Gajen’s Story

Although I was born in Mullaithivu, I have lived in Killinochchi since 2001. When I was born in the 1990s, a military campaign called Operation ‘Jayasikuru’ was being carried out. I still remember the sounds of guns and bombs going off afar when I was very young. I also remember the conversations that we had at our home regarding airstrikes and surveillance by drones. Though I cannot remember everything from my childhood, I still remember isolated incidents vaguely.

In the 1960s, my grandfather, while on a work-related train journey, was murdered by a Sinhala mob. When we were growing up, my father told me repeatedly that he could not remember his father’s face. After this tragedy, my father’s family was cared for by one of his uncles. When the uncle was living in Batticaloa, he was abducted by the Special Task Force under the Sri Lanka Police Service. He was brought back to see his family three days after the abduction, with the military accompanying him. We have no information about what happened to him after he was taken back from that meeting. I heard all these from my father.

At around the same time when the arbitrary arrest, suppression and extra-judicial killings were being carried out by the Special Task Force, my father – an undergraduate student then – was arrested in a military cordon, brought into an army camp in Batticaloa and subjected to torture. Shortly after his release from this camp, he was arrested again, spending three years in the Boosa prison. He got out of jail when political prisoners were released as a result of the Indo-Lankan accord. Nevertheless, the constant harassment he received after the release forced him to abandon his higher studies. Around the same time, my mother’s family, whose land was situated near Palali military camp, faced constant harassment at the hands of the military, which impelled my mother to participate in the protests for our rights as an undergraduate. Both my parents met in one such demonstration. So my family has always been somehow involved in the struggle for our rights.

When I was preparing for my grade 5 scholarship exam, battles started in Sambur and Muthur. In those days, Kfir airstrikes caused us particular panic. Around this time, one of the unforgettable events in my life transpired. Situated a 5km distance from the school in Kilinochchi where I studied was one of my teacher’s houses. When we started playing at the playground at around 2.30 p.m. after school on the day the incident occurred, several Kfir aircrafts entered the airspace. When we ran to our teacher in the classroom, the teacher kept shouting at us, telling us to duck down and lay flat on the floor for safety. I screamed in panic. The Kfirs flew lower, dropping off several bombs. My teacher’s house was caught in the bombing, killing everyone in his family, except himself and his daughter. This was the first incident that caused me to panic. I still remember running in fear of the Kfir, falling down on the ground for safety and screaming in panic. The impact of this incident lingered with me for a considerable period, causing me to scream in terror whenever I heard Kfirs dropping bombs off in the distance.

When I was going to the grade 5 scholarship exam, multi-barrel missiles were being fired. When Kfirs were flying low, making screeching noises in the process, and dropping bombs off, we were writing our exam in the exam hall. It was in such a terrifying context that we undertook our studies. The fighting started to get intense in 2007 and then in 2008; in June 2008, when we were sitting for our second term exam, although the exact timing is a bit hazy, a circular was issued to the effect of postponing all the examination and suspending the school for a month. But when the school restarted after a month, my school, which had a student population of around 2000, saw only around ten students. On that day, my grandmother showed us a shell piece she had found and told us that staying there was no longer safe. I remember as the bombing got intense, my father took me and my brother on his motorbike and dropped us off at a safe place in the middle of the night.

Having arrived in Tharmapuram, we made a tent and stayed there. From there, we kept moving from place to place – to Visuvamadu, Theravil, Udayarkaddu, Suthanthirapuram and then to Chundikkulam. Bunkers became an inseparable part of our displaced lives. We kept leaving our belongings behind one by one whenever we moved from place to place. With every move, we kept hearing the stories to the effect that someone had died and someone had been injured. These stories instilled in us a certain dread.

From Thevipuram, we went to Iranaippallai, and finally, in February 2009, we reached Mullivaaikkal. Of all the places that we stayed during displacement, our stay in Mullivaaikkal was the longest. When I was getting ready to have lunch on one of those days, I started hearing multi-barreled cannons being fired. Swiftly, my father instructed us to stay safe, by which point almost 40 shells had fallen and gone off around us. There was not even time to reach a safe place because the shells were falling that fast. An elderly man who lived close to us died when a shell went off 20 meters from our tent. He and his wife had been nice to us and treated us with kindness. Upon hearing his wife scream that there was a haemorrhage on her husband’s head, my father and others staying there tried to lift him up. At this point, his brain stood visible through the injury in his head. I also saw the rice he had just been eating falling from the slash on his stomach. His funeral was held nearby.

Drones were flying day and night. The rate of shells falling and the sound of firearm shootings kept growing. We realised that we were cornered in a constricted space. It became apparent at the end of April that staying there was futile. On the 9th and 10th days of May, artillery and shell attacks intensified. On the 9th, when we were inside the bunker, shells fell down and blasted near us. A few minutes later, a mother ran towards us, crying. At the same time, some others came running, carrying the injured on their shoulders; others carried the wounded by holding their hands and legs – because there was nothing to carry the injured on. From both sides of the Irattaivaaikkal, the artilleries of the Sri Lankan army kept bombarding us. On 10th May, my father got injured in his legs and stomach while he was out of the bunker with his friend.

When I, merely 12 years old then, ran to see my father after hearing that he had been wounded, he had already been taken inside a pick-up vehicle for surgery. Since the place was packed with people, they could not move the vehicle. At this point, I remembered something my father said: “It is in situations like these better to die than be injured, because death gives pain only for a day and will end with the funeral. Being wounded, however, requires care, medicines and other needs and is plagued with misery.” When I saw my father in an unconscious state inside the vehicle, I thought he would die. I had no one to console me at that time because my family members had been scatted during the displacement. I stood alone, not knowing what to do.

Finally, on 14th May, I saw my father for the last time after his surgery. He called my cousin, and I told her that it was doubtful that he would be able to look after us. He then told my cousin to take care of me. When she heard this, she started crying. I was not in a mental state to understand and comprehend what my father said to my cousin and its full implications. When my cousin and her fiancé tried to take me to another safe place, shell pieces flew above us. While inside the vehicle, my father shouted for us to duck and run. In the end, we managed to reach somewhere safe.

On 15th May, we decided to leave the place we were in instead of waiting for our father. Throughout the night, we heard the terrifying sound of bombs and shells going off from the Nandikadal. Blasts from tanks kept falling in our direction. When we came out from our bunkers, we noticed rounds flying across all directions. On 16th May, we were afraid to go through Irattaivaikal because the attack of the army advancing from that side was intense. Instead, we went toward Vattuvakal, thinking that if we surrendered to the cohort advancing from Vattuvakal side, we would be spared because the attack from their side was less intense in comparison. When we reached a place clustered with Palmyra trees in Nandikadal, the army kept shooting in our direction for a minute with heavy weapons. After some time, the soldiers ordered us to surrender. Two Christian priests and a few Hindu clerics went first. Following them, we entered the territory controlled by the army.

It was on that day that I saw the army again since seeing the army for the first time during my visit to Jaffna in 2006. Having only seen them while on the streets or camps, it was terrifying to see them fully attired for battle. Most of their guns were pointed at us. When we reached the military encampments, the sharpshooters fired rapidly in the direction of civilians that were coming behind us in the distance. I did not know who they were shooting at. When we neared the Vattuvakal Bridge, we saw a woman’s dead body with a bag in her hands nearby. We noticed that her thighs were mangled. Some crossed the water by wading through it and went in the direction of the army. The army halted the civilians coming from the north of Vattuvakal Bridge. At that place, more than 10 battle tanks were on alert. All the soldiers had masked their faces with black clothes. Their demeanour was threatening when they were talking to us. As most civilians could not understand their language, the soldiers acted cruelly. When I went to fetch water from the nearest pond, one of the persons sitting beside me told me not to drink it as several dead bodies were floating in it. I drank the water nonetheless, not heeding his caution. At that time, I did not fear or flinch in disgust at drinking the water soaked with dead bodies.

Almost 4-5 days thereafter, we only had ‘kanji’ for food. It was filled with water and had little rice in it. The army then brought us to a field adjacent to a Palmyra grove. The area was packed with people. The army was ordering through loudspeakers the former LTTE members to surrender. Although I searched for my father in that crowd, I could not get the opportunity to find out if he was still alive. The battle was intense from wherever we looked.

After that, all civilians were subjected to complete body surveillance. Everyone was stripped naked, and the checking was carried out. No consideration was given to the gender of the civilian. Once it was over, we were hauled into buses belonging to the Sri Lanka Transport Board. On 18th May, the army, using loudspeakers, announced that the war had come to an end and that all the former LTTE members, their families and those that had assisted them must come forth and surrender. I thought that since both my parents had engaged in the struggle for our rights in their early days, I would also be arrested despite my age. That evening, we were sent to Zone-4 in Cheddikulam. My grandfather, transported out of Vanni a few months ago due to his injuries, came to the camp amidst a considerable struggle and talked with me. My injured father, he said, was being treated at the Dambulla Hospital. This piece of information gave me great solace.

Currently, I am progressing in my career, having established a factory through my efforts. Nevertheless, the experience I have had to endure is still traumatic. When I was stripped naked during the surveillance, I felt a sense of shame. I was mortified when my shirt and shorts were stripped. The fact that everyone was stripped naked without giving any regard to who was nearby – whether it was a mother or a child of those that were being stripped naked, for instance – by the Sri Lankan army is causative of immense suffering to the population that emerged out of the enormous life-altering challenges alive.

As I grew up, I understood the horrible contradictions between what I had witnessed during the last phase of the war and what the Sri Lankan army did in the name of ‘liberating’ the Tamils. The final stage of the war is not in any sense a ‘humanitarian’ operation; it is entirely a military operation. None of what the Sri Lankan army did to us – firing at us, bombarding us, targeting us and stripping us naked – could ever fall under a ‘humanitarian’ operation.

See post in full in Tamil here and Sinhala here.