“I was born into a conflict,” says Darshan, now almost 40 years old. Born in a small village south of Vaharai, all of Darshan’s childhood recollections sit amidst a backdrop of uncertainty and violence. He recalls his earliest memory of the conflict being of the Trincomalee massacres in the mid 1980s. Many Tamils fled from Trincomalee during that period and some sought refuge in Darshan’s village. One family, introduced to Darshan’s mother through distant relatives, built a small hut on their property and lived with them for a year—a family that grew to be a part of theirs. “They fled and were staying at a school. They had a few small children and older female children. It was hard to keep a family in those crowded spaces.” The conflict and its resulting displacements led Darshan to meet many Tamils from across the North-East.
As Darshan got older and the conflict started to escalate, going to school became more and more of a challenge.”The war was the cause of our basic education being disrupted because when we went to school, even with our white uniform, the Sri Lankan army suspected us and attacked us. Our education was badly affected. Our teachers were also hesitant to come.”
When at home, Darshan the youngest of 9 children, was always by his mother’s side. “When I would be home alone with my mother the army would come and investigate. They would look at my elbows and legs to see if I got training.”
In 1995, Darshan went to school for the last time. He vividly recalls coming home and putting down his books and then leaving to join the LTTE. He didn’t tell any of his family members. “I didn’t make the decision in anger, I wanted the next generation to have good education, to live in peace. That’s why I joined. The LTTE didn’t force me to join. I went myself and picked up arms.”
Darshan trained with close to 300 boys for about 3 to 4 months. Training was not just focused on skills for combat, but also included what Darshan describes as basic skills: “The reason I’m speaking to you now is because of where I was. If I was at home we would not have that kind of exposure. Public speaking skills – speaking in front of someone like this, not everyone can do it. Importantly, we learned about how we should genuinely engage with the general population. If we are going to someone’s house, we are taught to think about the situation they are living in. We were also taught how to respect and engage with women.”
Darshan served in the LTTE for close to 10 years throughout the North-East, enduring many injuries. But in 1999 during a battle in the Vanni, Darshan was severely injured, causing one of his legs to be amputated. In the following years Darshan was under the care of the LTTE and focused on studies. Eventually, Darshan moved on to do work in the LTTE’s political wing – helping resolve local issues among other things. For Darshan, this work was especially meaningful, as this was an opportunity to engage with the community in a genuine way, “transcending caste and class barriers.”
After leaving the LTTE, Darshan married Akila with whom he had 3 children. Ironically enough they “met and fell in love with each other at a funeral,” he says laughing. During this period, the war was escalating in the region and so Darshan and his new wife left his hometown. It was during this time that the Sri Lankan government attacked a school in Darshan’s village that was being used as a camp by approximately 2000 internally displaced Tamils. The attacked killed at least 60 people with many more injured. The Sri Lankan government claimed that the LTTE launched their attack from near the school, using civilians as human shields. However, witnesses do not recall hearing or seeing shelling earlier that day; the closest LTTE base was over 2 kilometers away from the school, Darshan says.
Darshan stayed in the East during the final phase of the conflict, but he is very keenly aware of the atrocities that took place during that period. Speaking about those who were disappeared Darshan says there needs to be justice and, “the international courts need to solve this issue.”
Darshan currently works at a barbershop – a trade he learned quite recently. Prior to that, Darshan made and sold short-eats within his community but the work was strenuous. “I switched because I had to go to the forest to get firewood, I needed a lot of help due to my leg. This I can do by myself. I had to learn [to make short eats] at that time because there was a high army presence and I couldn’t go anywhere for work. So I learned a job that I could do within my village.”
Despite Darshan’s ability to stay positive he is careful not to romanticize the life of former cadres:
“There are many former cadres who are still around. They may be people who sacrificed their limbs at a young age, they are people who are integrated in society, with families and children, but they don’t have the funds to educate their children. There is a need to help families in this regard.”
When describing a typical day, Darshan says, “I get up in the morning and think about the future. I have small children so I think about their future. When my children go out or go to school, people make fun of them saying your father doesn’t have his leg. My son came and told me that someone said this to him one day, my eyes watered. I think about that too.” But Darshan uses opportunities like these as teaching moments for his children, “I said it’s not a problem son, we will be fine. I didn’t just give up my leg – I gave it thinking about your future. Whenever someone asks you, even when you get older this is what you need to tell them – that your father gave up his leg for the future generations, not for nothing. There was a 30-year war that happened – you tell them the reasoning.”