To Jaffna and Back
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(Facts have been presented as related to me by the people I met in Jaffna without alteration or embellishment. The conversations I had with most of the people I met were in Tamil and have been translated here. Names of people and certain events have been omitted due to safety concerns)
I write these events not as a criticism of any party or person but as an appeal to those concerned, to end the suffering of the people of Sri Lanka. I write under the encouragement of my friends and associates. Their words of support and concern tell me that there is still hope, despite the feeling of hopelessness concerning our collective inability to safeguard our lives and rights or effect a positive change in the lives of people who are no different from me but who come from a different part of the country.
I met a lady from Jaffna while she was visiting Colombo on work. She was involved in initiatives to improve the lives of the women and children in Jaffna and its neighbouring villages and gave me a very brief but somber picture of the plight of the people there. Despite the occasional discussions I was privy to with people who lived in those areas; I was shocked to hear that the people of Jaffna underwent many hardships in their daily lives, including starvation, fear for their lives and other privations. She told me the best way to understand what was going on was to experience it first hand.
This started off a journey I had resisted all my life. Born in Kandy where I grew up before moving to Colombo, I knew all too well the many shameful eras of my motherland like the 1983 racial riots and the 1987 – 90 JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna/ People’s Liberation Front) insurgency. I have witnessed first hand the brutality that people are capable of, both against those that speak a different language and even those who share the same tongue.
I had heard of the glory that was Jaffna from my mother – a proud and courageous woman – who was born and brought up in Jaffna. I was content with the stories and took some pride in professing that I would never set foot in Jaffna when she visited during the 2002 ceasefire. She returned jaded and depressed. The Jaffna she had visited was very different from the Jaffna she knew. I never asked her about it.
Several years later, when I finally undertook my own visit to Jaffna on the 11th of December 2007, I wasn’t prepared for the things I was about to witness.
I was worried at how expensive the journey was going to be. My tickets alone would cost almost Rs. 19,000/- I was told I would have to pay up to Rs. 2,500/- per night for my lodging in addition to paying for meals. Hiring a van to travel to the various places would cost me Rs. 5,000/- a day.
I tried to get my friends to join me so we could split the cost. Everyone was surprised I was undertaking the journey. No one wanted to join though.
I was glad for the opportunity to travel with the group that was going to Jaffna for a summit. Religious dignitaries including His Holiness Tep Vong, Great Supreme Patriarch, Kingdom of Cambodia, Ms. Ela Gandhi, a grand daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, who represented the African National Congress in the South African Parliament, Mr. Mir Nawaz Khan Marwat, Moderator, Asian Conference of Religions for Peace of Pakistan, Rev. Dr. Michio T. Shinozaki, President, Rissho Kosei-kai Gakurin Seminary, and former Director of the General Secretariat of Rissho Kosei-kai in Japan and Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General, World Conference of Religions for Peace based in New York formed the group of foreign delegates.
Several Buddhist clergy including Ven. Kotugoda Dammawasa Thero, Anunayaka Amarapura Nikaya, Ven. Professor Belanwila Wimalarathana – Chancellor of Sri Jayawardenapura University, together with Sri Ganasambantha Paramacharya Swami Somasundara, Head of the Adheenam, Nallur, Kurukal Karthikeja Santhirasegara Sarma, International Secretary, Hindu Priest Organization, Jaffna, Bishop Vianney Fernando, Bishop of Kandy & President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, BishopThomas Savundaranayagam, Bishop of Jaffna, Bishop Rayappu Joseph, Bishop of Mannar, Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe, Bishop of Kurunegala, Church of Ceylon, Moulavi Alhaj Niyas Muhammad, Chief of Ihsaniyya Arabic College, Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Rizwi, President, All Ceylon Jamiyatul Ulama Association, Colombo, and Al Haj Niyas Muhammad, Chief of Ihsaniyya Arabic College represented the various religious groups in Sri Lanka.
Day 01 – Getting to Jaffna
The journey to the Ratmalana airport from the TransAsia hotel, where we assembled for a short Press Briefing, was smooth as we were accompanied by a motorcade. I was only slightly worried about the rumours I had overheard about phones and cameras not being allowed. It would be nice to get away from ringing phones and hectic schedules though the prospect of being in Jaffna with no immediate contact to the outside world was slightly daunting. I opted not to take my camera to avoid any unnecessary complications.
Excited at the prospect of visiting the people there, I had managed to get together a few things like children’s stationary, toiletries, toys, clothes and food items. I had heard that batteries, boxes of matches and electronic items were not allowed into Jaffna. I was worried that if I wasn’t allowed to take everything I had planned to, I would have to leave it behind at the security check point as I knew that no one was allowed to accompany us to the airport and therefore I had no one to whom I could give the rejected things to.
Luckily for me, traveling with a group of religious leaders and other eminent persons, I was not required to surrender my phone. It was little consolation though, as soon after we landed, we lost access to the Dialog network.
I also noticed that the 30 odd person team I traveled with had a much easier time. We were not subjected to luggage checks or a long wait like the other 5 passengers who traveled with us. Our group got to the airport soon after noon and sat in the bus for about 40 minutes during which our names and details were checked and rechecked. The other 5 passengers on the other hand had been at the security checkpoint since 7.45am. They were checked and allowed inside only around noon. They were an elderly couple (both not in the best of health), a young girl with her mother, a young boy with his mother, a businessman and a local NGO worker.
Eager to show my solidarity I launched into conversation with them only to be met with blank looks and monosyllabic responses. I finally managed to break the ice with the elderly couple while we waited after our arrival in the Pallaly airbase. I learned that she had a problem with her leg while her husband had a bad eye and was a heart patient. They had visited Colombo to see their son off to Canada with his wife and 1year old son. They laughingly said their son had dutifully called on his arrival in Canada to say it was biting cold, but it was better to be cold and safe there than unsafe here.
The old lady also confided in me that the batteries for her wall clocks had run out so she had bought replacements, only to have them confiscated at the security checkpoint. She said she hoped her watch battery would not run out as she then would have no way of keeping time.
Our flight took exactly 1hour and 10minutes. I lost track of time as I sat around waiting, though I was aware that we were off schedule and would probably not make it to Jaffna town in time for the scheduled city tour. I was told that curfew was imposed at 9pm but shops closed down and people went home long before nightfall.
We were all piled into a bus and taken out of the high security zone, where we changed into a bigger bus. The windows were heavily tinted and shaded and we were told not to open them. Driving blind in the dark there was not much we could see.
After stopping at another location, two security personnel boarded the bus. The skillful negotiating of our organizer got us off the hook but the other passengers underwent a registration process in which they were photographed and their details taken down. I learnt later that it was done outside but today was an exception. Probably because of the presence of our large group which consisted of foreign nationals and religious leaders.
I asked the young girl who was traveling with her mother how they would get home. They replied that they would probably not be able to get home that night as the last bus was at 5.30pm and the trishaws would not run after dark. They would probably have to spend the night at a guesthouse. Guesthouses charged upto Rs. 2500/- a night.
We all disbanded at the main guesthouse where other members of our group were already staying. They had not received clearance to travel on the special charter flight with us. Instead they had started out early and come by the previous flight. I learned that their journey had not been as comfortable or quick as mine had been. The first photograph we took was of a tired old lady seated on her bags while her son tried negotiating the price of a room for the night with the guesthouse owner.
Thanks to excellent planning we were quickly taken to another guesthouse by 7.30pm. We quickly abandoned the idea of the city tour and enjoyed the hospitality of the staff and the famed Jaffna cuisine. It had been a long day and we hoped to get a good night’s sleep. The sound of missiles being fired (shelling) was disconcerting but we were assured that we were not in danger unless the LTTE retaliated to military fire, in which case we were in the direct line of fire. The Guesthouse staff joked that they could expect a few days’ peace on our account.
Day 02 – Inter religious summit
The next day, while we waited for the van to take us to the Jaffna public library where the inter-religious summit was scheduled to take place, we learnt that security had been tightened around the area.
I sensed that our meeting in Jaffna was warmly regarded by the people. The guesthouse staff were very curious to know how the meeting had gone and excitedly showed us the reports carried in the local newspapers the next day. I hoped that they would not hold it against us if we were unable to help their situation.
Being proficient in Tamil I was able to speak with many of the people I met. Hearing their tales of horror about people being killed in broad daylight with no interference or check by the very prominently present security forces, the condition of mental anguish they underwent living in constant fear, the lack of food and essentials at affordable prices etc I was unable to refrain from making a plea on their behalf for more responsible authority when I was suddenly called upon to speak as one of the younger people present.
The stories were horrific. I was told by a nun that her cousin had been riding along on his motorbike when two men in civilian attire had overtaken him on a motorbike without number plates and shot the man who was riding in front of him in broad daylight. He had stopped when he had seen the man fall and was told to mind his own business and go on his way unless he wanted to share the same fate. He had told her that the man appeared wounded and had been thrashing around on the ground and he was unable to help him before he succumbed to his injuries.
She told me that there were informers to the military who took photographs and videos of people involved in events like the LTTE Heroes Day commemoration (Maha Veerar Thinam) etc. who were then targeted for attack or harassment.
I had also heard from one of my friends who had visited Jaffna earlier that people were not allowed to even cross the road for upto three hours when a military convoy was expected to pass by. But I was shocked when I heard that on one occasion, a bus was not allowed to cross the road to proceed on its way. The conductor had asked the military guard standing nearby if they could pass quickly as it would take less than a minute and the convoy was nowhere in sight. The military guard had made a sign which the conductor had misunderstood as a sign to proceed and had asked the driver to proceed. For this act of disobedience he had suffered a brutal beating while the passengers of the bus looked on.
I met two elderly ladies who served in the hospitals and camps. They said they had delivered two babies on the run when people were forced to leave Jaffna. Once a young mother had gone into labour while traveling on foot out of Jaffna and had to be attended to by them. They said there were so many people around there was absolutely no privacy and they had to ask a group of women to stand around and hold up their sari pallus (falls) to offer the mother some cover while she gave birth.
Another time when they were forced to flee their homes a mother had given birth in the pouring rain. The ladies had asked a man with a bullock cart to offer the mother some shelter under his cart while they helped deliver the baby. Mother and baby had to travel five miles further on till they reached a hospital and were able to receive medical attention.
I was also told of three young girls who had been raped by the military. They were now pregnant and under the care of a religious group.
I was told (and also read in the local newspapers) that people were often prevented from attending religious services and visiting places of worship.
It was only when I had several strangers walking over to me and quietly thanking me while they cautioned me to be careful and not give anyone my contact details that I realized the enormity of my actions. I had spoken out. Something the people of Jaffna were not allowed to do.
Suddenly the presence of the security forces watching and recording the proceedings took on an ominous meaning.
When we began the second session after lunch we received the news that relatives of three Tamil National Alliance members in the Eastern province had been abducted by members of a paramilitary group led by the Pillayan faction of the TMVP (Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulihal) to deter them from voting against the National Budget.
The Playlet by the youth of Jaffna was a powerful depiction of scenes of war, peace and reconciliation. When the youth mimed a running train some of the religious people seated behind me laughingly commented that they had probably not seen a train in all their life as the train service to and from Jaffna had been stopped more than 2 decades ago. Despite this I was slightly shocked when I saw the ruined building which used to be the Jaffna Railway station the following day. A few days later I remembered this very same remark when I came across a section on the road that was pointed out to me as once having been the railroad crossing. The rail tracks had long been pulled out.
I had to abandon the idea of accompanying one of our group members to visit her parents in Point Pedro as I was advised that it was too risky. We were all a bit worried when the van she was traveling in failed to return that evening. We had no way of contacting her by phone. Later that night when access to the phone network was back on we tried unsuccessfully to get through to her on her mobile phone.
We were relieved when another member of our group told us that the van had returned after dropping her. She had been held up in the freeze that accompanies the passing of a military convoy.
I didn’t realize just how keyed up I was till later that night when the generator blew out with a load bang and all the lights faded away leaving me paralyzed with fear, sweating in the dark with all my senses alert. I didn’t sleep too well that night and wondered if it was wise to stay on in Jaffna any longer than absolutely necessary.
To make it worse I had absolutely no access to the mobile phone network. Also as per new security measures, all calls made from phone booths to persons outside of Jaffna would have to be registered, giving the name of the caller, the number being called and the name of the person being called and their relationship to the caller. I was reluctant to open my mother up to any kind of harassment that this could lead to and didn’t call her.
On our way home that evening we went by the street where my mother had lived. I thought I found the house in which she had grown up in. It looked deserted.
Day 03 – Staying on
I was able to change the dates of my travel easily; however I was not too comfortable with the fact that the travel office did not have my ticket with them, including the little blue card which was my Ã¢Â€Âœsecurity clearance passÃ¢Â€Â for the duration of my stay.
On my way back from the ticketing office I saw a car. It was the first car I had seen in Jaffna so I pointed it out. The driver of the van smiled shyly and responded that he too had a car. Ã¢Â€ÂœI don’t drive it though as the fuel is too costly. Also there are humps all over the roads near the checkpoints and the car is too low to go over themÃ¢Â€Â he said.
The presence of a group of men in civilian clothing on the second day of the meeting who openly pointed me out to be photographed and filmed on video camera made me slightly uncomfortable. I asked a lady who they were and she replied that they were officers from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). As they passed them I heard them speaking in Tamil and this made me even more nervous as I had heard of the presence of informers and other paramilitary groups and their practice of collecting photographic evidence of people who were later targeted.
My discomfort increased when a reporter I’d met the day before told me that they had asked him to pass on my visiting card and details to them. He said it would be best if I left as soon as the summit was over. I didn’t know if I should be glad or not that I happened to be there on my own initiative and did not represent any organization.
The summit ended with the participants presenting a draft proposal for peace building based on the discussions, to be shared with the Ministry of Defense the next day. The draft included proposals for the immediate cessation of armed conflict, the arrest of the use of claymore mines, aerial attacks and bombings on civilians, forced conscription of children, abductions, disappearances, extortions and extra-judicial killings and harassment of civilians, the opening of the A9 highway to Jaffna and all other roads to facilitate the movement of people and goods to Jaffna and the resettlement of people displaced by the war.
The proposal also included the reactivation of the donor co-chairs, increased participation of Japan and Norway in facilitating a peaceful solution between the government and the LTTE together with assistance for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the areas affected by the war.
Many of those present spoke on the need for greater devolution of power and a constitutional framework in which people enjoy the political right to develop themselves. I optimistically hoped that the proposed meeting with the Ministry of Defense would be something more than just a token meeting.
Soon after the meeting the rest of our group went to the guesthouse to pick up their luggage and leave on the afternoon flight. I borrowed one of the ladies’ cameras to use in Jaffna.
I accompanied one of the other members of my group who was staying back in Jaffna. We visited one of the NGOs and briefly discussed the situation. It gave me an idea of the places I should try to visit and the people I should speak to.
While we walked back to the guesthouse my companion and I were stopped on the road by two security persons on a bike who told us that we should join our group as they were leaving without us. We told them we were staying back. When we got back to the guesthouse to check out, we found that the security persons had been there looking for us. I was carrying my notes with me and had only left my clothes and toiletries behind. Everything seemed intact but my phone charger was missing from among my things.
I was relieved to be staying with a religious group and not in the guesthouse. Without the protection of being part of a larger group we had to find our own transport (not an easy feat in Jaffna). I noticed that the staff of an NGO who my companion knew were slightly reluctant to offer me a ride in their van though they had no problem with him. We managed to get a trishaw with the help of the guesthouse staff. I was glad when I finally got to the convent that evening.
Accompanied by one of the nuns I tried to go check out my mother’s ancestral home but the security guard in the next compound signaled urgently to us. The house was occupied by the military.
We then visited a house where a healing service was being held by a priest I had met at the summit. What struck me most was the statue of Christ seated on a lotus in the traditional pose of the Buddha. It had been made by a blind man about to go in for eye surgery and who had taken a vow that he would sculpt a statue of Jesus if he regained his sight. The priest told me he was dead now.
There were offerings of fruit and other essentials which were laid at the foot of the statue. I was touched to see the people weeping at the foot of the statue while they prayed.
I met a cheerful boy who told me his name was James Bond. He was small in appearance but said he was 40 years old. He seemed physically and mentally handicapped. He told me his mother was dead. The priest said he was his helper.
I also met a weary young woman who was introduced to me as a counselor. She had obtained her degree from a foreign university. I also met a lady there who told me that her cow had been killed the previous day in the shelling (which I thought was too far off to be any danger to us). She wept when she said that the cow was her only means of livelihood as she was a widow with two children and lived in a refugee camp.
Reverting to some proposals I had got from some women’s groups in Colombo to give cows to the people of Jaffna so that they would have milk for their consumption, I asked her if there was anyway we could help her to get another cow. I regretted it the moment I said it as I realized my inability to offer any solace to her or others suffering like her. The lady looked at me tiredly before saying Ã¢Â€ÂœWe don’t want cows or packets of food or aid. We just want to be left in peaceÃ¢Â€Â. She broke down and cried as she spoke.
She told me of the hardships young girls and women undergo living in camps with no proper bathrooms or toilets. I was told that when they use their makeshift toilets and bathrooms in the night they are approached by the military sentries on guard. Ã¢Â€ÂœWhat can we do?Ã¢Â€Â the lady said. Ã¢Â€ÂœWe can’t blame those men as well, after all its not priests and philosophers who join the army. They too are people who have feelingsÃ¢Â€Â. I was amazed at her matter of fact tone.
A little girl carrying a baby crossed over from a neighbouring house. The counselor said she had seen a man called out of his shop in the middle of the morning and shot in the head. The little girl had come screaming to her seeing the man’s brains splattered on the ground. The baby she carried looked very small but she said he was almost two years old. I would have thought he was less than a year old. The counselor told me the children belonged to the displaced fishing community and were unable to earn a living as fishermen were not allowed to fish unless granted military permission. They could then fish for a few hours but they were not allowed to take boats out and had to wade in the water and fish with nets. Often they caught nothing.
Ã¢Â€ÂœOur future generations will be sick and our children will be abnormalÃ¢Â€Â said the counselor who is married herself but weary of starting a family. Ã¢Â€ÂœWhat can we promise them?Ã¢Â€Â
A young woman who was dumb walked in carrying another little baby boy. She motioned to me that her husband had been shot. I later learned that the little boy was an orphan and the dumb girl was bringing him up.
I felt guilty when I left them and hurried back to the convent. One of the nuns told me she had been stopped at a checkpoint and asked by a young soldier to get down and walk when she had gone into town that morning. However another soldier had motioned for her to remain. He had gone towards his bunker and returned with a sheet of paper which he had folder and put into their basket without saying a word before motioning them to proceed on their way. They had been terrified and looked at the paper only after they were well out of sight. It was an article in Tamil condemning child conscription by the LTTE and was accompanied by a photograph of pallbearers carrying the coffin of a slain senior LTTE cadre. Behind them was a small child clad in military attire.
I learnt that there were 14 centres for orphaned children and youth aged 3-18 years in Jaffna alone. They were funded by the LTTE. The question that was posed to me was what hope do these children have for the future when they have no assistance or acceptance from the South?
That night I wondered if people could ever get accustomed to the sound of incessant shelling.
Day 04 – The Disappeared
The next day I learnt that two members of my group had got held back by a convoy and almost missed the flight back. They later learned that the convoy was actually the group of religious leaders and dignitaries on their way out of Jaffna town.
We learnt from the local newspapers that a flight had been cancelled due to a technical fault and that the boat service too was suspended owing to bad weather. I hoped I would not get stranded back in Jaffna for too long.
I then visited a mother and her three daughters. Her son had disappeared in March. He’d last been seen being questioned at a military checkpoint. She had exhausted herself trying to find him, reporting his disappearance to the police, the ICRC office and even sending a letter to the military camp asking if they had him in their custody. She said that she and her daughters kept hearing news about him from sources who did not wish to identify themselves.
When they approached the EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party) representatives in the area for help, they had been told that the boy would be returned if they voted in favour of the EPDP. Again on another occasion if they paid a sum of Rs. 5lakhs.
The mother said she would do anything to get her son back but she didn’t have the money and also she said that she knew of many families who had not seen the return of their loved ones despite making payments and some others who had their loved ones released but killed shortly after.
Her daughters also showed me the letter addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Louise Arbour. They had tried to give the letter to her when she had visited Jaffna, however they had been prevented from seeing her by the military. The EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party) representatives had told the people gathered to meet the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that they cried and begged that they were being starved due to the high cost of living but that they didn’t seem to be inconvenienced at having to pay hundreds of rupees in bus fare to travel there to meet her.
They asked me if she would receive the letter if they sent it to the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka. While the older girl seemed skeptical that any good would come of it the younger girl was full of hope that her brother would return safely. She said she had seen his bike being ridden by one of the armed personnel minus the number plates. She seemed hopeful that Mrs. Louise Arbour would help them as she had been told by a priest who had met her that Mrs. Arbour had cried when she had learnt of the suffering of the people of Jaffna.
I was torn between consoling them and offering them hope when I felt completely helpless to do anything to bring back their brother.
The mother said she wished she knew he was dead so she could probably come to terms with her grief instead of suffering everyday, uncertain of his whereabouts and his plight. She said he was very close to her and never went anywhere on his own. She cried as she spoke about him.
Later, while accompanying a nun on an errand, she told me of the horrors of travel by ship where thousands of people stampede to get to a ship. It was more affordable than the flight costing Rs. 3,165/- Only 450 make it on one trip and they are crowded on to the ship with only two toilets. She said people were seasick all around and the stench was unbearable. She told me how she had set out from Trincomalee at 2pm and reached Jaffna the following day at 6.30pm.
She also said how she had had to visit her sister in Trincomalee who had lost 3 members of her family to Chikungunya because of the lack of saline and paracetemol. She said she was sick herself but had to make the journey because there was no one to mourn with her sister. She said she could barely walk and had waited outside the ExpoAir offices for hours to get a flight back with a whole crowd of people only to be chased away and the offices closed. On the second day overcome with fatigue and frustration she had sat down and cried while reciting the rosary. She said a young girl working at the ExpoAir office had grinned cheekily at her. But an elderly man had felt sorry for her and attended to her.
She told me of instances where women were subjected to vaginal examinations as part of the security check.
We stopped by the travel office to collect my ticket and was dismayed to hear that they still did not have it. I was now getting a bit that I didn’t have my security pass with me. But I was assured that it was alright and that I would have my ticket by evening.
I stopped by a local newspaper office (Udayan) to meet with my companion and proceed from there in a vehicle belonging to one of the local NGOs. There were security personnel on the Udayan publication premises. I was told that this was on account of the killings of the Udayan journalists.
I was told that one of the journalists who was killed was the son of a school principal. Armed people in civilian dress had gone to his house one night and demanded to see him. They had taken his mobile number and dialed a number they had found on it. A man had had answered asking why he was calling so late. The men had hung up and told the mother to leave them alone as they had to speak to her son. She had gone back into the house but come out again on the insistence of her other son. They had then berated her for interrupting. When she had apologized and turned to go back in when they had shot her son in the head and killed him.
I learnt that the newspaper office was now having a serious problem of operating due to a shortage of staff in addition to the shortage of newsprint in Jaffna.
We were told it was safer to travel in an NGO vehicle than a trishaw or by foot. The NGO vehicles had large flags and used flashing lights (like police cars) after dark. If they did not have the flashing lights they had to travel with the lights inside their vehicles switched on so that they would not come under Ã¢Â€Âœaccidental fireÃ¢Â€Â. I was quite nervous and made an effort to look relaxed whenever I passed a military officer. I also noticed that I touched my face or my hair in a manner that they could see my hands while I passed by. I didn’t want to think what might happen if someone got nervous about my presence there.
St. James Church
We visited St. James’ church where a programme was being conducted for the women affected by violence. We noticed that military personnel were posted at the church. When we inquired about it we were told that they were there to see that no one would disrupt the examinations. It was not clear who they thought would disrupt the examinations as it was a military controlled area. The school children we met were taking a break between papers at the Ordinary Level examination. I asked them how they had found the exam and they said they had found it ok.
I ran into the lady I had met the previous day who had lost her cow. She was very happy to see me and said she was glad I was going around Jaffna and learning more about them.
I was told that the church had been bombed when Jaffna was under attack by the military. More than a hundred people who had taken refuge in the church had all perished.
St. Nicholas Church
From there we went on to St. Nicholas’ church where some displaced people from Allaipidy and living in the refugee camp were waiting for the NGOs to distribute aid. While there I spoke to an old lady who showed me her leg which was injured during the shelling. She was seated with another lady. Their children had married each other. They had both lost their children in the shelling. Only their grandsons were alive. They were two little boys. I met the elder boy. He was a brave little fellow. His grandmother told me how his baby brother’s stomach had been torn open by the shrapnel and how he had scooped his intestines back in and held him till their parish priest (Fr. Jim Brown) was able to get them to a place where they could receive medical help. It is believed that the priest who later disappeared along with one of the other villagers was abducted and killed.
The grandmother said it was some months later that they realized that the little one had lost a testicle in the disaster. She said he had grown up to be a cheeky little fellow and now says Ã¢Â€ÂœJesu appa (Father Jesus) gave me only one (referring to his physical state)Ã¢Â€Â.
While we were speaking the little boy who had been listening to his grandmother talk about their experience quietly asked me if the President of Sri Lanka had children.
The ladies told me they didn’t know how to face the future as they could not return to their homes as they were destroyed. They said they had been forced to leave twice and had to borrow money to rebuild it. Some houses were built by an NGO but they were now destroyed and the roofing sheets and doors and windows taken off by the military. They said they couldn’t afford to rebuild their homes again as they had been reduced to the status of beggars with no hope for the future.
Ã¢Â€ÂœI paid Rs. 1500/- for a roofing sheet. Now the prices have doubled. How can we live like this?Ã¢Â€Â one lady asked me.
They had put together all their money to enroll the little boy at a good school in Jaffna. It had cost them Rs. 60,000/-.
As I prepared to leave I was told that I must visit the widow of the man who disappeared along with Fr. Brown. She had five children.
Church of Our Lady of Refuge
We also visited the Church of Our Lady of Refuge. The church hall had been converted into a refugee camp. There were almost 23 families (80 persons) cramped in a small area. They were fisher folk from Allaipidy who were now forced to find menial jobs to earn a living. The opportunities were rare as most people had no money to spare and therefore did their own work. The children played outside in the sand. There were two infants who had never experienced life out of the refugee camp.
One of the young women in the camp said her brother had been abducted. She didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Two men had surrendered themselves at the already crowded prison for fear of their lives.
I was told that the men and boys slept outside when the weather was good but on account of the rain over the last few days they were forced to sleep among the women. The roof leaked and made it very uncomfortable.
Six children in the camp were sitting for the Ordinary Level examinations that year. They had to travel to Velenai by bus and boat as they were registered there and no arrangements had been made for them to sit the examination in the local school. They said the priest was paying half their travel cost which was approximately Rs. 116/- a day. They left at 6.30am every morning and returned by 5pm. I was told that a total of 17 children displaced from Allaipidy were sitting the exam this year.
The Parish priest commented on the various social problems which were inevitable in such a situation. He said that a land had been found to resettle the people but there was no water. He said 97 people had been wounded and 28 killed in the Allaipidy attack. Now the people couldn’t return to their homes as there was no police station, post office, church etc. A young priest from Allaipidy who was recently ordained couldn’t even go back to have his first mass at his home parish (which was the tradition).
I found it difficult to pay attention to what the priest was saying. I had had enough and just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. The lack of sanitation and the squalor of the families cramped together was very disconcerting. The stories of horror were worse. Everywhere I went I was hearing more of the same.
I was glad when we set out to Acchuveli. The area seemed slightly freer with lots of open space, banana, grape and vegetable cultivation and very few armed personnel though the ruined buildings we saw told us that even this quiet little village had not escaped the war. When my companion commented that the land looked fertile our driver replied that it was the result of the hard working people of Jaffna. He said he too had been a farmer.
We visited a small church there and spoke to a few people. We learnt that it was not as peaceful as it looked as it was very close to the Pallaly high security zone.
On our way back we struck up a conversation with our driver who said he had been displaced more than 18years ago when the security forces declared the area he lived in a high security zone. He had lost his house and lands as a result. He told of how he and others from his village had buried all their jewellery when they fled their homes as they thought they would return soon. However when they went back almost 10years they were unable to find their jewellery. He estimated the amount of jewellery buried to be about approximately 98pounds of gold.
When questioned he replied that he had not received any compensation for it. When asked why he didn’t ask for compensation or to go back to his house he said it was no use as he would never get it. He also said that anyways it was too late for any kind of redress as half of his life had gone by and he felt there was nothing left to look forward to.
He told us that in those 18years he had moved house 17times. He also lamented the fact that he was unable to save any money as unlike when he was a farmer, life was tough. He worked as a driver for an NGO and his pay was barely enough to feed his family and pay the rent due to the high cost of living. He said he invested all he had in his children’s education as he wanted them to marry someone abroad and migrate to another country so that they would have a better life.
As we returned to the town there was a whole crowd of people on bicycles, on foot and in buses. I asked the driver what was happening and was told that people head back to their homes by 3pm as noone likes to be out after dark.
We stopped on our way back to make a call and experienced the Ã¢Â€Âœcall registrationÃ¢Â€Â process. I had to give the number I had called, my national identity card number, place I had called and the relationship I had with the person I called. I had to call home to inform them I would be returning on Sunday and pass a message on to office. I hoped that they would not be harassed.
We then went back to meet the wife of the man who had disappeared along with Fr. Jim Brown. We found her after much difficulty as we were pointed in the opposite direction when we inquired after her from some ladies who were standing near the refugee camp.
She was happy to know that we had come to see her and called all her children to meet us. The eldest was a studious looking young boy. She had four sons and a daughter. The younger ones looked very small for their age. The youngest, who was barely two years old whispered that his father was lost when his mother asked him where he was. She said she had never worried about anything while her husband was with her as he took care of everything.
Being an only child and having lived a comfortable life she said she was finding it difficult to keep living off aid so she had invested the little money she had to open a small shop. She said it was tough as most people could not afford to pay for their purchases so they purchased on credit. This in turn put her under great pressure to keep the shop going. She said she sometime feels that her husband is alive and will come back to her. At other times she said she feels like she will never see him again and she feels very sad. Ã¢Â€ÂœIt is only the thought of these children that keeps me goingÃ¢Â€Â she said.
She said her husband comes from a large family of four boys and a girl. He was the third person to disappear from his family.
When I got back to the convent that evening and spoke about my day’s experiences with the nuns there they told me they had visited a funeral house where six members of a family were shot dead in their home at night. Only a lady had survived. Her husband, children and grandchildren were killed. She had said she was probably saved by god’s grace as the people who killed her husband and children didn’t seem to see her. She said her grandchildren were torn from their parent’s arms and flung aside before they were killed. They said the funeral was terrible as the bodies had begun to decompose and the stench of the 6 bodies in the house was unbearable. To add to it there was some panic that one of the bodies was missing as there were only five coffins. They had then found that the bodies of two children had been placed in one coffin.
It was believed that the reason for the killing was the fact that the family ran a boutique which was patronized by the military. That day, being a Sunday, they had refused to open the boutique for the military personnel and an argument had ensured. Later that night, they had been shot dead in their home.
They also told me of a case of mistaken identity where a man who was traveling on a bike with his wife and child was shot dead. No apology was made for the mistake. The people who had attended the funeral service had broken down when the little child had looked up at the statue of Christ in the church and said Ã¢Â€ÂœAmma (mother), Jesu appa (Father Jesus) is also bleeding like appa (father). Did the mamas (uncles) who killed appa kill Jesu appa as well?Ã¢Â€Â
The nuns told me that everyday atleast 2 people in the North and East lost their loved ones in this manner. They said there was a man in the East who stood at the bus stand everyday and asked passersby if they had seen his son. If no one replied he verbally abused them as he was suffering mentally after losing his son.
(As I write this report on the 18th of
December I learn that a local member of the SLRC office in Jaffna was abducted
on Friday night. His body was found two days later on the day I left Jaffna.
The SLRC office was next door to the convent where I stayed)
Day 05 – Picking up the Pieces
On Saturday I attended a programme arranged by a local NGO for widows and women whose husbands had been abducted. There were 38 women. Some of them had also brought children along and there staff arranged games to occupy the children while the women were involved in interactive sessions.
I met a priest who had accompanied 22 widows from his small parish to the programme. He told us how he had noticed a young girl who had appeared for the Ordinary Level examinations the previous day with a bruised body. Her father had been abducted. Her mother had gone missing while looking for her father in the military camps with her youngest siblings. The children had been abandoned where their mother was abducted. The young girl had told the priest that the people who had abducted her parents had come to the house where she was staying and assaulted her saying that they would not let her sleep in peace that night.
Emotions and sensitivities were high and some of the women required help to interact with those around them. For most of the women it was their third meeting. I unwittingly asked a young lady whose hand was bandaged what had happened to her hand. She replied flatly that it was a gun shot wound. I hadn’t realized how new some of their wounds (both physical and psychological) were and it brought out the reality of what the people of Jaffna undergo on a daily basis. She was missing a thumb.
I met a young mother of three who told me how ashamed she was to live on aid like a beggar. She said she had no alternative as she had three children and her husband was missing. She grew her own vegetables in her little yard and used what money she could to invest in livestock. She did not want to stop her daughter from schooling as she was bright. But she had no one to leave the youngest child with while she went out to look for menial jobs.
She told me that a bar of sunlight soap was Rs. 75/- and a cylinder of gas Rs. 5000/-. Ã¢Â€ÂœI can’t even think of buying these thingsÃ¢Â€Â se said. I asked her how she cooks. Ã¢Â€ÂœI use firewoodÃ¢Â€Â she replied. Ã¢Â€ÂœI can manage with a bundle at Rs.30/- a day. Even that is expensive but what else can I do? I feel afraid sometimes when I think of the future. We are simple people and can manage with what we have. If only the fighting stops and we can stop being afraid all the timeÃ¢Â€Â
The children were quiet and reserved but seemed to enjoy the simple games. I met a little girl who was there with her Aunt. She was limping from an old Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€ÂshellingÃ¢Â€Â injury. I learned from the staff that she was an orphan. She had lost both her parents in the incident in which she was injured. Her baby brother had survived the disaster. Her Aunt who took care of her was a widow with two children of her own.
I also met a little boy who had an injured arm. He was hit by a shell and had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his bone which could not be removed. The skin had grown over it but you could feel it if you held his arm.
One little boy who was at the programme had a fever. But his mother was unable to leave him behind as there was no one to look after him in her absence. When we asked several mothers why they had come alone they replied that they children were sick and unable to travel.
Most of them had to take two or three buses to get to the programme. Their bus fare was reimbursed and they were given lunch and financial aid. I was glad of the opportunity to share the toiletries and toys I had with them. The women seemed embarrassed when they received the handouts.
The priest in charge spoke to them at the end of the programme, advising them to pay attention to the company their children kept and also to bring their children up with an understanding of the difficulty they had so that they would not develop a mentality of being able to depend on someone’s hand outs but work hard to make their own way in life. He asked the women if they found the programme useful and said he would not continue if they felt it was not. Even the reserved women responded saying they wanted to attend the programme.
We found a trishaw to take us to town. My companion wanted to drive around but the trishaw driver seemed reluctant. He told us we should go home if we had no work. I managed to convince him to take us to the market to buy the usual Ã¢Â€ÂœJaffna delicaciesÃ¢Â€Â to take home.
We met a trader who said he was from Puttalam and that he was happy to be back in Jaffna which was his hometown.
The market was empty save for a few vendors standing around trying to sell a few vegetables.
I met a few street vendors who were packing up for the day. Business had not been good. They were happy when I bought some mangoes from them and blessed me for my transaction.
A young military person on sentry duty in town had also bought two mangoes. He told me he had been out all day and was getting off in half an hour and was looking forward to the break to eat his mangoes. When I asked him if he was going home for the New Year he regretfully shook his head. He walked away when he saw the senior soldiers walking towards us. They seemed to know that I had come over with the Group from Colombo and they asked me why I had not left with the rest of the Group. I told them I was visiting friends in Jaffna.
We had to cut short our shopping jaunt as I noticed a young man following us when I walked into a communication centre and walked out and again when we stopped outside another shop.
I stopped off to say goodbye to the priest and the counselor and was glad to find her alone. She seemed much more relaxed working in her garden and spoke freely. She
cried as she told me that the young priest (Fr. Jim Brown) who disappeared more
than a year ago was her cousin who she had grown up with. She sobbed while she
told me how close they were and how terribly she and her family suffered when
they heard of the discovery of a body which they believe to be his. The body
showed that the person had been tortured before he was killed. I was glad to see her unburden herself for once but was unable to do much more than ask her not to cry.
She said sometimes she felt helpless as she felt her job was never ending. Ã¢Â€ÂœI counsel someone and send them away just to see them traumatized by something else. Where does it end?Ã¢Â€Â she asked me.
She said she was unable to console her family in their grief because many times when they were speaking on the phone the line had gone dead and a voice speaking in Sinhala had said Ã¢Â€ÂœHello Tiger How are you?Ã¢Â€Â
She said she dreaded answering the phone when it rang because if it was not someone calling to say Ã¢Â€ÂœHello Tiger How are you?Ã¢Â€Â it was bad news about a death or disappearance or some such other misfortune.
She spoke of the mayhem she witnessed when Jaffna came under attack. The many that were injured and killed day after day. The endless work tending to them in the understaffed hospitals, drenched in blood and fearing that they would be the target of the next missile. She spoke of the days when it was impossible to even change her blood drenched clothes when she goes home for lunch. She told me of the time when the neighbouring churches were bombed and the people who had taken refuge in it all killed.
She told me of the cries of the wounded students lying on their stomachs in hospital, as their behinds were torn open by shrapnel, begging the doctor to Ã¢Â€Âœput them to sleepÃ¢Â€Â as they couldn’t bear the pain. She said she had heard the cries of many children as they passed away holding her hand.
She kept asking me what I could do to stop the suffering of the people. She told me how her brother had called the other day to ask her to pray for their lives. Due to the intensified military operations she said that there was forced conscription by the LTTE in the Vanni with one member of each family being required to join the LTTE. She said they have no more hope but to wish that they will all be wiped out. She said she finds it difficult to sleep and most often finds herself forgetting the simplest things like combing her hair or changing her clothes before she goes out.
She was alternately calm and dry-eyed and sad and weeping. I was amazed at her calmness when she said she is learning Sinhala and she feels no enmity towards the soldiers, who are also suffering in their own way. She asked me if the people of the South don’t mind that their children are dying everyday fighting someone else’s battle. She said she herself could not bring herself to think of starting a family. She said she believed that children born of people undergoing such stress would surely be abnormal.
I told her that my companion spoke Sinhala and therefore I had to translate what she was saying to him. She then asked me to ask him what hope he could offer to the suffering people in the coming year.
I felt helpless when I realized that visiting them from out the war torn areas, we were seen as people who could help them. She asked me to tell the people in Colombo that they couldn’t last any longer in this situation and had no other hope other than that they would die. She cried as she spoke.
I left her very reluctantly as it was getting late and I didn’t want to be out in the dark since I’d noticed that we were being followed. I hoped I was not being paranoid and was glad for the evenings of prayer back at the convent.
I had to accompany two of the nuns to a neighbouring convent later in the evening and again felt like the whole experience was surreal and I had to walk really slowly and be really careful in the way I walked in case we were accidentally shot. We were questioned when at a military checkpoint. The walk back seemed much longer and the dogs we passed on the street were barking incessantly reminding me of the 1989 insurgency when our dogs were terrified by the masked insurgents who had surrounded our house one night before they walked in and took away my mother’s identity card and my father’s air rifle and pellets which he kept for hunting small game.
It took all the courage I could muster to keep on walking at the same pace when we passed a dark stretch on the road and the nun said Ã¢Â€Âœthere is someone hereÃ¢Â€Â. I looked out of the corner of my eye and made out a figure in khakis standing motionless a few feet away from us holding a gun. I had to sit down on the ground as soon as we got back to the safety of our compound and we began laughing hysterically at each other’s reactions. We had made it back with half an hour to go before the curfew at 9pm.
Over dinner the nuns told me of the days when Jaffna was under attack and they had to run and hide in bunkers when the siren sounded. They said the LTTE constructed bunkers for the civilians to take shelter in when the sirens sounded the approaching bomber aircraft. We all laughed when they told us of one nun who had thrown a towel around herself and run to the bunker halfway through her bath. After they had done huddling in fear they realized that the bunker was soaking wet with her bath water.
I was unable to laugh though when I was told of a night when one of the nuns and her friend had taken shelter under a table during a period of shelling. After the danger had passed she had gone back to bed and was woken up with a loud crash the next morning. She had run out of her room to find a missile had crashed through the roof and landed where the table had been. The floor and foundation were uprooted and the table and curtains had vaporized and was replaced by white powder. The laughter was hysterical when they said that if it had happened earlier they would have been turned into powder too.
That night the shelling was louder and I secretly felt relieved that it was my last night in Jaffna.
Day 06 – Journey back
I had been asked by the ExpoAir office to report to the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya (school) at 6.30am to catch the first flight out of Jaffna and was slightly annoyed when the trishaw we were traveling in stopped in the middle of nowhere. The driver told me I would have to walk to the school as the roads were blocked and he was not permitted to take us there. I got off and stood with about 100 people in the middle of the road. I was nervous that I was 10minutes late and unsure if I had missed the flight as my companion was not around. The nun who accompanied me refused to leave me by myself though she had to rush back for the Sunday morning service.
My companion arrived and we stood together with the rest of the crowd for about 3 hours before the ExpoAir staff began calling names from a list. There were young mothers with small children and many old people who sat on the street among their bags. They had been there since 6am. Many of them had had their flights cancelled over the previous days and expectantly waited to see if they would make the journey today. The Muslin Moulavis we had met at the summit were there too. They laughingly told me I was paying for my outspokenness the previous day.
As the people began crowding around to hear the names being called out the military persons started shouting to move back and pulled a barricade and barbed wire across the street to keep the people back. I was glad when our names were called and we were allowed to board the coach. Bags were piled high and we managed to squeeze into the seats near the driver.
As I was packed in tight I couldn’t offer my seat to any of the older people or the mothers so instead I offered to keep one of the babies on my lap. However the mother was forced to carry him while she balanced precariously in the crowded little coach as the little fellow was crying and refused to allow me to hold him.
A young father was traveling with his one year old daughter. He told us that his brother-in-law was in Colombo taking his IELTS to go abroad for study and he was taking his daughter to say goodbye as she had never seen her uncle. His flight had been cancelled on 3 consecutive days and he had had to return from the Palaly airbase. He didn’t make it on our flight.
As I watching the people straining behind the barbed wire barricade, waiting for their names to be called, I wryly compared the attitude of the ExpoAir staff calling out the names to St. Peter at the gates of heaven. I hoped the saint would be more gracious in his glorified position of heaven’s gate keeper.
The coach traveled a few paces across the road to the ruined Jaffna railway station. Ironically there was a message on one of the walls of the ruined structure warning those who destroy places of cultural and historic significance with the intention of wiping out a people’s identity that they would face serious consequences in addition to being handed over to the relevant authorities. It was signed the Jaffna Vigilante Committee. The Jaffna railway station had not been in use for over two decades and there was no sign of rail tracks. I was told that many children and young adults who had not been out of Jaffna didn’t know what a train looked like.
The coach driver told us to remain in the coach as it would be a long wait before the security checks began. He said most of us would not make it as the flight could accommodate only 50 persons and five small children. We were more than 50 people and I counted seven children (toddlers and infants).
I lost track of time as I wasn’t wearing a watch. The battery had run out on my phone and I had not been able to recharge it as I didn’t have a charger. I kept asking my companion how long we were had been waiting. After the first hour I stopped asking.
I was worried to see a woman military officer put on a pair of rubber gloves. I had been told of the vaginal and rectal examinations that people were occasionally subjected to. I didn’t care if I got shot for it but there was no way that I was going to allow myself to be humiliated that way. My companion was surprised at my abrupt tone when he asked me a question. I felt bad and explained to him that I was worried about the check.
There was a young man who helped with loading and unloading the luggage from the coach. My companion and I were traveling light and so we were able to help the other passengers with their luggage. There was a mother who was leaving Jaffna with her daughter to join her son in Colombo. She said her daughter would join a school in Colombo to complete her studies. Her husband was remaining behind. Between the two of them they had several large suitcases.
A military officer who had been present at the summit walked up to my companion and they started talking. They conversed amicably in Sinhala and my companion was led ahead of the line to the security check. I followed. My fears were slightly allayed when I learnt that the officer was from Kandy and had schooled at a popular Catholic boys school there (I schooled at the Catholic girls school in Kandy). I inquired which year he had passed out and learned he was about 10years my senior. He said he had completed 12 of his 18years of service in Jaffna.
All the military officers seemed to know that we had been in the group that attended the religious summit. They inquired from my friend if the military had been criticized at the summit. I heard him respond that events which were taking place in the area were discussed. The military officer then told him that he did not understand what the military was doing. My companion smilingly responded that that may be so but it still did not justify what was happening.
I followed a female police officer to a secluded area of the building for my security check. Other than the discomfort of a thorough Ã¢Â€ÂœfeelÃ¢Â€Â, I was relieved that there were no invasive physical checks. In addition to the filth typical of an abandoned building, the floor was strewn with safety pins. I thought they might be from the ladies wearing sari. Safety pins are usually used to hold the sari securely in place.
As I then proceeded to have my bags checked. The young man was not around and we had no assistance in lifting our luggage on to the tables where the contents were emptied and checked. I was glad I hadn’t brought too many clothes but wished I had done my laundry when my soiled underwear was pulled out for inspection.
I then proceeded to a desk where I had to hand in my mobile phone and camera. The military officer promptly proceeded to switch on my phone. I told him the battery was dead. He then switched on the camera and went through the pictures on the camera. I was given a token by the ExpoAir staff. I asked them when I could have my camera and phone back. I was told I would get it back when I got back to Colombo.
I moved on to another desk while the military officer continued to glance through the pictures on my camera. Here, my name and personal details including identity card number, address, occupation and place of work, purpose of visit to Jaffna were recorded. I was nervous as I was unable to explain myself clearly in Sinhala and the officer seemed not to understand English too well. I watched him take down my details in Sinhala and hoped he was putting down what I told him.
I had to hand in the blue temporary pass I had received with my flight ticket in Jaffna. I was also photographed by a military officer with a digital camera. They seemed surprised to know I was Tamil and remarked that I didn’t look like a Tamil. I was asked how my identity card was issued in Kandy. I told them I was born there.
By the time I was done and able to sit down I didn’t feel like chatting. I was glad for the sandwiches the nuns had given us. After a few minutes we were all asked to board a larger bus. We had to hand in the tokens before we boarded the bus. With a lot of crowding everyone was seated. My companion and I preferred to stand as it gave us a glimpse of our surroundings. I was surprised to find myself feeling sad as we drove out of Jaffna. I wanted to see the people I had met again. They had asked me not to forget them but to come back and see them. But I didn’t relish the thought of coming back to Jaffna.
After several minutes on the road we pulled up at another point where we had to get off the bus and walk a few paces to board a smaller bus. As we were standing we were the first off and managed to get seats in the next bus. However we gave up our seats when the older people and mothers with infants got in. The little boy I had attempted to keep earlier in the day had fallen asleep and lost one of his sandals. His
mother was too afraid to ask to be let back to find it so my companion got the
help of one of the military persons to find it. It was touching to see how grateful they were to him. They couldn’t communicate with him because of the language barrier but their smiles said it all. All the people traveling in the bus were beaming.
The military officers were helpful and courteous when spoken to in Sinhala. Unfortunately I was too tired and annoyed to be chatty so I let my companion do the talking. There was a slight delay as not everyone was able to board the smaller bus comfortably. However not willing to delay any longer than was absolutely necessary, all of us agreed to make the journey no matter how uncomfortable. I think it was almost noon by this time.
After a short ride we arrived at the Pallaly airforce base. As we waited outside the barriers a little boy inquired aloud about the barricades. He grew louder and more insistent when his mother didn’t answer. Finally I heard her quietly explain that the barricade was to stop people from going in. he then asked her why they were not allowed to go in. She replied saying they required permission to go in.
We were again photographed and registered before proceeding to another security check before entering a comfortable room with a TV and fans to wait till it was time to board the final bus that would take us to our flight. (We had been allowed to sit in this room on our way into Jaffna and thought it was the VIP room)
While I was walking up for my security check an old lady in front of me who was traveling alone turned and almost collapsed on me. Her hands were cold as I held her. She told me she wasn’t feeling too good as it had been a long day. I asked for help from the military officers who allowed her to be checked quickly before allowing her to sit down. There were only two female officers and the male officers were not supposed to check the ladies’ bags so I had to wait for a while. However I saw a policeman checking a lady’s bag. When I asked the military officer who was standing nearby he said that it was ok for the police to check a lady’s bag.
While we waited for the final bus my companion and I discussed sharing our experiences back in Colombo. Our journey felt surreal and we were keen to tell people back in Colombo about it. I was amazed that we had lived so long in such ignorance. We drafted the invite for our first meeting in Colombo on the 21st of December and called it Christmas Hopes from Jaffna. We decided to share photographs and experiences while also having some songs and videos which portrayed the suffering and hardship we had seen which would provoke thought among the people who seemed unaffected by the situation about the plight of some of their fellow countrymen. We also thought of putting forward the idea of a Fast on Christmas day following on the idea proposed by the nuns in Jaffna.
I had lost track of time when we were finally allowed to board the last bus. The old lady had to be helped on as she was very tired and faint. I too was tired and fell asleep as soon as we boarded the aircraft, only waking up to wolf down the small snack provided by ExpoAir. I couldn’t help noticing how inadequate it was after such a tiring day.
We finally landed at the Ratmalana airforce base around 3pm. I hurried out eager to get home. There were many people standing and seated at the entrance. I inquired of two foreigners attached to an NGO how long they had been there. Ã¢Â€ÂœOnly about seven hoursÃ¢Â€Â was the reply. Their flight had been cancelled and they were not sure what was going to happen next. There was no one from ExpoAir to tell us what was going on.
Tired and frustrated we sat down on the floor. The old lady who was feeling ill sat down on the floor next to me. She wanted to call her relatives in Colombo as she was expected to come in earlier in the day. She had been unable to let them know that she was delayed.
My companion and I went in search of an ExpoAir representative and demanded to know what was happening. We were off handedly told that a bus was coming soon to take us to Colombo. The rep then hurried out as a bus had arrived at the entrance and told those whose flight had been cancelled to board the bus.
We followed him out and demanded to know what the delay was while also saying that for the terrible service they offered, ExpoAir might just as well have charge us one third of the cost as not only were the passengers not informed of what was happening but were also not provided a place to sit or a bottle of water to drink. Noticing the company ID that my companion was wearing the ExpoAir official asked us not to create a commotion referring to us as NGO workers. I told him I was from the private sector but didn’t see how that was relevant as everyone paid the same fare.
I could take a flight to India for the same amount and I would be treated much better. We had to remind the ExpoAir official that he was not transporting cattle or prisoners but customers who had paid money for the ExpoAir Service. We asked to be given our phones so we could call a cab or be allowed to walk the short distance to the main road to find our own transport. He replied that he was unable to do that due to security restrictions.
He then promptly got on the phone and called someone to tell him to hurry up as the passengers were Ã¢Â€ÂœshoutingÃ¢Â€Â. A few minutes later a bus arrived and we were allowed to board. On the bus we were given back our phones and cameras. It was pathetic to see everyone trying to get in touch with their loved ones to let them know they had finally arrived.
It was well past 4pm when we were dropped off at the ExpoAir office in Wellawatte from where we made our way home. The flight itself had been just an hour and ten minutes.
Writing out this report has not been easy as reliving the experiences of the people I met has been very unpleasant. However I hope it will help people understand that politics aside, the ongoing war in the North and East and reports of victories and casualties are not as simple as they seem when presented to the general public. There are heavy civilian casualties as the areas targeted are populated. While most often people are not allowed to leave the areas they are in, some others are afraid to leave as no facilities are provided for them elsewhere.
I called my friends again on Christmas day. One of them cried and thanked me for not forgetting them. I have never felt more helpless in my life.
The appeal for a ceasefire on 24th and 25th December made by the Bishop of Mannar was not heeded. Curfew was relaxed on the 24th but people were afraid to leave their homes, so only three churches conducted midnight service. On the 25th there was intense shelling. Christmas day was a day of mourning for the people of Jaffna.
I learned from a news report in Colombo that a policeman was killed in the East. When I spoke to the people they told me that in retaliation almost 58 shops were burned down by the armed forces. This is just another instance of the doctoring of news today in Sri Lanka.
As my friend the counselor said, “There has been enough killing on both sides. It is time now to stop or be wiped out forever. However things have to really change if the war is to end. There must be a real repentance on the part of the governments who are responsible for their people. Only then can there be real forgiveness and reconciliation”.