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Sri Lanka

After the last war

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

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.

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