“A lot of hill country Tamils were chased out of their homes and displaced,” Shalini says, remembering the first time as a child she had heard about the unrest between Tamils and Sinhalese. Born in 1967 to a family of well-off farmers in Vavuniya, she was the fifth child out of eleven. Her family owned paddy fields and agricultural land, and as Shalini notes, they “never expected help of the government.” At the war’s end, when she and her family lost their homes and were chased through Mullaivaikkaal, she remembered the Sivasekara riot and the displacement of the hill country Tamils as if years later the accumulation of violence since the beginning had irrevocably reached her.
Though her parents prioritized education, after the war, she was forced to return from the prestigious Jaffna school they sent her to to study in Vavuniya. She persisted and studied up to her O/L but the war had altered her life. “If I had continued with my education I would have been in a different place now,” she admits, recalling other possible lives.
When the Jayasikuru war started in 1997, Shalini went with her family to Mallavi, but they returned in 2000 to their home village because, as Shalini says, “we always wanted to come back.” During the ceasefire in what was considered “peacetime,” travel was restricted and abductions continued, but she didn’t hear the sound of artilleries and airstrikes.
By 2008, Shalini had her own family, five children; the eldest was her daughter studying for her O/L at the time. When they were once again displaced, they abandoned the house they had just built, loaded everything into a tractor, and left for Oddusuddan. From there they went to Katsilaimadu then to Puthukudiyirrupu and finally to Mullaivaikkaal. Shalini describes this final stage of the war as a nightmare:
The bombers were pouring shells like rain. When people saw those planes, they did not stay in their bunkers because the bunkers would not be spared by the bombers. They just poured shells on us. We normally would run to a place that is open. People didn’t care what was on the ground in front of them—they always looked up and ran. People dragged their children, shouted, and ran to safety all the time.
In the midst of this though, Shalini said the community came through for each other digging bunkers together and helping each other out with food and other necessities:
I used to sew a lot of sandbags from saris, that people would place around their bunkers. I put the sewing machine in the bunker and sewed from there nonstop. I didn’t ask for money. I made bag after bag. It wasn’t very comfortable in the bunker but I never rested. My husband distributed the bags. People didn’t ask how much they had to pay and I never asked for money either—we just kept a box where people could give money if they chose. But I didn’t care about the money—it was just important that we all survive.
Shalini notes that everyone looked out for each other’s children. At one point, there was a family staying next to Shalini’s family in which the parents were mute. Whenever they heard the artilleries, Shalini would warn the other family so they could run and hide. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save the family who were later killed by shelling even after they had hidden in their bunker.
For Shalini, the worst part of the war and the incident that continues to haunt her to this day was the abduction of her daughter. Like many children, Shalini’s daughter was taken by forces during intense shelling:
When the bombing got intense we came out of our bunkers and started to run. Nobody knew which direction was safe but we could grab our children and just run away from the shelling. As we were running people came in a truck and captured young children. I held my daughter so tight that he threw me in the truck as well. I yelled to my Amma to take care of my other children because I was not going to leave my daughter alone. But in a little while they stopped the vehicle and started beating me up and pushed me off the truck along with another mother who had also clung to her child. That was the last time I saw my daughter’s face.
Shalini says she almost gave up right then and contemplated just sitting in the field where they dropped her to wait for the army’s shells, but the other mother who had been thrown from the truck forced her to lie down and hide. And then eventually Shalini’s husband who had been chasing after the truck found them. Since that day, Shalini says she has not stopped crying or searching for her daughter.
During the final days of the war, Shalini and her remaining family were taken to the Omanthai checking point. Every day the army came and said that anyone who was with the LTTE, even if it was for a day, should surrender and that if they didn’t they would spend 20 years in prison. “The people who cut their hair couldn’t do anything,” Shalini says referring to the mandatory hair cut for LTTE cadres, “they were all crying aloud – it was like one big funeral.”
Shalini is now a fierce advocate among the families of the disappeared, part of protests that started in early 2017 and says that “after everything we’ve seen we are not going to back down.” Speaking about those who surrendered at the end of the war, she questions the government’s failure to produce a list of surrendees:
As they were surrendering the army was registering their names, getting their signatures and collecting details of where they’re from and what they did. They also took pictures of them. But today the army is saying that none of them are alive. How could that be? They registered all of their names. Apart from the signatures they also took fingerprints. Where are the copies? If you just took the books out there will be a list of all of their names. What did they do with them?
Like many mothers of the disappeared, Shalini is desperate to know where her daughter is and to see her again. She no longer has the will to celebrate any occasion, constantly thinking about her disappeared daughter. “I cry in the middle of the night worried sick about her.”
Speaking about the women whose husbands disappeared during the war, Shalini asks, “How many sisters are wondering whether they have to take their pottu off, whether they have to take their thalli off, or whether they should keep hoping?”
Shalini knows her own strength and continues to find the will to fight for the hope of seeing her daughter again, alongside all of the other families of the disappeared. But it is clear that Shalini, like many of these mothers, face serious mental health issues and are in desperate need of answers. For these women, the end of the war did not mark the end of the ordeal they continue to suffer.
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