Photo courtesy Maureen Ernest

When the Easter Sunday bomb attacks brought tears to the world I, too, cried in Toronto for myself saying, “I am not safe here”. The images of Easter bombings brought memories of Navaly bombing; images of piled body pieces in front of Jaffna Hospital mortuary made me sick after 24 years. I heard the 1995 lament of Navaly in Toronto on April 21, 2019. I, at 39 years old, felt I was in Navaly as a 15 year old girl. I couldn’t swallow anything when Easter Sunday attacks happened, I was lost. I was diagnosed with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I revisited my village of Navaly with the help of my therapist, Dr. Larry Nusbaum. My therapist became the saviour of my life. I always cried during my therapy sessions. I used to have severe headaches and stomach aches. I lived as if I was in danger and could be killed any time. Fear of death was part of my life in Canada too. Death had become part of my life since July 9, 1995. I lived as a dead person. I was hopeless. I was angry at God for allowing people to die in his sanctuary.

I continued my healing through art therapy. I expressed my broken self through art. I read survivors stories of the holocaust, the Vietnam war and the Rwanda genocide. I focused on healing the memories. I wrote my story and published it. I wrote songs of the Navaly massacre and sang. I conducted memorial events for my loved ones. I shared my poems on my healing journey, which are displayed at the Future for Peace museum in Kilinochchi, with hope of peace and reconciliation. I visited the Navaly monument with Sinhala friends.

I committed myself to developing friendships with Sinhala Buddhists. I practise Buddhist meditation. Forgiveness is mantra of my life. I say prayers for the government and the military who destroyed my village and my people.

Navaly is a small village located eight kilometres from Jaffna. The Tamil meaning of Navaly comes from the village having nine Hindu temples.

On 9 July 1995, the military launched a large scale offensive against the positions of the LTTE to retake the Jaffna peninsula. Operation Leap Forward began at dawn on July 9. As part of the precautions to avoid civilian casualties, the military had distributed leaflets requesting civilians to find shelter in temples and churches to minimise the chance of death or injury. Thousands fled with only the bags they could carry to safer areas.

A mass exodus of fear and panic-stricken people squeezed through the narrow roads of Navaly to seek refuge. I stood at the front of my gate giving water to those who had walked for miles. People were walking with goats, cows, dogs and birds in cages. Some loaded their bicycles with necessities and walked with others. Men carried children, the elderly, pregnant women and disabled people on their bikes. Some travelled in bullock carts.

Many of the displaced sought shelter in churches and temples, including several hundred people who came to the church of St. Peter and Paul and the Chinna Kathirgamar Murugan kovil in Navaly.

During the late evening of July 9, I saw a plane. I saw some small black things coming out. I thought they were leaflets from the government. Later I learnt it was a fighter jet that had flown toward the Navaly church, three kilometres outside the combat zone, and dropped a cluster of eight bombs, which fell at different locations. The eighth bomb fell on my grandfather’s house.

Most of the people huddled inside the church, mainly women and children, were killed immediately. Others had limbs blown off. Bodies were retrieved from the debris; one was my mum’s cousin. The Navaly massacre resulted in devastating carnage, with many babies pulled from the rubble later by rescue squads to no avail. People died being stuck under the rubble. Others were killed by the sharp pieces that exploded from the bombs. Over 150 people were seriously injured.

My aunt, Vimala Thambinayagam, was one among them who was injured on the day of the attack and died at Jaffna hospital on July 24. During those days the mode of transport in Jaffna was a bicycle. My aunt was transferred to hospital on a motorbike. She lost a lot of blood while waiting for a motorbike. We didn’t have electricity. As the sun started to set, we couldn’t find those who were buried under the ruins. We left our homes on that night stepping over dead bodies and body parts to find safety.

Jaffna Hospital was not prepared to accommodate thousands of wounded at same time. As I waited with our family members front of the hospital’s intensive care unit, I saw patients holding saline bottles on the floor. Many died because of lack blood in the blood bank, antibiotics and other medications.

My aunt fought her battle for almost two weeks but died, leaving her widowed mother and elder siblings. When my grandfather took part in the protest against the Sinhala Only Act in 1958, he was beaten by the police and later died of cardiac arrest.

On July 24 we returned back to our village with the dead body of my aunt. My cousin was in Jaffna town when the bombing happened, which saved his life  but he had also lost his best friend in the attack. We all felt guilty about our survival. My aunt’s death brought much anger and hatred towards the government and Sinhala Buddhists, which led my cousin to follow a path of violence. I was too scared to hold a gun and my timid nature prevented me from following the same path. I blamed myself for not choosing that option. I felt guilty when I moved to Colombo and then abroad. I felt deeply that I had failed to protect my people. I suffered with guilt for the deaths of Tamils because I didn’t carry a gun.