The first memory Analakshmi’s describes of the war is her family’s displacement from the Jaffna peninsula during the 1995 operation by the military to take back the district from the LTTE. From a family of fishermen, she describes how they all fled amidst a barrage of artillery fire. “We had to take our boat in a lorry to Kilali sea area and that is how we escaped,” she says, “but there were kfirs hovering and dropping bombs.”
1995, however, was not her first experience of the war.
“I also remember the Indian army time,” she says, speaking of when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) came to the island in 1987.
My father used to go to India very often for fishing business. The Indian army came searching for my father. We had pretended like our elder brother was sick by keeping medicine and tablets near his bed as he slept [to protect him]. They left after they saw my brother was sick and after we lied that my father had left and we didn’t know of his location. They ate some coconuts, drank the coconut water and left.
Analakshmi also recalls hiding in bunkers from air strikes and sea strikes from the Navy near her village, which was close to Valvettithurai.
But it was only during the 1995 exodus from Jaffna that Analakshmi says she began to understand the harsh reality of the conflict. Shortly after this displacement living in the Vanni, Analakshmi joined the LTTE as did many others in her family.
“We were happy and self-sustained, we were able to sleep with our doors open,” Analakshmi says about living under LTTE governance. She married whilst part of the movement, meeting her husband – who was also a cadre – there. Though she left the LTTE in 1997, he stayed on until the final days of the armed conflict.
Living in Mullaitivu with her young son, “life was manageable,” she says. Then, like thousands of others, in late 2008 the war reached her. In August 2008, she was displaced once more. “The army moved towards Pulliyampokkanai and the rounds were coming in from everywhere,” she says.
“At that point the army was our enemy and we were their enemy, so we followed the LTTE wherever they went,” she says. “We expected a solution from LTTE…. we didn’t trust the army, so we didn’t want to go to them. We only went to them after the war because there was no LTTE to lead us.”
Those last few weeks in particular were cruel, she says.
As we kept moving the shells came down like rain. It’s a miracle we are all alive today. Life was really hard – there was not enough food, and there was a point when we didn’t even have water. People died without water. Some people lived off the aid from ICRC – they provided potatoes and dry food. A lot of people have died waiting for this food though.
Those final few months lead to desperation, she adds. “At that point, no one really paid attention to others, it was important for you to save yourself and your children. There was no time to check what your sister is doing and your brother’s family is doing.” “There was help at first, but not during the last days,” she laments.
Women in particular played a really important role, Analakshmi describes. During this last phase she says “women had more work to do because men were too afraid and they were being involved in the LTTE’s activities” but that “women were stronger at that time.” Women “kept the children and family safe in their bunkers” she said.
On May 17th 2009, Analakshmi and her son passed into Sri Lankan army territory along the Vadduvaakal Bridge. Whilst waiting at Vadduvaakal Bridge to be loaded on army buses to be taken to Vavuniya, she describes how the army forced both men and women to strip completely naked as they passed through security checkpoints. She had to as well. She notes that the men were placed in a separate bus under the army custody and she saw soldiers digging a large hole a little away from the direction these men were taken. When asking what the hole was for they were told it was to dig for water but Analakshmi doesn’t believe they were telling the truth. “I am pretty sure they buried those men in that big hole,” she says. “I am sure there are a lot of skeletons in that area.”
They were taken to Menik Farm in Vavuniya, a displacement camp that was one of the largest in the world at the time. In the camp she describes terrible conditions. There was not enough water, toilets were in terrible condition and “even the food was not given properly.” “They would bring food in trucks and throw food parcels at us like they were feeding cats and dogs,” she says. Analakshmi describes that women were sometimes kidnapped from the camps, and that she heard about instances of sexual violence. Sri Lankan intelligence officers such as the CID were even worse than the army, she adds. “We have seen the worst in the camps.”
Staying there with her son, Analakshmi had no idea where her husband was. The last she had heard from him was that he had gotten wounded and was trapped in the conflict zone in April. But eight months after the war ended when the army brought some former LTTE cadres to Vavuniya, she approached them and asked if they had seen her husband. The soldiers said they had and Analakshmi sent some letters and pictures for him. No reply came. In 2013 when Analakshmi went to Jaffna, she was approached by men in a white van who identified themselves as CID and said that they were taking information from her because her husband was still alive. To date, she has still not seen or heard from her husband again. She has registered him as disappeared with every organization she knows.
Life after the armed conflict ended remained harsh. She did not stay long in Jaffna, having to move back to Kilinochchi due to persistent harassment from the CID who came often due to her family’s involvement with the LTTE. “They came very often to take details,” she says.
Living in the post-war Vanni, Analakshmi expresses concern over the state of society saying that “there is no order and society seems to be desecrating.” Drug abuse has risen and many young men are getting drunk and abusing family members, she adds. Meanwhile the Sri Lankan government is failing to address any issues of concern for the Tamil people. “It is important we get a solution and society functions properly,” she says.
“See the mothers of disappeared are waiting by the road side asking for their children for the past year and still, nothing has come out of it,” Analakshmi adds. She also attends protests out of anger and frustration with the lack of action from the government. “We have experienced all the bad – that is true,” she says, adding “we don’t even believe in politicians.”
A lot must change for peace to come to the North-East she says, noting that the international community too has a role to play. For her, real peace would mean “being able to go to places and do things without any interrogation,” and where the government would “give basic respect to our dead.”