Suresh, in his thirties, has a gentle demeanor. Although he was fearful about sharing his experiences, his wish to speak was strong.
With my family, I was displaced from Oddusuddan to Mulliyawalai then to Puthukudiruppu in November 2008. We took some of our most valuable belongings and we put up a hut and stayed there. We expected that the Army would continue to capture places across the Vanni. By the time the Army captured Puthukudiruppu, we were uncertain about where to go next. The Army announced that Suthanthirapuram was a No Fire Zone, so we went there. Suthanthirapuram was extremely crowded with displaced families, and after we arrived, the Army started to shell in our direction. After we dug our bunker, we stayed in it day and night, and all the time there were cries and shouts as people were hit by shelling. Then the Army announced Pokkanai, Matalan, Mullivaikal, as the No Fire Zone area. The Puthukudiruppu road was closed because it was too dangerous; if we used it we would definitely be hit by shelling. So we followed a sandy path to Pokkanai. It took one day to go ten kilometers because there were so many fleeing people. People from all over the Vanni region were there. Then Army shelling started. There was no food. People suffered from starvation. On our way we saw bodies deteriorating and we had to walk on bodies. Bodies were spread everywhere so we had no choice. There were so many people on the path; we couldn’t lie down when the shelling started as we usually did to protect ourselves. We couldn’t help others. We could only be concerned about our own family.
We finally reached Pokkanai. We had never been there before; we just put a tent in a paddy field, and just stayed there. This was in December 2008. There was no shelling for fifteen days. We were close to the beach. There were no vegetables and we couldn’t go to the beach to catch fish because the LTTE would not allow people on the beach. This was because people had fled in boats to Trincomalee earlier.
The people tried to escape both by water and land, but the LTTE stopped them. They (LTTE) gave some rations – rice and dahl. We pounded green graham and used that instead of coconut milk for curries. At that time the LTTE forcibly conscripted children as young as thirteen or fourteen years of age, regardless of whether family members were already in the LTTE or not. We hid ourselves in a bunker. We stayed all day in bunkers. We urinated only at night after ten o’ clock because if they saw us the LTTE would catch us for fighting (ie catch us and make us fight).
During January and February it was very hot, and we had to stay in the bunkers. There was only a small hole for air, and we were sweating so much. We had to stay there. If there was rain, the water came into the bunker through the sand. We filtered the rainwater that seeped into the bunker through shirt material and drank it. And we had to bear this because if we came out either a shell would fall on us or the LTTE would drag us off to fight. My parents suffered a lot more than I did because they were always afraid of the conscription. They were so worried they looked (pey araintha pola). I couldn’t bear to see my parents like that, so I thought it was better to take them to the Army-controlled area than to stay there.We decided to attempt crossing the Nandikadal with about a hundred other people. Walking in groups of ten, we moved toward the lagoon. We would have to cross a hundred meters of water. The LTTE was on one side and Army was on the other. Just when we reached the water’s edge at midnight, all one hundred of us, the LTTE suddenly surrounded us. They came in a van and they got out and shot up in the air. All the people panicked and ran. I was with my mother, three of my siblings, and a three-year-old girl someone had given me to carry.
As we all ran, I tried to carry the child with one arm and our bag with the other, but the child fell. As I tried to gather the child up again, I realized the LTTE were close to me. One hundred meters. I saw a lorry (truck), and I just took the child and got under the lorry. The LTTE were searching around the lorry with a torch light. Then I felt this is the end. If this child cries they will definitely catch me and throw the child somewhere. I worried that the LTTE were catching my parents. I just clutched the child to my chest and I told the child to be quiet. I felt the heartbeat of the child. The small girl asked, “Where’s my mother? Where are we going?” I answered, “They went home.” She asked, “If we go home, can you cook?” I realized that she was wondering who would provide her meals if her mother was not there.
After the LTTE left, and I came out from under the lorry, I decided to return to the place where I was with my family before we tried to cross the lagoon but when I reached there, no one was there. Slowly all the people returned. Four were missing. Three days later the four returned, badly bruised from beatings by the LTTE because they tried to escape.
Five times we tried to escape like this, from February until April. Then we decided we could not escape, and resigned to the thought that we may die there.
During four months trapped in our bunker, I got chickenpox. We couldn’t get medical help because we couldn’t leave the bunkers. Someone thought that onion is good for reducing heat (in the body), so we bought a kilo of onions for 1,000 Rupees. I felt suicidal during that period. It was almost unbearable. We wore only sarongs because it was so hot in the bunkers.
The Army moved closer to us shelling, shooting. There were always sounds of shells and bullets during the last month in the bunker. In darkness we heard someone speaking in Sinhala and checked to see who it was, to discover that the Army had come. All the people started to come out of the bunkers. We began to move toward the Army, but we were between the Army and the LTTE, so we were caught in the crossfire.
Some fell down when they were hit by bullets. The Army saw us, and they thought we were LTTE so we shouted, “We are civilians!” It was four o’clock in the morning, on April 20, 2009. Eventually the Army asked us to come forward single file, so we walked through deep water up to our necks in a long line.
Bullets were whizzing above our heads from both directions while we crossed two bodies of water about a hundred meters wide. We lost four relations who were traveling with us. Then the Army made us go through a thorough body-search and then seated us in an empty area. We could see so many people coming toward the Army-controlled area – more than a hundred thousand. We didn’t eat for two days. We wore sarongs and shirts – we were dirty. We were too exhausted to walk but the Army forced us to walk to Iranaipalai, because the checking was there. Then we had some glucose, and gave biscuits to the children, and we also ate a little of the biscuits. We used one glucose packet for 50 people to wet our throats. From Iranaipalai they bused us to Omanthai.
We didn’t eat until we reached Omanthai, where some NGOs gave a little food, but it was not enough. Ten of us shared one food parcel. We felt pain in our throats when we swallowed. In Omanthai I was in a huge crowd waiting for biscuits. I was beaten up in the crowd, but I got one biscuit. We looked like Veddahs (indigenous Sri Lankan tribes who live in the deep forest) with long beards of four months growth and long hair. Somebody asked me if my mother was my wife, because I looked so old with the beard.
The Social Architects (TSA) are comprised of a diverse group of writers, intellectuals and working professionals. While most of TSA’s members hail from the country’s North and East, the group also includes other scholars and activists who have been working on issues related to Sri Lanka. TSA seeks to educate, to inform and to provide timely, thoughtful analysis on a range of topics.
They write under the pseudonym “The Social Architects” because of the risk of retaliation against those that speak out against the government. In addition each author has selected a pseudonym for themselves and the victims and family members who appear in the story. Over the eight days between March 12th and March 19th we will be releasing one TSA story a day. You can read them all here.