“The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) shot my neighbor to death,” Meera says describing her first memory of the war – she was only in grade six. Later the IPKF would return, abducting two of her brothers, forcibly sending them to train for one of its allied paramilitary groups. The reason – one of her brothers failed to decorate their shop for Independence Day. The IPKF came threatening to set them alight with car tyres around their bodies. Only the begging and pleading of Meera’s mother allowed them to live, with the soldiers forcibly recruiting them instead.
From a farming family, Meera was born in Kilinochchi in the late 70s and spent her whole life there. Her parents were both farmers. Her father passed away in 2000 from illness, whilst she lost her mother to the armed conflict.
As the ceasefire between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government began to break down in 2005, Meera started working in Kilinochchi. There, she met and fell in love with a man. Despite her family’s disapproval, she married him. However, as the war picked up again her new husband joined the LTTE. She was 7 months pregnant at the time. Though her husband wasn’t there, other LTTE cadres took Meera to the hospital to give birth. After Meera’s child was born, she began working in a small shop, taking care of her daughter with the assistance of another older woman. She continued to work there until she was displaced.
In December 2008, as the Sri Lankan army’s massive military offensive approached, the LTTE began telling the local community not to stay within 5km of the A9 highway. With the war moving forward, the artillery shells landed ever closer. On one of those perilious days, Meera and her daughter narrowly escaped death from artillery fire by taking cover with a neighbor in their bunker. “We survived because we stayed with them inside the bunker,” she said. It was only then that Meera decided it was not safe enough for them to stay there any longer. They left with another neighbour. “If it weren’t for the people who took us with them, we would have died that night too,” she said.
From there when the army captured Kilinochchi, they fled to Vaddakkachchi. It was there that Meera received the news that her husband was killed in the fighting. He had died a “martyr’s death” the LTTE told her. With the war still raging, Meera could not stay in one place for too long. She was forced to flee with her daughter to Visvamadu and finally to Maththalan.
Fearing that food would become scarce, Meera had packed rice, flour and coconut oil, moving everything in the neighbour’s tractor. This was enough for her to survive, but she struggled to find milk for her daughter. Prices for powdered milk and even biscuits had soared.
When they got to Mathalan the neighbor’s family they had been travelling with announced they had made a decision. They were going to leave for army-controlled areas and asked Meera to come with them. “The LTTE is gone,” they told her. “We will be dead if we stay.” Meera though, refused. She believed the rumour that there was a ship on its way to help save those trapped in the war zone. “I was afraid that we might get killed if we moved to that side,” she said explaining her decision to stay. Meera and her daughter then went and stayed with another neighbor Meera knew, but even those neighbours eventually made the choice to leave. Sadly, as they crossed over the neighbour’s elder daughter ended up being shot and killed by the army.
In Maththalan in March 2009, Meera was severely wounded by an artillery attack. She had just come back from vaccinating her 3 year old daughter, when shells began to rain down. They returned to a bunker with more than a dozen others to take cover from shelling.
“The first shelling attacks almost buried us,” she recalled. “But the second attacks hurled us outside the bunker, burying the rest of the thirteen people inside the bunker.”
“When I woke up I saw my daughter crying and covered in blood and I thought she was the one injured. It took me a while to realize it was me. My guts were hanging out. I started to become unconscious.”
In those final moments of consciousness Meera remembers alerting an elderly man who she knew nearby. He gave her a bedsheet which she tied around her abdomen in an attempt to push her intestines back in. “I could not get it in,” she said. She asked the man to take her daughter to where her brother was staying nearby. She offered the jewelry she had in return. “He took our jewelry, but left us there,” she said. “He took everything except my daughter’s earrings, a pendant she was wearing in a black string, the ring she was wearing and the earring I wore in this ear. He told her that your mother asked me to take them. He did not take her.”
Meera adds that in the end it was the LTTE who were the ones who took her to the hospital. Yet, she knows those same cadres were also responsible for forcible child recruitment and feels conflicted about that. At the hospital, the medical staff frantically working away had run out of blood when Meera arrived. They were ready to give up on Meera, and laid her in a bunker to die. Her daughter wouldn’t let them. Instead after her daughter’s persistence the doctors sent Meera and her daughter to Pulmoddai on a ship where they escaped the final months of the war. They were out of the war zone.
Meera did not know this at the time, but her daughter had also been injured in the attack. A piece of shrapnel remains stuck in her rib. Meera has a piece in her spine. Both of them continue to suffer from their injuries.
As she recovered, Meera and her daughter were taken to an IDP camp and then were resettled in May 2011. Meera says she heard stories of sexual harassment taking place in the camps, especially to those who were there until the brutal last days in Mullivaikkaal.
The awful final stages of the war are still etched in Meera’s memory. She cannot forget these:
A family was travelling near Udaiyarkattu and they stopped under a tree to eat. An artillery shell fell and killed them all, seven or eight people in total including an older woman. The bodies were burnt. No wounds – like some kind of fire bomb the bodies were like charcoal. The food they were eating was there. They were in the same position when they died.
Sometimes the person who goes to fetch water never returns. Sometimes it is the other way around. Near my home one such incident happened. A woman was cooking at home while her husband went out to the shop. When he returned he saw his wife’s head in a Palmyrah tree and one of her legs in the front yard.
In such horrific times, Meera says the trapped Tamils worked together to survive. “For example, if there were four families close together, one would cook, one will do some work, etc.,” she says, adding, “we all went together to bathe, to fetch water, etc.”
Now she describes experiencing increased sexual harassment and less unity within the Tamil community. Yet in spite of these tragedies and her continued marginalization in society as a widow of an LTTE cadre and her disability, she continues to work to build a life for her and her daughter. She does ‘coolie work’ which involves repairing fences, cutting grass, and helping out with well construction. Her work is difficult due to her ailments and she is unable to get treatment as it clashes with her work. And she always gets paid less than the men who do the same job. But she has no choice but to continue, to survive.