Recalling war trauma: Tales of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

In June of 1990, eleven boats carrying around 500 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived Danushkodi, Tamil Nadu, India. Four pregnant women and dozens of kids who were tethered to their mothers for safety were among the ones in the boats.
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Part 1

By Piyumi Fonseka,  Reporting from Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Photographs by Shyam Gowtham and Steni Simon

In June of 1990, eleven boats carrying around 500 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived Danushkodi, Tamil Nadu, India. Four pregnant women and dozens of kids who were tethered to their mothers for safety were among the ones in the boats.

Most were barefoot. They had no life jackets. Only with clothes they were wearing, they were stranded at sea with no food, water or hopes of their future. They were forced to experience unbelievable hardship as they fled their homeland due to the armed conflict between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Indian fishermen charged Rs.5000 from each Sri Lankan for the boat service. The desperate victims sold all their possessions to make the payments.

(Left) Dusty lanes and fences covered with fertilizer bags at houses in line at Gummidipoondi camp.

After three days in sea waves, they were found by Indian coast guard officials who thoroughly observed and sent them to Mandapam which is the largest Sri Lankan refugee camp in Tamil Nadu state. This is only one group of Sri Lankans who fled the country due to the war. According to reports, the exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils in Northen and Eastern provinces was started from the beginning of Black July in 1983. Between 1983 and 1987, at least 134, 000 Sri Lankan Tamils were officially estimated to have arrived in Tamil Nadu. When the war was intensified in June 1990, the next rounds of exodus arrived in India. The third round was reportedly have started in 1995.

Reports of United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said during the final phase of the war, there was massive displacement of the population in the north with some 276,000 displaced. UNHCR’s most recent statistics show that at the end of 2010, there were some 140,000 Sri Lankan refugees with a majority, 70,000 in 112 refugee camps and another 32,000 living outside camps in Tamil Nadu.

Currently,  the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non Resident Tamils of Tamil Nadu is monitoring about 19,451 Sri Lankan Tamil families consisting of about 63,351 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees accommodated in 108 camps situated in 24 districts in the state. The camp in Gummidipoondi, situated from 46.6 km from capital Chennai, is a shelter for close to 1000 families.

Daily Mirror visited Sri Lankan Tamils in Gummidipoondi refugee camp. They were delighted to see a Sri Lankan visiting the camp. Some of them have almost forgotten Sinhala as the language was hardly used during past 27 years. But, they spoke quite well in Sinhala.

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Invisible wounds from war harder to repair:  Arulanandam

Fleeing for their lives, Arulanandam and his wife Victoria who lived in Anuradhapura moved to Kilinochchi in the 1980s in the beginning of the war. After fighting and bombing reached Kilinochchi in the 1990s, they decided to leave everything behind and go to the nearest country. Now in his fifties and father of three, Arulanandam recalled his memories of the war which turned their lives upside down.

“We lived in Anuradhapura. The war started and we moved to Kilinochchi. Years after, planes started bombing in Kilinochchi. We lived with fear. We could not stay there anymore. Fear drove us to realise that there was no other option than to leave the country. We decided to go to Tamil Nadu,” he said.

Arulanandam broke down to tears when he remembered his brother’s five-year-old son who died in an aerial bombing in front of their eyes in Kilinochchi.

He said even though visible wounds are recovered, invisible wounds from the war are so devastating that they are harder to repair.

In their desperation to escape unbearable conditions, they embarked on a route. Some innocent lives were also gone while attempting to make way to India in the sea.

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I didn’t care where I went, I just wanted to save my life: Mathews

Mathews (46) was another Sri Lankan who were among the 1990 exodus. Recalling his traumatizing past about the war, he said if he did not take the decision to get into boats on that decisive day, he would have been killed.

“Bombing had started. Every time we saw a flight, we thought it was a military plane that drops shells. We could not even come out of our houses. We were suffering in hunger and poverty. I thought if we stayed in the country, we would be killed. So, we decided to leave by boat. We didn’t care where we went, we just wanted to save my life,” Mathews said.

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My brothers captured by Army, never came back:  Nimala

Mathew’s wife Nimala said two of youths who were in a boat had drowned in the sea after losing balance. Surrounded the much chaotic situation inside boats, attempts to save the youths were limited. Nimala said she was uncertain of her life until they reached Danushkodhi shore.

She looked terrified when she explained how she lost her twin brothers.

“When we were preparing to leave from the boat from Talaimannar, Sri Lankan Army stopped us and suddenly captured my twin brothers aged 23. Sundaran and Sekar were captured, alleging they had connections with the LTTE. The soldiers said they would release them after questioning. But, my twin brothers never came back,” Nimala, said with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Not only Sundaran and Sekar, there are many youths who never came back after armed forces nabbed them on alleged LTTE connections

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We lived in constant state of fear and insecurity: Nandini

Forty nine-year-old Nandini tried to escape from her sob as she was looking at her granddaughter Sarah. Sarah who just celebrated her fourth birthday last month does not have an idea about the problems her adults had faced and still facing. She was busy with her double ruled book, trying hard to write a letter.

“One night I heard gun shots. Soldiers were already in front of my house. I took my son and ran. This was the day that my cousin sister died in a shell attack in Kilinochchi. In every each family, at least one relative is killed or injured due to the war. We left Sri Lanka for the future of these kids. We sold everything we had, to collect 5000 for each. We were optimistic that it would be a new beginning for all of us.  Life here is nothing like I expected,”  Nandini said.

She said they fought with multiple and prolonged displacements, deprivation and they were living in a constant state of fear and insecurity.

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I was 5 months pregnant when I left Mannar: Jothika

Jothika was five months pregnant when she left Mannar.

“When we heard the bomb blasts, we all started running out. I went and hid. Others helped me to travel to the place where boats were waiting for people like us. I gave them my gold earrings as the payment and came to Tamil Nadu,” she said.

Choked with emotion, Jothika said she left her motherland because she wanted to survive and give a safe and good future to her unborn child. She still has no clue what happened to her husband as the time she left Mannar, her husband was away.

“We did not have travel documents or anything. We left Mannar in a hurry to save our lives from shell attacks and aerial bombardments,” she said.

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We lived happily with Sinhala people before the war: Simona

We found a 70-year-old mother of five, Simona who is now spending her rest of life in Gummidipoondi camp with her eldest son’s family. What made Simona’s story different from other stories was her third son who was a former LTTE cadre. He had died at the age of 22 in the war.

Simona said her husband had also died in a shell attack by Sri Lankan Army.

“Before the war started, we lived happily and peacefully with Sinhala people. We had a beautiful life in Sri Lanka before the war. I lost my son and my husband. It was easier to run away from our birth land than to see my other children die,” she said.

Refugees in Gummidipoondi camp said their search for a better future for their kids was not fruitful as they expected. From this episode of their stories, their traumatizing memories of the war was focused. The next episode will discuss their lives inside camps and the difficulties they face in their day-to-day lives.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror on April 4, 2017. The writer Piyumi Fonseka is a Lakshman Kadarugamar Journalism scholar currently undergoing training at MASCOM, in Kerla, India.)

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