were fed and cared for when she went to war. As she puts it, “The LTTE made everything so comfortable for you that you felt ashamed if you didn’t go out there and fight for them with all your heart.” There was, in a sense, at least an illusion of voluntarism.

From 2006, however, young boys and girls didn’t have a choice. It was the beginning of the pudikkara (catching) season, when Prabhakaran realised that his guerrilla army didn’t have enough soldiers to fight a conventional battle with the Sri Lankan Army. Children would be ‘caught’ by the LTTE—kidnapped from their homes and schools and forcefully sent to the frontlines, with barely 10 days of training. Between 2003 and 2008, the United Nations recorded 6,000 cases of recruitment of children as young as 14. Swarna clarifies that age didn’t really matter. Anyone around five feet tall, boy or girl, was dragged away.

As the ‘catching’ escalated, several families dug out bunkers under their houses, in which they hid their teenagers for years. They didn’t go to school, didn’t venture outdoors, and didn’t talk to anyone other than immediate family. One of the girls Swarna was in charge of said her 12-year-old sister got married to escape conscription. But the LTTE soon wised up. They had photographs of every family that lived in Vanni. They would crosscheck the photo with everyone in the house. If anyone, especially a youngster, was missing, they’d take a hostage.

The new recruits were tonsured and sent to training camps, and told a drone with cameras would circle overhead, watching their every move. Anyone trying to escape was either shot at immediately, or brought back to the commander, who would publicly beat them.

In March 2009, when Swarna was asked to take the new recruits to war, she felt a churning in the pit of her stomach. She was used to taking orders, even when every bone in her body rebelled. She had shot a Sinhalese soldier, barely 20, at point-blank range, as he kneeled in front of her, begged her, and showed with his hands rocking an invisible cradle that he had two babies. She had killed a friend who had defied orders and cost the Tigers an entire operation. “I can kill when I can justify it,” she says. But this, sending children to face a real army when they could barely hold a gun, didn’t seem to fit her larger cause.

The girls stood shivering in front of Swarna, their faces pale with hunger and fear. In the previous decade, they had only seen loved ones die, their older brothers leave on boats to foreign countries, and their schools shut down every few months. Their parents had ideological reasons to rebuild their community from scratch over and over again through a lifetime of war. But for them, it was an exorbitant price to pay for wars they had not chosen. These children were born to the war, but not its justifications. They did not have easy enemies and heroes. They did not see why they must fight, Swarna had thought, and it was useless to tell them.

Was this how the Tigers had been fighting in the last few months? Is this how they expected to win? With children? This was uncharacteristically inefficient, she thought, especially to face a newly strengthened Sri Lankan military that had been given orders “to finish the job”. Child guerrillas stood no chance against a conventional army that was attacking from all sides. Maybe that’s why the LTTE was retreating more than advancing. Maybe that’s why more combatants seemed to be dying.

A feeling of doom overcame her. She realised the war was long over. What was going on now was a charade, a last ditch attempt by the Tigers to remain a fighting side. Swarna swore on the Tamil soil and did as she was told. “It’s not like I could just leave and go join an office as a clerk,” she explains. “I could have thought more about it, but I couldn’t have objected. Sometimes, you do things for something you love, and you hope it will make sense later.”

But now every one of those girls was gone, raped and killed in a war they’d never understood. It did not make sense.

Swarna swung off the tree, looked at her compass, and walked eastwards. She had to find her family. On the way, she took off her chain with the tiger-tooth pendant and dumped it in a river.

ON THE 18TH DAY, Siva reached a bund, beyond which was Matalan, from where the Sri Lankan Army was taking Tamils to the rehabilitation camp. In front of them was a pile of rubber slippers that people had left before clambering up. Siva added his black pair to the pile, smiling. It felt like he was entering a temple.

He jumped down to the other side, and crossed the shallow end of the Nandi Kadal Lagoon. At the shore, a young soldier extended his hand to help him up. That was the first time Siva had ever seen a Sinhalese person up close. The boy told him to keep moving, collect his food parcel, and go to the next village, Senduranchilaiyadi. From there, a bus would take him to the Vavuniya camp.

Senduranchilaiyadi was mayhem. Instead of going to the bus, the Tamils were shoving, hollering and snatching at the potato-curry and rice packets that were being served. Some were running wildly in the mango orchard nearby, climbing the trees and slobbering through the mangoes. Biscuit packets were being given out, but people ravenously rushed at the army personnel distributing them. Overwhelmed, the soldiers began beating the Tamils, trying to get them in a queue and shove them into the bus. “We thought 2,000-3,000 people will come,” mumbled a soldier. “If all you two million come and sit on our heads, what will we do?”

Little did Siva know that entire villages had been evacuated. That about 300,000 people like him were roaming homeless, the largest number of people ever displaced in Sri Lanka. What he knew, however, was that he had already begun to reshuffle his loyalties—place his life in the hands of the army he had been bred to hate; and hate the LTTE he had looked up to, sheltered and worked for, in whose promise of Eelam he had almost lost his family.

WHEN SWARNA REACHED HER MOTHER AND SONS near Puthukkudiyiruppu, she decided it was time to take a boat to India. The asking rate was lkr60,000, but she knew the boatman, a handicapped ex-fighter. She could give him her pistol, some kerosene she had stashed somewhere, and lkr30,000. Her husband had been shot near Devipuram, and he wouldn’t survive a nightlong motorboat ride. He had decided to surrender to the army.

Yes, I should leave Sri Lanka, leave this damn place, she thought. Go first to Rameshwaram in India, and then from there to Malaysia, then maybe seek asylum in Canada. People had done it before. She should try, she resolved.

When she told her brother her decision, he was appalled. “How can you leave?” he asked. “You’ll abandon your people?”

“I have children, Guna,” said Swarna.

“You will be a traitor if you leave,” he growled at her. “If all of us leave, there will never be Tamil Eelam. All the people who died for it will have died in vain. Go, drohi! That’s what you were anyway, a traitor.”

Guilt-ridden, Swarna didn’t leave. She pretended to be a civilian, got to Matalan and took the crowded bus with her sons to the army-run Ramanathan camp in Vavuniya.

FOUR:

AFTER ABOUT FIVE DAYS IN THE CAMP, everyone learnt to answer questions quickly. If you didn’t have a specific answer, you lied. Old people made up dates of birth. Everyone said they had two acres of land in their hometown, even if they had not an inch. No one gave their combat names. Years spent in the LTTE? Two months, at most three. Yes, I was forcefully recruited. Yes, even though I am 35.

Swarna was told to teach Tamil in the makeshift school. After close to 15 years, she began wearing skirts instead of trousers. She always kept her children close. She knew it was their cute faces that kept her beyond suspicion.

Siva was asked to help serve lunch every other day. His government employee card was opening several doors. The day his baby son turned over onto his stomach, a Sri Lankan Army cadet helped to smuggle a local photographer into Siva’s tent. They draped a red sari over the sheet-tin walls, and took studio-type pictures.

On 18 May 2009, on the day Swarna was running a fever, and Siva received his son’s photo album, Prabhakaran was killed. The streets of Colombo erupted in impromptu celebrations. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced it to the world as the end of terrorism in Sri Lanka. Speaking on the government TV channel from Parliament, Rajapaksa said, “Today is a day which is very, very significant—not only to us Sri Lankans but to the entire world. Today, we have been able to liberate the entire country from the clutches of terrorism.” The war, he said, was a device for a nobler task: that of assimilating the Tamils into Sri Lanka for a unified national identity. The terrorists were taken out of the equation. Peace would prevail; warring Sinhalese and Tamil identities would be reconciled.

Most of the 300,000 people in the camps in Vavuniya hated Rajapaksa, but the speech stirred many of them. They were surprised to hear the president make the distinction between the LTTE and the Tamil people. If he was sympathetic enough to realise that all Tamils were not Tigers, maybe things would get better.

IT WOULD BE SIX MONTHS before Siva would leave the camp, briefly, with some others picked at random by the army. They were being taken to Jaffna in a bus to bring back food rations from the army camp there. As soon as their bus left Vavuniya city, it hit the A-9, the 320-km-long highway that bisects the island from the south to the north, ending at the claw-like tip of Jaffna.

To this day, the A-9 embodies the impermanence of Sri Lanka, connecting the two ethnic communities in whose name wars were waged for a quarter of a century. It was shut in war by the LTTE and opened during ceasefire. After the ‘last war’, and just before the presidential elections in January 2010, the A-9 was cleared for traffic. But this time, it didn’t comprise army vans, NGO cars, bicycles and scooters. The postwar A-9 was choc-a-bloc with tourist buses from Colombo. It had been about 30 years since Sri Lankans from the south had set eyes on the north. There was a festive air in the TV-coaches, and large families came with picnic baskets.

The army checkpoint in Omanthai in Vavuniya, however, remained. Buses were stopped, everyone got out, their IDs were checked. Standing in the queue, Siva felt in his pocket for his national identity card. Since the end of the war, the ID had become critical to his life. It identified him immediately as Tamil—his name was printed in both Sinhala and Tamil, while that of a non-Tamil would have been in Sinhala alone. But without it, he was suspect, a man without a record, whose very existence could drive the army to paranoia. And that could lead to anything from being arrested, sent to a detention camp, separated from your family, to being interrogated or harassed for days on end.

In an oddly conciliatory role for a people whose homes and lives were entirely lost in war, the Sri Lankan Tamils seemed to spend all their energies trying to calm the military. Everyone in Siva’s bus kept their voices low, and their opinions to themselves. They refused to converse in Tamil in the presence of a Sinhala cadet, lest he assume they were conspiring, or poking fun at him. The army was perpetually on the lookout for  undercover Tigers, so Tamils—even those with nothing to hide—spent every waking moment displaying an active innocence.

As they drove up from Omanthai, Siva looked eagerly out of the window. While he was at the camp, how had his Vanni changed? The scenes whizzing past were those of trees freshly chopped down, houses recently shelled. Women and children sat outside a few haphazardly-built huts with blue tarpaulin roofs. They stared glassily at the passing vehicles. There were soldiers with guns every 15 kilometres. The Vaani looked like it had never been home to anyone.

For Siva and his family, the protracted Eelam war was devastating, but its end far more unsettling. They were finally free to move around, but aware that they were watched constantly. The army that had bombed their homes was now their neighbour and benefactor. They were desperate to start life anew but felt too hemmed in to try. In a fundamental sense, was the war over at all?

The bus passed Kilinochchi, the city that had served as the Tigers’ operational headquarters from 1995 to January 2009, when it was captured by the Sri Lankan Army. Although many Tamils had started returning to their homes from the camps, Kilinochchi remained closed to civilians. Those who wished to return had been told that the area was being demined.

The Kilinochchi that Siva knew was now a trail of burnt wooden cots, broken ceramic toilets and smashed cars. There were rows of half-standing buildings with their roofs caved in. Tamil signboards had been blacked out, or covered with posters of a waving President Rajapaksa. The police headquarters, court complex, market, temples—they were all gone. The once-prosperous administrative centre of the Tigers was the most thoroughly destroyed city on the island.

Suddenly, a towering, glossy white statue of the Buddha loomed into view. Some Sinhala soldiers were praying at the altar. This hadn’t been there before, thought Siva. Near it, was a broken down Hindu temple. It was being used to charge the cellphones of army troops. A few hundred feet from the Buddha stood a tall, bronze installation of a lotus, a symbol of Buddhism, growing out of a bullet-hit wall. A bombed out water tank had been converted into a tourist spot, complete with a ‘war memoirs’ shop. A family of tourists was snapping a photograph in front of it.

The Tamil areas were all being mended and buffed under government supervision. Once the seat of Eelam, Kilinochchi was being raised from the ashes, but with a more Sri Lankan personality. Army watchtowers on both sides of the road displayed the government’s declared mission: ‘Free Beautiful United Sri Lanka.’

The final checkpoint was at Elephant Pass, the thin strip of road where the A-9 ends and the Jaffna Peninsula begins. But the ‘Yalpanam’ board that Siva always looked for was missing. In its place, was a new sign. It said ‘Yapanaya’, the Sinhala name for Jaffna. Round the bend, a freshly-painted, large yellow board said: ‘One Nation, One Country.’

After they collected the rations, Siva decided to sleep on the bus all the way back to camp. The world he had grown up in was going through an alienating revamp, and he couldn’t bear to watch.

IN THE LAST WEEK OF DECEMBER 2011, just after Christmas celebration with NGOs, Swarna was allowed to leave the camp with her sons and her mother. When camp officials asked for her ‘place of origin’, she conjured up a random address in Point Pedro, the northernmost town on the island, north of Jaffna. When she got there, she found a sprawling house whose owners were in England, broke into it, and decided to make it home for a while. Her children would be safe, and she could hope to make the seemingly impossible transformation from combatant to free civilian.

A lot had happened in Swarna’s life since the war’s end, and that of the LTTE: She had voted for the first time in her life, in the January 2010 presidential election, although the only choices she had were between Mahinda Rajapaksa and his army general. She was still in camp then, and was taken in by the wave of hope that swept through the Tamils. Later that year, the prime ministerial and municipal elections also took place, and in both, Swarna reluctantly voted for the Tamil United Liberation Front, once the political puppet of the LTTE. “They were a bunch of cowards who ran abroad during the war,” she says, “and had rushed back right in time for poll speeches.” But they were the only ones left.

Swarna had only focused on two things in the past two years: hiding her identity, and getting her husband out of detention. The first had worked better than she had expected—so well, in fact, that she felt a sharp pang of guilt every time she saw someone mistakenly singled out by the army as a Tiger. The second, that of freeing her husband, was a cyclical nightmare. She had approached every NGO that came to the Ramanathan camp, she had tried phoning former LTTE commanders in hiding, she had even given interviews to the international press when they came for brief camp visits.

At the end of February 2011, she had received a text message from her husband, saying that he would be released any day. Swarna had left her sons with her mother, and went to Vavuniya to pick him up. A few days later, however, Sri Lankan Prime Minister DM Jayaratne announced in a press statement that there might still exist three secret LTTE camps in Tamil Nadu. There was a conspiracy afoot to kill Indian political leaders, he said, and to create a civil war in Sri Lanka once again. In 48 hours, the Tamil Nadu police denied the charges and the PM apologised, saying he’d made a mistake. But ‘due to security reasons’, all detainee releases were cancelled. A depressed Swarna returned to Point Pedro alone.

Swarna’s six-year-old firstborn screams at her every morning, asking her when he can go to school. But this wasn’t the world she had envisioned for him. Or for herself. Every time she went to the Jaffna market for groceries, Swarna’s bags were opened and she was frisked. She knew of at least five women, in Point Pedro alone, whose husbands were shot by unknown bikers wearing helmets. Jaffna reported more crime than ever before. Ever since she left camp in December, Swarna had been looking for a job—sewing, cooking, manual labour, anything but house work. Nothing had come through. Until now, she had not regretted not getting on that boat to India.

IN THE YEAR SINCE HE LEFT THE REFUGEE CAMP and moved to Jaffna, Siva had tried getting his government job back. Instead, he was charged with pilfering rations and embezzling funds from January to May 2009. In an elaborate and well-worded letter, Siva narrated his family’s ordeal, and listed reasons for having given away food to starving people and later abandoning the rest of his stock to save his life. The defence didn’t stick. He was fired, and fined lkr65,000.

Siva ran the ordeal through his mind over and over again, looking for reason, logic and karma in the acts and omissions that eventually saved his family’s life—the moment they chose to flee, the villages they chose to avoid, the strangers they trusted their children with. He didn’t want to ever be in that situation again.

Siva decided to stop challenging the government, army or police. Dhanusuya had just started third grade and loved it. His two-year-old son was a delight—a healthy, chubby boy who didn’t seem to bear any of the scars of having spent his first months in this world in the thick of the worst war any of them had experienced. Latha seemed content in the little mud hut they had built with their own hands. Things were unnervingly normal.

Siva joined a media school, “to pass the time”. In early March 2010, his class was discussing press freedom in the new democracy they were confronted with. Siva was one of the few who insisted that the Tamil papers and the Tamil community should stop talking about war crime investigations. “Of course, I might have thought differently if I had lost any family in war, but I doubt it is safe for even bereaved families to openly mourn,” he said, referring to the frequent crackdowns on mass mourning ceremonies.

The Sri Lankan government had set up a domestic Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee to look into crimes in the 2006-09 war, and it submitted a report in late 2011. Although it barely skims over war crimes, it does strongly recommend shifting from the military-led economic development to a political solution, of giving more democratic power to Tamil-dominated provinces.

The UN, several NGOs and much of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, however, continue to demand an international war crimes investigation. Siva insisted that this would only rake up memories everyone was trying to erase, and reignite the suspicion and uncertainty the government felt towards the Tamils. “We should decide whether, how and when we want the crimes investigated!” he said emphatically. “Not those who do not live here, like we do, with the guns to our forehead.” A young man in the front of the class asked: “And what is your plan instead?”

Siva looked him squarely in the eyes and said, “I plan to shut up.”

The author, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, is a journalist in India

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.

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.

READER'S COMMENTS [11]

Thanks to the anonymous author for writing this personal story of a war I didn't hear much of from where I live and reminding us of the human suffering behind head lines in news papers.

Fantastic read! Very engaging,intriguing but informative all the same.Caravan is famous for this type of finely-balanced essays and starting to love it.Ones on Modi and Subramanian Swamy were absolute classics.One aspect I would have liked more in this piece is the number of war casualties.Its reported that at-least 100,000 Tamils were missing after the war.This must be one of the worst human genocides of all time comparable to Hindu genocide in Bangladesh 1971 and partition-1947.The way even video evidences that show the grotesque rape,murder and humiliation of women is unparalleled in history.Although,not a Tamil myself,can feel and share the pain immensely.War criminals must be punished by ICJ severely for the shameful butchery and annihilation of its own people.Finally pray that the remaining Tamils feel secure and live with dignity..

As regards the memoir of a Tamil Tigress, you might read the following too

http://groundviews.org/2011/11/19/outing-a-counterfeit-guerrilla-a-tale-of-lies-by-tamil-tigress-niromi-de-soyza/

http://groundviews.org/2011/08/31/forbidden-fruits-niromi-de-soyzas-tamil-tigress-noumi-kouri-and-helen-demidenko/

http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2011/08/farce-of-fake-tigress.html

Very well written, but some of it contradicts the memoir Tamil Tigress written by a former LTTE fighter based in Australia. This article says that "Barely a month after what Sri Lankan Tamils across the globe now call Black July, the LTTE started to recruit young women. ....................... 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." According to Tamil Tigress, the LTTE initially did not take in women. The EPRFL did and so did the PLOTE and TULF. After the LTTE banned other Tamil groups and killed many of their fighters, female fighters from those groups were taken over by the LTTTE. Just before IPKF troops landed in SL, in mid 1987, the LTTE started training its own female cadres. The author of Tamil Tigress fought the IPKF. You can read my review of Tamiil Tigress here: http://winnowed.blogspot.in/2012/02/book-review-tamil-tigress-by-niromi-de.html

You write whatever you want...true or false...LTTE or SLGovt...Hide Truth...Save War Criminals & Genociders Chandrika & Rajapaksa...But Speak about Genocide, Justice & Freedom before Reconcilation...

By the name of Terrorist countries destroyed Freedom Movement...But not Freedom Thirst...One day Eelam Tamils Dream will come true...

The most beautiful, and at the same time, the most gutting article I have read in years. Makes me feel incredibly selfish for not even knowing of the unberable struggles of those around us. Kudos to the Caravan for the stellar quality of journalism, as always.

Gave views of all sides involved in the war. Atleast let the Tamil people live peacefully here after. CARAVAN magazine is the best!

A truly grisly account. Hats off Caravan for an excellent piece of investigative journalism once again. I am a tamil living in chennai. I have not done anything whatsoever for my brethern in Lanka. so it is only fair that i keep my mouth shut. If the tamils out there feel that there is no point in re opening the wounds, then their wishes should be respected. am sure that there are equally horrific stories from a lot of places around this world. War is futlie and for the victor it will only be a pyrrhic victory. a lesson for me is to stop cribbing at the trivial worries in day to day life. such events make you open your eyes and at times wonder if there is really a GOD above us.

What a read! In a single stretch . I envy the writing, the writer though Wonderful piece of creative non-fiction i have read recently. Kudos the writer and wishing caravan all the success to carry on this tradition of good journalism.

Very well narrated story, told movingly through the experiences of the protagonists -- what the last Ealem War meant to the Tamils, their sufferings, the brutalization of both sides, the struggle to preserve life amidst the destruction and finally the futility of war.
However, it is disturbing that two years after the end of the war the Sri Lankan government continues to move slowly on the issue of resettling the IDPs, displaying triumphalism rather than foresight and accommodation. Any long-term solution would necessarily involve accepting Tamils as equal citizens, and creating the political space to make it viable.

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