Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Youth

Ramblings of an outsider in Jaffna – 1

I’ve moved to Jaffna on work. Everyone I know seems to think I’ve done something great and inspiring, to have moved here to help people. Firstly, I don’t think I’m better than anyone else for having moved here. I felt that being closer in “proximity” to issues that matter to me, would on some level bring me solace by means of contributing in some way to justice being served to a community that has long been deprived of it. So there really is nothing exceptional about my “move” as it were.

My biggest fear when moving? Well, I guess it had to be the issue of, acceptance, or should I say, the lack of it. To be considered an “outsider” imposing on a way of a life I knew and understood very little of. Or worse yet, to be thought of as a “wannabe” trying to appease my guilt, clear my conscience or worse yet, do my bit of “charity” for the year. The prospect of being hated, resented or worse “tolerated” under duress was not appealing. Especially when I knew there was enough justifiable cause to hate and mistrust. Three decades of being “the other” cannot be erased overnight. Not that I expected it to be the case, but still, it was unnerving not to know how I would be received. To add fuel to the fire, I couldn’t even speak Tamil.

I watched her as she opened her bag of clothes and started searching inside it for her pack of cards. (A pack she told me had been given to her by a former boarder, when she left the Convent). Two full bags of belongings. And that was everything she possessed in the whole world! She had lost her parents and brother to the war. Her second brother worked part time at a Kade in town, and her sister was studying at the University. She now lived at this Convent. This was where she called “home.” She wants to become a “Sister” once she finishes her studies, she says. I laughed and said that if that were to happen, the Convent would be “mudinchi” (meaning “finished,” but, I’m sure my Tamil was all wrong. But she understood what I meant, and we both had a hearty laugh anyway.) She’s 19 and only sitting for her O/L’s this December. She had lost 2 whole years of schooling when her parents were killed in 2006, because she had to run the house whilst her brother worked and her sister went to campus. “I couldn’t cook and study at the same time,” she said shrugging her shoulders. “So I stayed at home and cooked,” she said, and then added smilingly, “now, I’m studying again.” And that was that. No tears. No sighs. No blaming anyone. That was just it.

My first significant interaction with “the other” was at the Convent. Much to the amusement of my friends and family, my current abode “happens” to be a “Convent”! I’ve come across a group of extraordinary girls here. Not only did they receive me with open arms, they were sincere. Their “reality” had seen the worst of “both sides,” which seemed to have helped them conclude that there really weren’t any “good guys” in this war. They had brothers who’d been forcibly recruited and brothers who’d been detained. They’d had family members killed by the army and by the LTTE. So, as far as they were concerned, my Sinhala identity bore little consequence to what they’d been through. I’m sure I’m over-simplifying things here, and I’m sure there are still girls who have their reservations about me, but by and large they’re warming up to me. And for that, I’m grateful.

I told her that the chain she was wearing was lovely and asked her who gave it to her. She promptly took it off her neck and put it around mine, saying her “appa” (father) had given it to her. At which point I refused the gift saying that it was from her father and that she should keep it. She just smiled and said, “you like it no, so I want you to have it. My appa won’t mind.”

There are 54 other girls boarded here, most of whom have been displaced at least once in their lives. Many of them are from outside of Jaffna, who’ve come here to work, school or attend University. Nobody should have had to go through and witness what most of them have. Living in absolute fear of their lives, seeing their family members fall down dead in front of them, hoping and waiting endlessly for a missing brother, mother or father to someday reappear – I wonder where they find the strength to carry on with their lives.

Every day I get back from work, they’re all studying intensely for exams, going for tuition classes, doing their homework, getting about their daily chores, sharing a joke, humming, returning from sports practices and of course never forgetting to ask me how my day. It’s almost surreal how such normalcy can exist after so much trauma. I can’t begin to imagine how hard and painful their lives must have been, and still continue to be.

They are my mentors.