“Tell us where your brother is,” the Indian soldiers told Vasuki as they dangled her above a well. They were from the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) and had raided her family home. That is her first memory of the war.
She was 9 years old and her family had just returned home to Kilinochchi after having been displaced by fighting between the IPKF and the LTTE. Her brother was a high-ranking member in the LTTE and so in the IPKF’s last days on the island, they came searching for him to her house. “They came in a big truck,” she says. “They came in our home… The whole place was packed with IPKF personnel.”
“Didn’t your brother come here yesterday?” they asked her, pushing and pulling her in and out of the well. Getting no answers to her brother’s whereabouts, the soldiers finally declared that they were going to take Vasuki with them. That way, her family would be forced to find the brother, they told her mother.
“A soldier lifted me off the ground to take me away,” she recalls. “My father was struggling with them to take me back.” “Shoot me first before taking her away,” he said. Her mother was already in tears. “She will die in the road if you take her away,” said her father, pointing to her mother. “Leave her.” “I raised my son, how I raised my other children,” her mother pleaded. “If he has gone to a militant group, it is his choice. What can I do?”
Eventually, the Indian troops let Vasuki go and left.
Some years later, in 1993, Vasuki’s brother died during combat, becoming a Maaveerar.
Around 1997 Vasuki and her family were again displaced during Operation Jayasikurui and only returned in 2001. During this period Vasuki got married, but her husband was disappeared after only a year of marriage from Colombo in a white van abduction. She still doesn’t know what happened to him.
During the ceasefire, Vasuki and her family stayed in Kilinochchi and Vasuki has fond memories of that period:
A lot of foreigners visited here. There was a peace secretariat. And there was a hotel in Iranamadu where peace negotiations were held. A lot of new buildings were built by LTTE and a lot of new employees were recruited. Even though the Tamil Eelam Administrative Service [LTTE’s quasi-state administration apparatus] already had many employees, they made sure to recruit from poor Maaveerar families. A lot of people were employed during this time according to their qualifications. For example, since I did not pass Commerce in advanced level, they recruited me as a clerk only. Later on, maybe because of the trust they had on me, they promoted me to a cashier in the administrative service.
Vasuki also began working on women’s issues at that time and was part of the village women’s association.
During the last phase of the war, Vasuki and her family like most families in Kilinochchi were displaced by the military onslaught. Vasuki however kept working for the Administrative Service right until the very end. During this displacement Vasuki explained that initially everyone received food parcels called ‘Indian Parcels’ or could buy provisions from LTTE-run stores or regular stores. But after reaching Maththalan she said it became increasingly difficult as places where food was provided were increasingly targeted and people didn’t know “where to go buy food items without getting shot or killed in artillery strikes.” She says:
We had children with us. My elder sister had three children. Her family consisted of five people including her husband and children. We all were staying together. When only two kilograms of rice was left, I went to Maththalan. I did not go to office that day. I was standing in the queue to purchase rice. They said a person could only buy maximum ten kilograms of rice. Not everyone could afford it. I was standing there in the hope of buying ten kilograms. But all the rice they had was finished before I reached the counter. At that moment we heard a kfir coming our way. We rushed to a corner and kept ourselves to the ground. When LTTE stores were being bombed by the air force, the LTTE told us to take whatever we want. Also the LTTE provided children under the age of ten with cereal balls and milk to avoid malnutrition. They did it everywhere. When they were handing out these provisions in Valaiyarmaddam, around forty-five children got killed in an artillery strike.
During displacement Vasuki recalls the way they survived by carrying everything around despite great difficulty:
We removed the asbestos sheets used for roofing along with whatever we could remove and carried them with us. Since we used to be displaced often, we always did that. We did the same when we got displaced last time and brought everything back when we returned in 2001. So we thought this displacement would be like the previous ones and took everything we could with us. To transport our things to Kandawalai, it cost LKR 8,000. When we started to move from there, shelling started. Hence the transportation fee got higher. From there we carried them to Tharmapuram. We paid LKR 9,000 since they said that they would only do it if we pay that amount. We took the things in a vehicle to Moonkilaru as well. From there we carried the things in bicycles. We always took a knife, an axe, a winnow, plates and cups to drink tea for each person. I carried the rice and flour in my bicycle. My father brought things in his bicycle too. Arabi, my sister’s daughter was very small back then. My sister carried her in her bicycle. My brother-in-law carried the other child. We also carried a tent.
Arriving wherever they would camp, Vasuki says they would always dig a bunker first and then place the tent above it. They would cook, eat and sleep underneath the tent. But during the monsoon season the bunker would always be full of water. Since Vasuki was still working she carried a lot of sarees with her which her family would use at night as sheets but she says, “it would be freezing in a few minutes.” Out of fear of shelling, Vasuki said her family would never sleep outside the bunker but many children who could not stay cooped up that way ended up dying by sleeping or playing outside the bunkers. “They would not stay inside all the time,” she says, adding “it just makes me sad even now when I think about that.”
Vasuki thinks the displacement affected the mental and physical growth of her sister’s daughter who was born in December 2008 in the middle of the war in Visuvamadu. “We chose to name her after a school child who was killed in a kfir attack while displaced,” she says.
Vasuki still remembers in detail the horrific incidents she witnessed during the war:
One mother had just called her children to come out of the bunker to eat. All four children were killed instantly in an artillery strike. The administrative service went and picked up the body pieces in sandbags. Their father, elder brother and the younger brother had gone to cut wood. When the brother returned and saw he cried saying that they had bought a new dress for one of his sisters that day and, her and another younger sister had been fighting with her for the dress. So he had told her that they will buy a dress for her after cutting the wood the next day. He kept crying saying that.
Vasuki says it was hard to always stay inside the bunker but venturing outside of them was how so many people were killed:
One day I went outside the bunker to take a break and heard the artillery coming our way. You can hear the fan, right? You can know from the sound whether it is going to fall nearby or not. You would go rigid in fear. I went inside the bunker. The moment I got inside, I heard a loud explosion and someone crying ‘amma’ aloud. Around fifteen artilleries fell. I did not see their house when I went outside. The children’s skulls were cracked open like the cracked coconut shells in temples. Their mother she was sitting with the rice plate in her hand. She got injured on the other hand. The LTTE took her away. She survived. But what is the point, right?
At night Vasuki says shelling would occur killing people instantly:
The family who was staying near us had two girls and a boy. It was in Pokkanai, near the Pillaiyar temple. One night, we were sitting there and chatting. We would normally go to bed saying, ‘Who would still be alive tomorrow?’ After we returned to our sleeping place, we heard someone crying aloud. When we went back, that boy was lying dead, killed by a bullet. His two sisters were crying.
The impact of witnessing so much human suffering and atrocity caused many to become mentally disturbed, including Vasuki’s father. In one artillery attack in Pokkanai, twenty-five people were killed and their inner body parts ended up hanging from fences and small trees all around the area. Vasuki’s father upon seeing that stopped talking altogether. Despite having a bullet wound herself, Vasuki found the strength to take her father to the hospital.
Many people pulled together to survive displacement during the last phase of the war she explained:
We would become friends with the neighbours. If four people were cooking, the rest would stay inside the bunker. We would go together to fetch water. We would not go alone. We always went together. If we hear anything, artillery or something, we would put the pots aside and lie down. Some would go to the sea to buy fish. The rest would cook. All children would be inside the bunkers. We would not let them come outside. They were like gods to us.
When two or three families stayed together, we started to dig two bunkers. Everyone stayed inside one bunker and two would stay in the other to cook.
Vasuki said that during this time “there was unity among people” and from her perspective “even the ones who were proud of their caste stayed with other people.”
Conditions were tough for survival. Even to use the toilet, most people would go at night to use the seaside while only a few further away from the fighting would dig holes and build temporary toilets. Food particularly after Maththalan was a real struggle Vasuki said:
There were no vegetables at that time. There were only scallions, which were being cultivated. Those scallions, they were not of the right size or anything. They were the only things that would come. A bundle would cost from LKR 10 to LKR 30. That was what we bought and cooked. Also we had unshelled lentils. At that time, even if you just cook them in water, they tasted like ambrosia to us. That lentil curry! Also they sold fish by the seaside. Even if they were small fish, we bought them. But we had more than enough of coconut oil till we go into army-controlled area. During the last days, our food was this roti made from wheat flour by frying in oil. We had enough oil, right? That was what many people ate at that time. Coconut became scarce during the last days.
Survival of the people was greatly aided by the LTTE who would arrive at scenes of attacks to help the people when everyone else would be too scared to go, Vasuki says. But Vasuki also acknowledges that the LTTE forcibly recruited people during this last phase, in some cases leading to fights between the LTTE and civilians and causing resentment of the LTTE.
Vasuki and her family eventually came under army-controlled territory at the end of April 2009. Being a young woman Vasuki recounts a harrowing instance in which if not for the kindness of others she believes she would have been taken and raped by the army:
My father was loaded into a tractor first after we entered the army-controlled area due to his injuries. The road we were travelling was bordered with forest on both sides. It was a narrow path where only a tractor can go. Every few feet, an army person was standing along the road and taking pictures. I was the only young woman among my group. So people started to give me things. One person gave me some vermilion. Another gave me the paste. Another asked me to tie my hair into a bun. I made a huge bun out of my hair and applied the paste and the vermilion over my forehead to make a large pottu. I never wore such a big pottu in my life but it was to emphasize I was a married woman. I covered myself with a towel like this. This army person kept chasing me saying that he has to take a picture. I made the towel into a hood, covering everything except my eyes. It was such a large towel. He kept coming behind. After they loaded my mother into the tractor, the army asked me to go by walking, saying there is no space. But people said, “even if there is no space for another person, we will manage.” And they somehow managed to lift me into the tractor while it was moving. If it is not for the people, the army would have dragged me into a nearby thicket and done something to me I’m sure.
Arriving at Omanthai checkpoint in CTB buses Vasuki was separated from her family and had got her period. Forced to remain on the bus and worried about going outside due to the volume of soldiers, Vasuki got help from other women on the bus who gave her a cloth to use. But Vasuki had bigger problems as one particular soldier began leering at her from just outside the bus window. The people on the bus helped Vasuki to get down from the bus and hide under it. When the soldier came to the bus and asked where she had gone they pretended not to know. The next day Vasuki went with another anna on the bus to look for her family. When she found them both her amma and appa were in terrible shape and needed an ambulance but one never came.
Eventually they were all taken to the IDP camp where again Vasuki was separated from her family. There, everyone was forced to strip naked before military officers being allowed in. “Our dignity was the last thing we were carrying – they made sure we had to lose it as well to be alive,” Vasuki said. They had not bathed in four days and Vasuki had dealt with having her period that whole time so she insisted on bathing. Vasuki lead a group of people that had arrived with her to the river in the camp to bathe. But upon arriving at the river, a soldier stood on the bank with a camera taking pictures of her. Vasuki says she hurriedly bathed and then as they were walking back the soldier who was still taking pictures asked which block she was in and her name, so she lied and gave a different name. That was the first and last time Vasuki says she went to the river to bathe but adds that she knows of at least 10 girls who went missing from that river.
Eventually Vasuki was found by her cousin-brother who helped her cross into the camp where her parents were and she moved into their tent. But when soldiers in that camp noticed her moving in they started coming by the tent asking for her calling her ‘lasana’ (beautiful in Sinhala). Vasuki says her mother saved her by telling them she had chicken pox. But many other women were not able to escape Vasuki says, explaining that many young women who arrived alone at the camps would be taken away by the army and never seen again.
The sexual harassment of Vasuki didn’t end in the IDP camps though. When she finally resettled with her family, since her elder brother was a Maaveerar, the army personnel used to visit often. She says they would ask, “Your elder brother is gone right? You’re alone right? We’ll build a house for you.” Her neighbor would come and tell them he was her brother and to leave her alone but still they would come and make comments on her appearance. While she initially just tried staying inside the house, eventually she could not bear it and took up a job. But there she ran into more trouble as the CID came and interrogated her for over 8 hours. After this she wrote to the government complaining but in response CID interrogated her again.
Vasuki now works trying to support war-affected victim-survivors like herself but she worries about the state of the community and the continued harassment of former LTTE cadres and war-affected women:
Yesterday I met an ex-combatant who is changing his blood [fearing injections by the military is killing cadres]. He said, “I don’t know what will happen to me. I am changing my blood now.” He said that he is in trouble. He said that they come and ask for medical reports. The CID is also troubling him. He said they came day before yesterday as well. What he is worrying about is, “We fought. We took weapons in our hands. We received punishments for that. My family and relatives bought me an auto rickshaw to make a living. But they [military] are not letting me to live in peace with my family. What should we do? Should we die?” That is how society is now.