By An Anthropologist –
This story is told by Manjula to an anthropologist in a series of interviews. The anthropologist wishes to remain anonymous. Pseudonyms are used to protect the safety and privacy of the characters.
Jan 10th- May 17th 2009 in the region of Vanni in Sri Lanka
The air shuddered with the dull boom of artillery fire as it pounded the earth relentlessly. Huddled inside the bunker, I shielded my two year old with my body as he clutched his little teddy bear for comfort.
The heavy bombardment tapered off in the night. Families began to flee into the darkness anticipating the next round of bombings. Hurriedly throwing a few essentials and the teddy bear into a bag, I jostled my way with the baby alongside bicycles, tractors, buses, and people pouring into the main road. I clambered into a bus so crowded that people were almost falling over each other. The bus inched forward, a half-hour journey took five hours in the chaos.
I was fleeing to a relative in Suvenderapuram. My husband, who works away from home, found his way to me the next day. This was to be the beginning of a five month long journey as we fled from place to place, seeking some sanctuary from the relentless bombs.
Dodging bombs in bunkers along the way my husband returned to our home for necessary items such as pots and pans, provisions, a little mattress for our baby and some of our beloved valuables such as a few of my fine saris. “When our money runs out at least we will have our valuables” he said.
In Suvenderapuram, as in other places, our first task was to build a bunker which involved felling trees and sawing logs. Many families shared the labor and the bunker. But the very next day Suvenderapuram came under heavy attack and we had to flee again.
The one road leading out of Suvendarapuram lay between dense shrub jungles with the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (hereafter the LTTE) on either side. My husband felt that my son and I would be safer in a closed, fast moving vehicle. With great difficulty he found a car and a driver. The driver had been a fighter long ago. These old ex-fighters were the only ones who could drive a vehicle under a hail of bullets from snipers. My husband followed the car in his motorbike. Tied to the motorbike were our essentials, including bunker material.
The ex-fighter drove at lightning speed on the empty street. Clutching my son tightly I shut my eyes. Peering out intermittently I saw an overturned motorcycle with many belongings tied to it. The rider was lying dead in a pool of blood. I also saw a tractor loaded with household belongings with the driver lying dead in his seat. We could not stop for any of them. We covered an hour’s journey in fifteen minutes. It had been touch and go all the while.
From the interior of Thevipuram we crossed the river to Iranapalai. Drones flying overhead picked off people who were crossing. These tiny, robot propelled drones are barely visible and are called bees because the only indication of their attack is a humming. We hear a humming and then the attacked fall down, without warning. I panicked as people dropped all around me.
We had started our journey at dawn and it was five in the evening when we reached Iranapalai. Fleeing people had set up tents in every available little space. Tents stretched as far as the eye could see. Everyone lost someone in their family during this time. My cousin’s whole family was killed. Who lived and who died was just a matter of chance.
Most of this month was spent in the bunker. The little children played, fought and cried inside the bunker. It was very hot inside, but safer for them. Maybe because of the heat, or the noxious gas from the bombs, the children began to get boils on their heads and bodies.
In early April an intense battle between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military forced us to flee again. Our bunker shook so violently with explosions that we were afraid of being buried alive. My terrified two year old son began crying to the God Anjanyar to save us; hearing this from such a little baby, we all started crying.
As the fight subsided we crawled to Irrataivaikkal along a small road sandwiched between the beach and shrub jungle. The trees in this area were burning. The shrapnel of a missile came flying at us, piercing the front tire of our motorbike. As we despaired, a friend stopped to rescue us, taking my son and me on the pillion whilst riding his own motorbike with one foot, propelling with his other foot our motorbike with my husband on it. He was a mechanic and this was the way he towed stalled motorbikes. He also helped us patch the tire.
Once we reached Irrataivaikal we pitched our tent and set about digging a bunker. But since it was close to the beach the ground would fill with water as soon as we dug even to the depth of one foot. Finally we built above ground using palmarah branches and sandbags. We filled fertilizer bags with sand from the beach and dragged it to the bunker area. These fertilizer bags were being sold on the streets. After we had used up all the bags we began to use saris. We could sew four saris to use as one sand bag. After we had exhausted the few daily wear saris we began to use our valuable silks. In the end we even used our kurai saris, the first and finest wedding sari that the husband’s family gives the girl.
Soon heavy bombing forced us to flee to Vellamullivaikkal. After ten days the bombings became very intense. As the shells began to fall closer and closer to our bunker we were forced to flee with just a few essentials in one bag, even abandoning our trusted motorbike.
Cornered by the bombs, along with hundreds of thousands of other fleeing people we inched toward Vattuvahal in the inky darkness of night. There was nowhere else for us to go. As we surged forward slowly, lights attached to parachutes bobbing in the sky illuminated the dense press of fleeing humans. Using these lights, the military began to bomb into the crowds. People fell down wounded or dead all around us. The sound of bombs and the cries of dying people begging for water are imprinted in my mind forever. But no one could stop long enough; the surge forward was a stampede in slow motion.
Exhausted, we spotted a parked tractor with a container, with room for shelter under the container. There were already about seven people asleep there. We asked them to move only to realize close up that they were all dead. One young boy had a blood stained bag wrapped around his shattered leg.
Dawn broke forth, and we dragged ourselves along as the bombing continued. A father walked ahead of us carrying his little child. We were right behind him. Suddenly blood sprang from the forehead of the baby. He gave a little cry and died on his father’s shoulder. A bullet had pierced his forehead, exiting out of the back of his head. It was not possible for the grief stricken father to turn back, or to stop. After this my husband carried our son beneath his heart.
We reached Vattuvahal early that morning. We were filthy, having walked through swamp, mud and also human waste. We heard that the army was allowing people into the government controlled area over the Vattuvahal bridge. People had no other choice but to go into government territory. We could not get close to the bridge because of the dense crowds. We all waited, a wall of humanity, stretching out for as long as the eye could see, around the bridge. Around four in the afternoon, without warning, shells began exploding in the middle of the dense, waiting crowd. A roar of surprise came from the terrified crowd. People fell down in hundreds, dying. People were fleeing with their families, and they were killed as families.
That night there was intense bombing in every direction. The air was filled with sounds of grief. The military had also landed via the sea, and were using loudspeakers to urge the crowd towards the bridge once more. It was still dark when we walked through whizzing bullets and exploding shells. They were also shelling the villages around the bridge, and soon the families who had been sheltering in their bunkers began dragging themselves towards the bridge. Most of them were wounded. A young man with shattered legs was dragging himself on bleeding hands. Someone had placed a pair of slippers on his hands and wrapped a plastic shopping bag around his wounds. The infirm elderly were carried in hammocks made of a bed sheet. Two family members carried each end of the sheet. The army took over the elderly and the heavily wounded at the bridge. Families beat their chests and wailed at this separation. We heard later that the elderly had been delivered to old peoples homes.
The road was strewn with personal items such as slippers, handbags, national identity cards, bank books and birth certificates as if there had been a huge riot or disaster. Dogs and crows were eating body parts strewn on the road. The stench was unbearable.
At eleven that morning on the seventeenth of May 2009, dazed and barely human, we crossed the bridge into government territory, leaving behind our homes and our lives.
The Camp- From May 18th to the end of August
The army ordered the huge crowds coming off the bridge to keep walking through the paddy fields. The ground was uneven and so hot that bare feet blistered on contact. The burning heat brought on a deep hungry thirst, but we had no water. We trudged along for hours with our little boy crying for water. In desperation we begged an army officer for some water, and he shared his own water with us.
We were marched from eleven that morning until six in the evening when the deluge of humanity were crawled to a stop and herded into barbed wire wrapped, animal pen like enclosures inside the paddy field. These were like the compartments of a train, one leading to the other, each about one kilometer long.
The place was seething with human waste. People hunched around in desperate silence and extreme exhaustion since there was no food or water. In the evening an army bowser arrived, but there was such a stampede that the army finally just poured buckets of water on the people. My husband who had fought his way through the crowd came back wet and angry. “We should have died on our land,” he said, “rather than be treated without dignity or respect”. I felt that we had lost everything.
Starving and desperate some began to dig the now soiled paddy fields, but the ground was dry. That night the army brought in about five filthy, fish smelling canoes that seemed to have been dragged off a beach. They filled these with water. There was a stampede. People had no vessels, so they found discarded shopping bags for water. It was dangerous to put your face into the canoes, a little boy died as he bent over to take a sip. The thirsty stampede of people behind him had put too much pressure on his neck. The army brought meal packets, but there were so many people clamoring, and so few parcels that they finally threw these parcels into the crowd.
The next day dawned. Some LTTEers were getting ready to surrender. Laurence Thilager and Yogi were people we knew about. A few blind girls also surrendered. I learnt later that all these people had disappeared. People were led out of these enclosures, men and women separated, sent on different lines, stripped, searched and then bused to Vavuniya. Many families were separated at this time since the women were not allowed to wait for the men. I pretended to breast feed my baby until I saw my husband.
The bus that left on the morning of the 18th arrived at the Omanthai checkpoint at 8pm the next day. The army had distributed a few dry biscuits and water along the road that afternoon, otherwise we would have had no food or water. At the checkpoint an announcement was made ordering those who had been in touch with the LTTE, even for an hour, to stay behind. “Those who attempted to lie would disappear,” the announcer said at the end. Many stayed behind and we continued our journey on another bus at midnight. We were given a packet of noodles, but it was spoiled and had a bad smell.
The bus journey continued on and on for another twelve hours when we began to reach a forested area. Excavating equipment was being used to dig and clear the forest, which was cut and piled around the camp like mountains. We sat in the hot bus for two more hours as the tents were being put up in this barbed wire wrapped place. At two in the afternoon we were ordered off the bus and forced into the tents at gunpoint. My husband, baby and I were driven into a tent with twenty seven other men, women and children. One of the women protested and had a gun pointed at her. We were all silent after that.
There was only standing room for everyone inside. The men went outside to sleep. I laid our towel on the ground and felt bugs and tree roots dig into me. It started to rain and all the men came back in. No one slept that night. Women are protected from men who are strangers in our culture. To be without basic privacy with strange men was shameful to me.
Food was thrown at the people by a travelling vehicle. Only the fittest were able to catch the parcels. We had to walk two kilometers within the camp for the tube well. Since we had no vessels, we collected water in discarded shopping bags and bottles. The water line was so long that it took eight hours for our turn. The lack of water, privacy, and clothes made even basic cleanliness very difficult. The toilet was a foul smelling, human waste filled ditch, over which was laid two metal sheets. It was easy to lose one’s balance on those filthy wet sheets, there were people who fell into the ditch. About a hundred men, women and children used one toilet.I felt that our very humanity under was siege.
My son was getting really ill. We walked two kilometers to the hospital tent, but the doctor was not there that day. However, I met Anjali, the sister of a friend who flung herself at me, weeping that fifteen members of her family, including my friend and her husband had been killed in the bombing. Their two children, aged one and five were bleeding from their ears, injured and lying in a corner of this hospital tent. They were not allowed to go to the Vavuniya hospital for treatment. Surrounded by a large close knit family she had never been alone before, and now she was the only adult survivor. “What will I do, all alone with the two children,” she kept crying to herself.
After a while, NGO’s were allowed in and conditions began to improve a little. However my baby’s health took a turn for the worst. The filthy camp conditions were killing our son. He was wasting away before our eyes, and we feared he might die. I begged, and was given permission to take my son to the Vavuniya hospital. It was now August. “Once we are at the hospital we must escape,” said my husband, “otherwise our son will die”. Only I was permitted to take our son to the hospital. The day I took my son to the hospital and then escaped was the last day I saw my husband. He disappeared in the camp.
Our son would not have survived the rains in the camp. After I escaped the rains began, and I heard that mud, water and sewage seeped into the tents bringing infectious diseases. I am now in a third country. My son sleeps at night with the frayed and battered teddy bear his father had given him when he was a baby. This is all he has left of his father. I try very hard to hold this teddy bear together. What will I do when it falls apart?