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Wanni Narratives - Part Five

Collective trauma in the Vanni- a qualitative inquiry into the mental health of the internally displaced due to the civil war in Sri Lanka

by Dr. Daya Somasundaram
Department of Psychiatry,
University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Horrendous memories
Link Part One |Link Part | Link Part Three | Link Part Four

(August 23, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)Eighteen year old Thevan was a student. His native land is Paranthan. His childhood had been happy. He had aadipaadi (played, literally sing and dance) joyfully with his companions. He was studying at high school with a goal of becoming an engineer. All his dreams were shattered by the war. Horrible shelling, artillery fire and bombings had thihil adaya (create turmoil) among appavi (innocent) folks. Thevan sought safety in many places carrying only a few belongings. Everywhere there were bunkers. On one side there was channa nerikaddi (pressure from crowds of people) while on the other side were marana olangal (wailings from death), and paddiniyal vaduhintra (starving) people.Because of the terrible war, Thevan's family entered the army controlled area on 20.4.09. They were enjoying the relief of having escaped with their lives when on the irregular, rough pathway(see Figure 5[86]), they were unexpectedly caught up in a land mine explosion. His mother (41 years) and brother (21 years) lost their legs right there. That horrible scene happened right in front of his eyes. Thevan was also injured badly. While coming on the way, there were many dead bodies lying around. On one side there were other injured, bleeding people while on the other side there were those crying loudly for the relations who had died or been separated. Dead children's bodies were floating in the lagoon (Fleeing people had to cross a deep lagoon (Nandikadal) to reach the army controlled area. Many, particularly children and elderly drowned in the crossing). Thevan was terrified by these scenes. After great difficulty he was admitted to Vavuniya Hospital. His mental state was disturbed by memories and images of dead bodies lying around, skeletons without flesh, the scene of his mother's shattered leg due to the landmine, smell of explosives when he breathes, images of running blood and smell of blood appeared to happen repeatedly. In his sleep he hears voices, " why have you not gone to the movement? Don't you know how to fight?" He is now separated from his family. He has forebodings about his future.

The principal of the school had referred this IDP student with educational difficulties. She was found to respond poorly to questions or activities, be withdrawn, not mixing with other students, showing fear and startling easily to small sounds. A similar situation was reported about many of the Vanni IDP students. The teacher found that the student continued to be frightened of danger to her life. Her eyes conveyed extreme fear, ever vigilant. She would startle easily, even when her name was called softly. She tended to isolate herself, not mixing with others, cried often and breathed heavily with sighs (perumuchu). She was apprehensive that people in uniform will abduct her. She felt that life was over, what was there for the future? Death was certain. She felt that there was a risk in speaking, that she would be put in jail. This was her story:

From the beginning of the final war, we had been displaced 14 times. There are no words to describe what we underwent. The war continued relentlessly in the Vanni. People were constantly being displaced. Wherever we went, shells would fall and explode, injured people would struggle in pools of blood and die. Unbearable sorrow.... Father, mother and two younger sisters- we were living happily when this war took away our freedom. Not only the shells, bombings from planes, and gunfire but to escape the recruitment by the Tigers (LTTE), we had to be shut in bunkers and kerosene barrels. Tigers would come in vans and drag us into the van. Once inside, they would cut our hair as identification of being conscripted. After that it would be danger from both sides. My (school) mates who had been taken on one day would be dumped back in their homes as corpses the next day. My parents did not want this to happen to me and my sisters. As soon as people became aware that pillai piddikarar (child catchers-LTTE) had come signals were passed on. Immediately we would have to descend into kerosene oil barrels that were buried underground in the backyard. They would close the lid and sprinkle soil on top. There will be a small tube fitted for breathing. Waiting for about an hour or so till they leave is thihil (nerve-racking). We can't hear what is happening outside. Besides sweating, trembling and thinnaral (quake) inside, it would appear not to matter if we are caught if only we could come out of there.

As the shelling and airplane attacks were ahorum (horrible), we moved at 1 AM at night to Pokkanai. We had by then lost all our belongings. We thought that if we could just save our lives that would be enough. There were many other like us there who had put up huts. In the dry environment, the sand was hot, there was no water, no food. We had to live amidst abductions, robberies and killings without food and clothes to wear. One day, my father had gone in search of food, my mother and sisters in search of water. I was all alone. Shells continued to fall. Feeling frightened to be alone, I had come out. As I was crossing several huts, I saw that the place was surrounded by over 20 pillai piddi karar. To escape from them I started fleeing. They came chasing after me. With trepidation and desperation to escape, I hid behind huts and ran towards Puthumattalan. I got some relief only after they left. I stayed with an aunt at Puthumattalan. My parents and sisters came there by nightfall and with 150 others we decided to go into the army controlled area. The tigers came running on all four sides (to prevent this) firing guns, shouting "dei, dei", hitting people with coconut stems and sticks. My heart started to pound. We didn't know what to do. We kept crying out, "help us, help us". Tigers fired wildly. Parents fought against the tigers. Some were dragged away by the tigers. The struggle went on till the next morning. The army then saved us and sent us to the Vavuniya camp. From there we were sent to Jaffna and I am still alive to be able to talk to you today.

When asked to draw what disturbed her most, she drew the picture (see Figure 6) showing herself (in yellow) escaping from the pillaipiddikarar (in black) amidst the continuing shelling through the huts towards (Puthu) mathalan (beach front).

The following case histories were taken from civilians recovering from serious war injuries who had been transported out with one bystander (a carer relation) to various hospitals, mainly Vavuniya. A Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) Nurse [87] described them: "Wounded, shocked and distressed. After fleeing heavy fighting in the Vanni, people arriving in Vavuniya hospital need both medical care and counselling. People arrive here in a state of extreme anxiety and fear. They have been separated from their families and often have no news about their fate. Young children and elderly travelling with their caretakers claim they were separated at a checkpoint. The caretakers or family members who were healthy were forced to go to camps, whilst those wounded and sick had to go to the hospital. Children at the hospital are unaccompanied. They scream and call out for their mothers. Elderly people are on their own. Some people have bad wounds, some have been amputated or badly hurt by shrapnel."

Look at the state I am in

"I am 54 years old. I lived happily and comfortably with my wife and 8 children. I am very well educated, I know all three languages. We worshipped our farm work. We owned many properties and land. My children studied well, two of them even received university admissions but they (LTTE) didn't allow it. (LTTE had a strict pass system, particularly for those in the recruitable age group. Some were allowed out of their area of control if someone else stood surety for them). Why do you think I sent two of my daughters overseas to be married? Not only that, I have 11 siblings. Because of the current war situation we had been displaced 8 times, living in bunkers. One day a shell fell close by injuring my hand and leg. I was taken to a hospital and then to Trincomalee. Despite having so many relations I am now all alone. My family, estate, health and relatives - I have lost them all, if only the shell that fell had hit me, we could have died together", he said with agony.
Suffering from separation

Caught in between| Drawing by Vanni IDP school student showing herself (in yellow) escaping from pillai piddikarar (LTTE recruiters in black) amidst shelling from the Sri Lanka army through huts towards (Pudu)mathalan beachfront area.

I was 44 years old living with my husband and 4 children happily in our village. Our 4 children used to attend school while we were farmers. Due to the war situation we were displaced 11 times. To save our lives we dug bunkers wherever we went. On 8.4.09 a shell fell on top of the bunker and my daughter, son and husband were injured. While being taken to Mathalan hospital, they (LTTE) caught my 17 year old daughter and 15 year old son. I am here with my injured daughter. We had protected them all the way but on the way this has happened. We should have all died there. I have lost everything to become alone. "What would be the state of my husband and children?" she asked with grief.

Anguish of a 10 year old

I had a father, mother and two siblings. My native place is Killinochchi. I am a fifth year student. Due to the current war, we were continuously displaced from 7 to 8 places. When my father and I went to the shop to buy food, a Kifir rained bombs. My father died immediately. I was lying on the street with injuries in my stomach and leg, bleeding profusely. I cried to be taken to hospital. People going on the street just looked at me. No one picked me up. Afterwards someone took me to hospital by bicycle. I came by (ICRC) ship to Padaviya and then to Vavuniya hospital with my mother. What happened comes continuously as a nightmare. I am scared. I am sad when I think of my father.

What a life

I am a 47 year old male from Killinochchi. I was married with two female and one male child. A beautiful family. We were living with good facilities. Started the war. Continuous displacements. We had to live in Tharappan shacks and bunkers. Life became terrible. We had just reached Suthanthipuram, it was not even an hour had gone by when continuous shelling... , one fell on our shack. In that place two of my daughters died. Son lost both his hands and a leg. I could not even properly bury my daughters. I have brought my son here. They did not allow my wife. No news. I have searched in all the camps. Is this a life? Life has deteriorated, children are also gone, wife is also not to be found, what is the purpose of living?

I was not able

I am a 47 year old married woman with two female children. Native place is Mannar District. We were doing well. Started the war. 13 times displaced. We were four siblings. I was the last. My mother was 87 years old. She was living with me. Because of this cursed war I left her with my brother. We all left together. My brother had come before. We had to cross a river on the way. My mother had left early. There were many people. I left my mother in my brother's care. My brother left my mother on the other side of the river. How much my mother would have suffered? I was not able to bring her to this side. I left her with my brother's family. I wanted to save my children and came across. I could not save her. She must have suffered so. Nobody is there to help her. Didn't she also leave because she wanted to survive? I do not know what to do....


I was a 48 year old male living happily with my wife and four male children. I was a fisherman. We had no shortcomings. I educated my four lions (sons). At this time the war started. I lost my occupation, I lost my beautiful house and property. We were displaced to three places. As we were going with what was left, there was heavy shelling. People scattered. We became separated from my four children. Suddenly to see, I was in a vehicle with my wife, one leg and hand was not there. I suffered in that state. On the way in a bus, they separated my wife and sent me alone to the Vavuniya hospital. There is no news of my children. Are they alive or not? Where is my wife? I am trembling all alone.

How to go on living?

Although I was 27 year old woman, I looked after my disabled brother, another school going brother and elderly mother who was ill, while doing handwork at home to earn a living. My father had died 7 years previously and my mother had become sickly as a result. I cared for all three, did the housework and in the time remaining made mixture (short eats) to sell. I was hoping that my brother would study and start working but it did not happen. Shelling and aerial bombardment did not allow us to stay in one place with any peace. We were displaced to seven placed and faced a lot of economic difficulties. At this stage in the eighth place while in a bunker with another family, I took my mother to the toilet and my brother went to fetch water when I heard a loud noise. When I looked he was lying on the ground, when I got closer his legs were missing. I ran carrying him while screaming save, "save him, save him". I kept him in the hospital there for three days. I have no news of my mother nor of my disabled brother. Now I am at the Vavuniya hospital unable to leave my 13 year old brother without legs. I do not know how to go on living.

Orphan to an orphan

I am 24 years and my wife is 24 years. It was a love marriage. We have a six month female child. Our relations have cut us off but I had a government job. We were living happily when the war started. Because this we decided to escape to Vavuniya. We left all our property and were displaced to many places. Finally in one place there was a big crowd and we were under a tree when there was a noise of a kifir bomber. All ran helter skelter. The child was in my hand. Before I realized what was happening they put us in a bus and deposited us elsewhere. I searched for my wife but could not find her. The baby was crying. Finally they brought us to a camp in Vavuniya. I do not know how to care for the baby. I am an orphan and have another orphan. I ask everyone to find my wife.

Coming and going

I was 27 years old living happily with my husband and two small children in our native village. Husband was famer with a lot of land. We were able to find enough food. The war situation made us move 3 to 4 times. We were heading for a safe place when there was heavy shelling. I do not know what happened next. When I opened my eyes I was in hospital. My mother and daughter were by my side. I was without a leg and fingers. Daughter is also injured. I learned that my husband and 2 year old daughter had passed away. I am 7 months pregnant. I do not know how I am going to give birth to this child and then bring it up. I am troubled. There are no relations here. How is our future going to be? It is forebidding.

Where is peace?

I am a 20 year old female from Urithrapuram, Killinochchi with three brothers. I have studied A/L level (year 12). I was living very happily with my mother, father and brothers who treated me as a chella pillai (favourite, spoilt child). My mother used to practice Ayurveda (traditional) medicine. Then the war started up again. It was mainly a bunker life. We lost our sleep and peace. We struggled to find food even for once a day. When we were displaced and in a bunker, there was sounds of many shells. We crouched in fear. Suddenly there was a loud noise close by. I lost consciousness. (When I regained consciousness) I found that I had lost my leg and hand. My mother was besides me to help. Then we were transferred to this hospital. I am in this handicapped state. Only my mother is here. What has happened to my father and brothers? When will we be together again? Is this my state? To think it is sorrowful (with tears).

What a life?

A 60 year old woman was mumbling: I have three married children with 10 grand children. We were displaced 14 times from our home. Food was difficult. Rice was 250, chilli powder 22, coconut 250. Rice and dhal was food. We could not take it anymore. So we tried to leave. When we were in a tarappan shack, a shell fell killing my husband, son in law, grandchildren, all together 8 people died then and there. Daughter and a grandchild were injured. So I was sent as a helper. I do not know what has happened to the rest. We have to beg even for the clothes we wear. We did not even bury the dead. Do we need a life like this? I could have died with them. Why did I come here? Have I to go on living? Those who should live have gone. What is there for me anymore....

Where is solace?

I was a 43 year old driver from Killinochchi owning a private bus. We were well off. With 4 children we were displaced 6 times. At that time I had 5 lacks worth of goods in my vehicle. My wife and I were injured when we inside the last bunker. They (LTTE) had taken away my eldest daughter. I had three sons aged, 13, 11 , 9. I was injured in the head. My was injured in her chest. They brought us by ship (ICRC) to Padaviya. They sent my wife and children by ambulance. My wife left us (died) on the way to Vavuniya Hospital. I am not worried about the loss of my property or my well being. The loss of my daughter and wife is my big sorrow. I did not see my wife at her end. My children have also become alone.

Why should we live?

We have somehow survived. My 13 year old son is by my bedside with a face overwhelmed by sorrow. I suffer continuously from my leg that has been amputated above the knee due to shell injury. I cry all the time. I had tied my leg up with cloth tightly while living in bunkers for six months. We were displaced from Killinochchi three times before staying in Suthanthirapuram. We had not eaten properly for three days due to continuous shelling. Suddenly there was a lull in the shelling and my children wanted to eat some chicken. To fulfill their desire, I skinned a chicken and cooked it. After eating it we wanted to sleep. While lying down, a shell fell on our dwelling killing my wife and two children then and there. Only the two of us survived. We could also have died. What shall I do? Somebody known to us had picked me up and sent us to the Vavuniya Hospital.

Separation anguish

I am 30 years old. I was married with 4 children living happily. I never expected that our family would come to this state. At first, in January (2009), four people were killed and 30 injured by shelling in our village. After seeing that we no longer wanted to stay there, we wanted to go to a place without shelling. We left only with the clothes we were wearing. But wherever we went, shelling and Kifir bombing followed us. I did not know what to do. There was rain, sun, jungles, roads, schools (as refugee camps), all without food, water, bathing, we suffered terribly. We dug a bunker for safety and were living in a camp one day when the sun heat was unbearable under the tharrappal. We and many others were under a tree. On my lap was my last child, others were playing when suddenly there was the sound of shell exploding. I tried to carry my child to run but couldn't. The shell fell where the children were playing. I looked thinking they all had died. A daughter was unconscious. I did not know what to do. I left the child in my arms to pick up my daughter who was unconscious and ran. She was injured in her abdomen. She needed to be treated urgently.....


Rada is a 41 years old labourer from Killinochchi. He was married with four children. In 1990, to escape from the terrible war they had sought refuge in India. When there was relative improvement in the situation in 1996, they had returned. He was a heart patient taking treatment but was able to educate his children. They were living happily when the war broke out again. Shells started falling and exploding in their area. To safeguard his children they moved to several places with some their belongings. Their life was spent mainly in bunkers. The noise of artillery shells, firearms and bombs terrorized ordinary civilians. People ran helter-skelter seeking safety. On that 4.2.2009 when his wife (30 years) and son (7 years) had just come out of the bunker, when they were badly injured by a shell attack and lay in a pool of blood. Son died there. In the hope of at least saving the life of his wife, they took her to hospital. As the treatment was not successful, she left this world the next morning. When Rada learned of this he did not know what to do, he became benumbed. In the midst of heavy shelling they could not carry out the burial of his wife and son properly. Returning to their shelter with his remaining three children, Rada could not control his mind. He found all his belongings had been destroyed. In this terrible state, on an impulse he tried to consume poison and also give to his children. The children cried loudly. His 16 year old son thwarted the suicidal attempt. Then Rada decided to save the lives of at least his remaining children, joined a crowd of escaping refugees on 7.2.2009 and reached Vavuniya. They are now at the Gamini school camp. Having lost two lives to the horrible war, those thoughts came recurring daily to Rada. He was found to have lack of appetite, sleep, crying without realizing it, unable to socialize with others, suicidal ideation, not knowing what to do next, headache, numbing of the head, worry about the future of his three children and a deep depression. He felt remorse about not doing the funeral rites of his wife and son. He is without the support or help of his relations.


Fifty one year old Siva was born in Killinochchi and worked as farmer. He was married with four children. The eldest was married with a child and his daughter was a school teacher. They had escaped from shell attacks to live in bunkers at Sudanthirapuram. A shell fell there killing the eldest son and daughter. A son was injured in his chest and leg while his wife escaped with minor injuries. His daughter in law and child are in a refugee camp in Vavuniya His injured son is at Mannar hospital while his wife is in another camp. He is with his daughter at the Pampaimadu 7th mile camp unable to contact his siblings or relations and without contact with his injured son, daughter in law and child and wife. He is severely depressed with continuous crying, loss of appetite, lack of sleep, repeated memories of what happened in the Vanni, poor self-care and headache. On counseling, he cried, revealing that images of his two children dying in front of him and their leaving their bodies in the bunker without even carrying out their funeral rites keeps recurring in his mind preventing his sleep. As it was now one month since the event, He felt especially guilty that he was not even able to arrange the customary 45 day remembrance ceremony for them.

Widowed and pregnant

24 year old Mrs. Kavitha was 8 months pregnant and mother of 4 year old son. Her husband was an ordinary labourer. They had been married 5 years and was going in a happy direction when they had to flee for their safety when the dreadful war broke out. Everywhere there were the sights and sounds of shells attacks and reverberating sounds of gunfire. In many places there were the kifir bombings. People experienced allola kallola (pandemonium).They ran seeking shelter. Their daily lives were spent in bunkers. Everywhere there was marana olangal (death wailing) with deaths from very young children to the elderly falling victims to the awful war. It was in these circumstances that Kavitha floundered having lost all her belongings, separated from relations. Facing great difficulty her family tried to reach the army controlled area when her husband was shot by the armed group (LTTE). In that place there were many people with fatal injuries lying in pools of blood. When Kavitha looked at her husband he was in dead posture. To save her child, she left her husband's body and joined other people to attain the army controlled region. She is currently living in a IDP welfare camp with her four year old child. She is without contact of her relations. She was in deep thought about her upcoming delivery period and future life. She helplessly asked, "Who will look after my four year old when I give birth?" Kavitha was found in a disturbed mental state with loss of appetite, lack of sleep, recurring thoughts relating to her husband being supported by her four year old in the welfare camp.


Somu was a 30 year old male married with a 18 months old son. On that day, he had left his wife and child in a safe place to go and bring his mother and sisters. Youngest sister was a final year university student while the other sisters were married. When they had started to leave with their belongings, the army had seen them and started firing. His mother, sister and one baby died then and there. His youngest sister had fled. He had run after her fearing that she would be caught by the army and raped. Bullets pierced his neck and chest. The next day he regained consciousness hearing the voice of soldiers who had come there. They kicked him asking, "where are the others?". He begged them, "you have killed the others, kill me also." He was in a state of extreme distress and frustration at Vavuniya Hospital without knowing what had happened to his sister and without information about his wife and child. It was found that his legs and body would not function. He was unable to lift his neck due to the injury in the neck. He had repeated thoughts about his sister and what had happened that day. He had lost all hope about his state.

Shattered dreams

My name is Ravi, a 15 year old born and bred in Killinochchi with two sisters, mother and father who was a car mechanic. Being a keen student, I had succeeded in the fifth year scholarship and was continuing my education at the Killinochchi Mahavidiyalayam (high school). When the war broke out again in 2006, the Tigers made many attempts to conscript me under their ' veedukoruvar (one person for each house)' policy. While I was returning from school they tried to forcefully abduct me in their vehicle. Somehow I escaped through by-lanes leaving my bicycle behind to reach home. This happened in January, 2008. After that I stopped going to school. My parents also stopped my sisters from attending school. I could not study. I could not come out of my home. My life was frustrating. In the evenings, I used to play football for an hour at the Thirunagar grounds. That was blocked. People found me full of anger and despair. I would often get into fights with my father. I would say we should have gone to Vavuniya during the peace period. How long not to go to school, tuition and the grounds? If these are not to be, I will go and join them (LTTE). My parents were very concerned about me. They were unable to do anything.

Under our Margosa tree, I had dug a bunker. As soon as I heard the sound of Kifir (planes) I would be the first into the bunker. Then would come my sisters, then mother and finally, father. Every day we would be going inside at least five times. As soon as I heard the sound of Kifir, without realizing it I would develop palpitations and find it difficult to breathe. I would feel agitated. When it dived (high pitched sound of diving) to bomb, I would Veerudu (piercingly) scream. Its (Kifir) sound was that terrorizing.

We had some relief at night. At the beginning we had electricity for two hours. I studied with that help. I would watch TV for a short while. There was only the Nidharshanam (LTTE TV programme) service. They only showed only dramas and pictures (movies) related to war. Daily they would show the ghastly pictures of peoples killed by shells and aerial bombing. My body would tremble when I looked at them. Feelings of antagonism, frustration and hatred towards the government forces would arise in me without my realization.

As the fighting got closer and closer, we first moved from Thirunagar to Tharmapuram. We put up a tent in a small plot and stayed there. We had no toilets or clean water. In the monsoon rains our tent was blown away. We had to live in two feet deep water for two days. With all that, I somehow appeared for the "O" level (year 10 GCE national exam) held last December (2008) at the Tharmapuram school. I still hoped for good results to study "A" level science and become a doctor.

When the fighting passed Paranthan and came towards Tharmapuram, we moved to Visuvamadu. We put up a tent on land belonging to my father's friend and lived there. February 10th (2009) there was heavy shelling. The army was advancing towards Visuvamadu. As our bunker had filled with water we could not stay there. At about 1 PM when we had come out the bunker this horrible incident occurred. A shell that came from nowhere landed on our tent and exploded. Everywhere there was the sound of crying. I lay in a pool of blood, moaning. I could not get up and walk. On my side was my sister without any sound. Only my father was uninjured. When he picked me up crying loudly with oppari (weiling), my two arms were not in my control. I could not move them. I was able to move only my right thumb. Amidst all these difficulties, I was admitted to Puthukudirrupu hospital and underwent surgery. When I opened my eyes the next day my world was darkened. My two sisters who I had uyiruku uyirai nesitha (loved as my own life) had died in the shelling. My father had buried them in that bunker itself. He had brought me and my mother to hospital. My two arms were amputated and my other injures were dressed. On my side lay my mother who had had her right leg amputated below the knee. In this misery, we were taken by the Red Cross (ICRC) ship to Trincomalee Hospital. After one week there, we were sent to Mannar Hospital.

Now my whole life has become full of gloom. I still have the dream of becoming a doctor. "Can I study with prosthetic arms, doctor? Please help me."

To be Continued...

Treacherous Pathways [86].| International Journal of Mental Health Systems

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