It was early, the sun still mild. Saroja rested on the warm sand in front of her house after finishing her morning chores. “This house was built after the tsunami,” she says. Saroja lived in this region her entire life—a coastal community in the Vaharai region, heavily impacted by the war and the tsunami.
“My mother raised us doing whatever she could, many different kinds of work. Sometimes she would gather dry palmyrah leaves, sometimes clear land, or sometimes sell dry fish.” Saroja’s father died of a heart attack when she was young. “I met my husband when I was eighteen years old. We got married at home. My older brother, older sister, everyone was there. It was a happy occasion.” Saroja describes though that she endured the same hardship as her mother, doing any work that came her way to raise her children.
Saroja’s husband, Selvaratnam, was a fisherman. “My husband was a good man. When he was around I had no kurai [problems]. There was no kurai for our children,” Saroja says about her husband. But in the early 90s the family was nearing dire straits due to a lack of available work. “One night, we had nothing to eat and so he went to the sea to try and catch some fish,” Saroja says. “Even if I just throw the nets and catch some fish, I will come with food for the kids,” he said before leaving to Saroja. The army shot Selvaratnam later that night under suspicion he was part of the LTTE. “He was sitting and preparing his net. When the army approached the people standing ran but he could not.” In the early ‘90s, men from Saroja’s village were at significant risk of such violence whenever they went to the sea.
“The army shot him, tied his body on the boat and brought it through the sea to their camp. I screamed for his body but they chased me away and put him on fire,” said Saroja. “They [army personnel at the camp] said they didn’t know who my husband was and then another man spoke to me in Sinhalese and I didn’t understand him.” The government eventually gave Saroja 50,000 rupees (a few hundred US dollars), after she testified at an investigation in Colombo and Batticaloa, but no one was held accountable and no answers were given. “They didn’t say anything when they gave it [compensation] to me. They said here is your death money and they put the 50, 000 rupees into the People’s Bank. I took it out and bought gold chains for my two daughters, rice and other stuff to eat. We still have the two chains; we pawn it off sometimes when we need the money –that’s how we survive.”
Saroja raised her four children, as well as her sister’s daughter, all by herself:
I had no help. My older brother was also taken by the army. My older brother had five children. My dad was not around as he passed away when I was young. My older sister’s husband also died at the hands of the army. My older sister died. My mom died. Who is there to help me? I worked really hard to raise them [my children]. I went to people’s houses and sold them firewood and that’s how I educated them until grade 10 and the others until OL.
In addition to strenuous labour, gathering potable water has resulted in Saroja developing chronic pain. After the tsunami, Saroja’s village was resettled inland in an area where there is no access to potable water. Aid organizations helped build homes, provided clothes and food. However, thirteen years after the tsunami, the lack of potable water has yet to be addressed, and even now the community including Saroja struggle.
Now Saroja’s son is married. She hopes for her four girls to also get married. She worries about her daughters being alone, if something were to happen to her.
“When I face hardship, I think to myself the war is why my brother died, why my husband died and why we are like this. But what is the point of thinking about that? Nothing. God will take care of everything.” Yet it is Saroja herself who continues to persevere, building a life for her children despite all odds.