One of Suba’s first memories of the war is of the many military checkpoints encountered while travelling. If one didn’t show their identity card, they were not allowed to pass. Informants would be at every checkpoint, with their faces fully covered. If they nodded their head, the person in question would be taken. Some would be released while others would never be seen again.
Suba was less than eight years old when her father was disappeared by the military in 1987 from their small village in the Vaharai region. An informant in her village told the military they were LTTE sympathizers as they sometimes provided food to LTTE cadres. Her mother was forced to obtain a death certificate for her father, but in reality they do not know if he is alive or dead.
Torture of villagers from Suba’s village was conducted routinely by the Sri Lankan security forces and was horrific in nature including sometimes putting tires on people and setting them on fire. Sexual assault of both young men and women in the village was also rampant. Suba reasons this behaviour was amplified because it was a rural area with no one politically significant to question or witness what happened.
Despite the poverty of their village, or maybe because of it, Suba muses, there were a lot of LTTE combatants there. People would often join the LTTE if they weren’t well off, as the alternative was often be married off at a young age. Suba says it was different under the LTTE administration, during the mid-1990s. They had a lot more freedom then, Suba remembers. “We were able to walk around at night safely, and did not fear either as women or children.”
Suba eventually joined the LTTE in 1999, in part out of anger and frustration at the prevalent practice of torture by the Sri Lankan security forces in her village and in part out of the experience of having her father disappeared. At first they said she was too young to join as she was 17 at the time and asked for her to return after she finished her studies. But after Suba pointed out that she had left her village with the intent of joining and that returning would only be problematic for her, they allowed her within the organization but kept her inside to finish her studies, altering her training because their current training was not suitable for young people. She started off with a lot of office and writing work. She remembers how to her it felt like a family:
“I liked the military nature of it. I liked all the rules. I still think about that now and I get sad sometimes that we lost some of that. Like a family, there was no caste or religion, nothing like that. If it was home, people will separate like if you are Vellalar, like that. This was not the case there. I liked all of that. If you wanted to drive a vehicle you can drive a vehicle. If you want to study English or Sinhalese or Tamil, there were ways to study any of that. It was a good political arena.”
Tensions and rifts formed within the organization though, Suba describes, “Vanni people were considered separate from people of Eastern origin.” As the internal disputes grew and the LTTE broke, several LTTE intelligence members in the East were taken and detained by breakaway paramilitary factions. Suba was one of them – captured by Karuna’s people and put in jail for almost three months. “Once captured, they were kept in chains,” Suba describes. Their group’s leader was beaten to death.
After being released, Suba and her fellow LTTE members still refused to join the army and fearing assassination they went into hiding. They were a group of around 20 men and women. Some of them were discovered and killed, but some of them survived. Suba escaped with a few others who went to the Vanni to join the LTTE there.
Suba stayed with the LTTE up to the last days of the war. In 2009 while in Mullivaikkaal she was captured by the military and taken to a ‘rehabilitation camp’ or prison as she describes.
Suba says she witnessed high-ranking officials come to the camp and see former cadres like her in person. The facilities were under high protection for a few days, and a doctor accompanied the officials, she explains. Suba was given a needle allegedly to stop an infection she had contracted from spreading. Then the former cadres began hearing conflicting things about the substances the needle held. They asked to be examined by doctors from abroad. People detained with Suba died, and she was told it was from cancer.
Those detained kept being moved from place to place. Many girls, Suba recalls grimly, were raped, given pills, and killed. Suba says that some of these people are still missing. Nighttime would always mean that some were called for further investigation, and the arrival of morning would reveal their disappearances.
At one of the detention centres where Suba was held they kept threatening her saying “you have to tell the truth or we will shoot you and your whole family.”
Suba recalls the terrible conditions in which they were kept:
“Some people not able to handle the torture and conditions and they committed suicide by jumping in wells. After that, the ICRC came and gave us some protection and also some supplies. Before that it was really hard. Even showering, a lot of people had itches. We couldn’t sit near people, it was really dirty. We only had one set of clothing. We showered once a week. They gave one bucket of water. Sometimes there would be no food. Sometimes it would be bad food.”
After interventions by the ICRC, they were then able to see their parents for 15 minutes once a month. Electric wires were in between them, so they could not make physical contact. Suba’s uncle tried to visit, but he was beaten and sent back; only her mother and father could come to see her.
But even after she was released from rehabilitation a year later the harassment did not stop:
“They said come and we will get you a house in Colombo and money. I said I don’t want anything, I now wish to be with my mom and dad and be their child. A former combatant who had turned State came to me. I yelled at him and sent him off. At every intersection the CID would be there. You have to come or it will be a problem they would say. I said do whatever, but don’t do anything to my family. Give me punishment. At that time I couldn’t walk with this leg and I had to use crutches. I said if you want me to come beyond this, I wouldn’t come alive. I will have poison and I wrote a letter stating that you are responsible for [my death].”
For some time, she didn’t go anywhere by herself, and if she went out, she would take her mom. She brought this issue up with the District Secretariat and the Human Rights Commission, as well as Rehabilitation services.
The calls then turned into harassing her to marry an army man. Suba told a lie of self preservation, that her relative had already asked for her hand in marriage. She wore a big red pottu to symbolize being a married woman. They kept on coming to bother her mother about this for a few days. An army man would come to ask Suba to marry another army man and to join the army. They promised her a salary. She refused and refused.
But they still come by month to month and it’s hard to say when they will come, Suba says. If she isn’t there, then they’ll ask her mother. Sometimes Suba will hide when she sees them coming. And other times, her mother will be scared and say that Suba is sick in bed.
“A few months ago while I was eating they came. They kept saying come, come. And in front of them I threw my food and asked them why? I cried a lot and said even when I’m eating you are coming here, what’s so important? They said there is someone new and to introduce you. This kind of torture is only happening in our area not in other areas.”
When Suba tried to talk to people from the Ministry of Rehabilitation to complain about these problems, they told her that the intelligence officers were not citing valid laws, and that they couldn’t force her to do anything. Yet they still come.
In spite of all of the trauma Suba has undergone and continues to face, she is dedicated to following through on principles of helping others. Suba is currently building a business where people with disabilities can work which also provides them with services. It is a few months away from being completed and opened.
Her goal she says quietly but firmly:
“For me to be a good worker, stand in society as equals, earn the same respect given to a normal person and do what I can for the people. Not to be subservient to others, to be able to do stand on my own. A life of service and dignity.”