Wanni Narratives - Part Four

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

Link Part One
Link Part Two
Link Part Three

(August 21, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)We were originally from Alaveddy in Jaffna. My father was transferred as the post master to Anuradhapura in 1948. We settled in at the post office quarters in new town Anuradhapura. My four younger sisters, one younger brother and myself were born in Anuradhpura. My mother was a good entrepreneur. Through her efforts we saved on our expenses, invested in land, cattle and paddy fields. We built a big house behind St. Joseph's Church and I studied at the Convent in Sinhalese. Talking and talking Sinhala we forgot our Tamil. Our neighbours were Sinhalese, Muslims and Burghers. They were good people. We had no problems. We shared our good and bad times. They helped us a lot. As my mother had many cows and sold milk she was fondly called 'kiriamma' (milk lady) by the Sinhala folks.

The '56 disturbances did not affect us much. The '77 disturbance cannot be forgotten. People who had eaten and drunk from us came with knives, poles and axes to cut us. A few who were grateful to us saved us. We hid for 2 days in the Thisava irrigation canals and jungles without thanni venni (anything). We were sent to Jaffna with police security. With just the clothes we wore we landed at Duraippah stadium in a lorry. Like us there were many others. We stayed at the mission house of the catholic Fathers at Parathithurai. My mother did not like Jaffna. We bought land in Killinochchi and moved there in '77 itself. The refuge life that started in '77 has not ended yet. Unable to live with the Sinhalese we came to Tamil land, but here also it is so. All our property, goats, cattle, chickens, household goods, everything was taken by those around us. My mother will become upset if Sinhalese is spoken, "They have betrayed (irandaham) the house where they ate". Rather than believe in them, we can live in our land, it will be only for a short time..." the lady repeated and passed away crying.

"If we could not live there in peace, we came to Tamil land but after '85 this has become hell" she said with perumuchu (deep, sighing breathing- A common Tamil cultural idiom of distress [82,83].... "When are we going to be able to live in peace?"...

My sister returned to Anuradhapura but I stayed on in Killinochchi with my children. The children would go to my sisters' at Anuradhapura during school holidays. My second daughter was 8 years old. She had gone to my sisters' for the March holidays in '85. The palapona (decadent) iyyakam movement (LTTE) one day shot many Sinhala folks. If they are shot would they just wait? They hunted down Tamils. Ours somehow reached the army camp and sought refuge there. A soldier who went berserk (irathaveri) started shooting killing and injuring many Tamils. In that my innocent daughter was also killed. I did not even get to see her body. She was buried there. From that day I have not stopped crying thinking of her.

In '90 my 3rd son joined the movement. From that day my nimmathi (contentment) also went. Day and night, I begged God that nothing would happen to him. Palapona God also had no compassion, he took him in 2000. In 2001 my brothers son had gone to Vavuniya. He died in a claymore that had been set for someone else. We were displaced repeatedly living in sheds. When peace comes we would come back to our own place. Like this we have experienced untold difficulties and tortures to live with the land. In 2002 with the peace agreement , we repaired our home, hoping to life with contentment when the palapona war started again in 2008. Artillery did not let us live in peace. The beatings of the heart from the sound of Kifir drives us into bunkers. The army had come out of Mannar to reach Akarayan. We were not able to stand the shelling and Kifir attacks, the children removed our roof, doors, windows and everything and moved to Visuvamadu. We did not live there with contentment for even 2 months. Leaving most of our goods, we moved to Vallipunam but the Sinhalese did not let us be there for even 2 weeks. With whatever they could get, the children made shelters. They took us to Iranaipallai. Like that we changed places again and again to finally reach Mullivaikal. It was there that I was injured in my arm by a multibarrel shell. My children sent me by ICRC ship (to Trincomalee). My children experienced all types of difficulties to walk from Mullivaikal to Vadduvan to reach the army. They were in Menik farm for 4 months and underwent all the difficulties there. Now we are all in Mannar. God has spared our lives. But so many people have died. All the hard earned assets have gone with the wind.

Last month we went to Killinochchi. Everything was flattened. There was nothing to identify our place. Everything was overgrown like a jungle and paladainthu (in ruins). It would be verrupu (despair) to stay there. Everywhere there is only the army. They have razed the Maveerar maythanam (Heroes (LTTE) cemetery) to the ground and ploughed it. The place of my son's tombstone cannot be recognized. Before one day of each month I would go and cry at his tombstone. This time we were not even aware that Maveerar day had come and gone. When we lived at Killinochchi, the boys with my son would come often addressing me as ammah (mother). Now who is there for me?

We went to over 15 places (for assistance) to repair our houses. To whom shall we ask? When looking at what has happened to the Tamils from '77, it creates a great despair. Like the story of a illavu patha killi ( parrot that waited for its portion) our story has ended... (with a perumuchchu). How many people were sacrificed; hands and feet lost; houses and property destroyed; ran around as people without a country; bearing so many hardships for liberty to come again to a life of subjugation. God has also become blind. Like before I do not repeat the rosaries, do not have the heart to go to church. Only anger and sorrow comes. Before we would celebrate Christmas and New Year in a big way. This time they just came and went. Cake was not made, nor palaharam (sweet eats). Whom to give? In Killinochchi all our neighbours and community would come. I only go to church on Sundays because my children insist. What have we done to anybody? We have sacrificed so many people asking for freedom but only ended up without even a kachai thundu (loin cloth). We could have gone in contentment to have been killed by a shell rather than see this end. Prabhakaran has gone creating the situation where to see our house we have to get permission from the army. When thinking of everything anger wells up. I feel like burning up. There is no sleep. All the difficulties we faced keep running like a movie. Tossing and turning, there is no sleep.

There were many stories of multiple displacements. Eventually everyone was displaced several times with decreasing periods in one place and increasing pressures from all sides, devastation and hardships. The following account by a teacher from the Mannar district maps the long convoluted journey, keeping just ahead of the direct fighting [84] up to Feb., 2009:

2.3.08- We were displaced from our village to Maddu. During this period the LTTE started to forcefully conscript our youth. Many parents, male and female youth were affected psychologically by this. Some attempted suicide by taking poison. All male and female youth were cosseted in the Madhu church while parents guarded them. Finally people were forcefully sent to other places.

3.4.08- From Madhu we were displaced to Thachinamaruthamadu. People suffered without basic facilities. Here also forced conscription continued. Some hid their children. They moved them between bunkers and jungles. Many were affected psychologically. There were many civilian casualties due to heavy shelling and aerial bombardment. Some were killed by the army's deep penetration unit claymore mines. The bus taking school children from Thachinamaruthamadu to Madhu was hit by claymore mines. Many died or were injured by this attack. Due to these attacks the free movement of people became restricted.

15.5.08 We were displaced to Periamadhu. Here some basic facilities were arranged for the people. Even here, people were subject to problems like claymore attacks, shelling and forced conscription. Many students became mentally deranged, dropping out of school and staying at home.

18.6.08 People were displaced to Ganeshapuram. NGO's and service organizations helped the people. Here also people faced continuous problems. Continuing deaths affected many mentally. There was severe shortage of water. Shelling and aerial bombardment took place.

23.7.08 We reached Anaivilunthan. As people had to leave many of their belongings on the way, they were affected psychologically. Shelling caused injuries and deaths. The successive displacements disturbed people. The education of students suffered.

11.8.08 We were displaced to a place called Puthu murripu. Here also the same problems were encountered. People were pushed to grave difficulties. Some ran out of money. Deaths increased, house to house there were funerals.

25.8.08 Displacment to Vaddakachchi. Here also all the same problems. People endured severe hardships. Forced conscription was done by beating the people and taking male and female youths. Conscripts escaped from the LTTE and returned home to be hidden there.

7.10.08 We moved towards Tharmapuram. People had to struggle through heavy rains and flooding. Huts went underwater. Other problems cropped up. People betrayed each other to the authorities (LTTE). Youngsters were caught and taken away at night, at midnight. In the name of conscription, some were beaten up, some were taken away tied to poles. Male and female youth were kept in hiding. Some became frustrated and joined. There was no one to give comfort to the people, they became desolate. They were broken by shelling and gunshots. Some were taken away for border duty and other work. Some dead youth were returned to the families in coffins with their faces concealed. Everywhere there were funerals. Everyone talked about death. Youth spent their time in hiding away from their studies.

13.1.09 People moved to Visavamadu area. Streets were crowded with moving people. Funerals were ubiquitous with smell of corpses. Bodies were buried day and night. Witnessing all this, many became mentally deranged. People were stricken by the loss of their belongings struggled without basic facilities grieved for the deaths of kith and kin. Many died unnecessarily by the shelling. Dead children to elders, lay around orphaned. Air bombings increased. Some succumbed to army firing.

30.1.09 Many people moving to Irudumadu were killed by shelling. Some left everything in a bid to survive. People were psychologically affected.

3.2.09 People moved towards Suthanthipuram. There was no drinking water, people dug holes and drank the water there. Shelling was particularly heavy. People were bewildered. On one side there was forced conscription, on the other there was continuous shelling. People lost everything, did not know where to go, what to take, what to do. Shelling was heavy even in what had been declared as the Safety Zone. Children who had lost their parents, parents who had lost their children. It was a scene that one could not look at. Bodies were buried in bunkers as it was not possible to bury them properly. Some bodies were wrapped with clothes and buried two to three feet deep. Some could not bury the dead, they simply left them and ran. Some had lost their hands, other bodies were shattered, people suffered greatly. In the hospital, there was a shortage of medicines and medical workers. People starved without adequate food. Rice and Dhal were the only food. Some broke into the stores of cooperative societies, service organizations and shops to meet their needs. There was no clean drinking water. At the same time, the LTTE shot those trying to escape into army controlled areas. Hospitals were crowded. They suffered without medical facilities. Some days were spent only in bunkers. Only for short intervals was it possible to come out. It was in this place that they faced many difficultiesPeople gave up leaving it to God's will. Nobody knew who will look after whom, who will provide comfort. We experienced suffering here that cannot be described. Many were widowed. Most people, beyond age differences, were physically and mentally affected.

The following account describes the final days at Mullivaikal in apocalyptic terms (see Figure 3[85]). There is deep emotion and resentment mixed with an earnestness to give voice to those who died there:

Mullivaikal was where the Vanni Thamilan (Tamil persons) had their hair shorn and mouth gagged while nails were driven through their hands and legs like the scene at Calvary while 80 million (world) Tamils looked on. Out of their national interest, the ruling regime washed their hands off Tamils to kill and destroy under attractive terms such as' war for peace' and 'humanitarian action'. 300,000 Tamils were rained with shells causing rivers of blood to soak that land. Daily, I want to forget those days but the memory of the thousands who died makes me want to show the outside world happened there. That would be giving the dead souls athma shanthi (paying respect, letting them rest in peace).

Everyone ask us who survived that death land why we went behind them (LTTE)? Aren't you just ordinary civilians? From Killinochchi we were displaced to Vallipunam (Puthukudirrupu). We made a house there and stayed for a month. Shells that were falling kilometers away started falling in our yard. Seeing the dead and injured in neighboring houses our minds became disturbed and we joined those running to go where our legs took us. We changed places four to five times within a village. Wherever we went we dug bunkers like soldiers and brought together our kith and ken. We struggled to obtain food and water. It became quite clear that this war was against everything living in the Vanni. According to my reckoning there was one death for every 10 persons. Ordinary people were asked to go to Suthanthirapuram as it was made the safety zone. We found out what hell would be like there. When we saw people die in hoards with their bodies strewn, we decided to move to Iranapalai. Iranapalai was also declared a safety zone. We thought this was also a killing field. Tank shells, Kifir (aircraft) bombs, multi barrel missiles, kothu (cluster) bombs and 50 caliber gunshots targeted the people. My mind became benumbed seeing young infants to the elderly being injured and dying. Tears did not come when relations were killed. The current corpses were surrounded by future corpses cowering in bunkers. We kept hearing that people were surrendering to the army. Death was certain if we stayed. We were driven to choose. There was no food, no medicine but my family and relations were like cats that had seen fire. Because on an earlier occasion, when we had sought refuge in an army camp in Anuradhapura (birthplace of many of my relations), they had opened fire killing and injuring many. We had escaped to Killinochchi and then Jaffna where we were bombed with explosives and faeces (barrels filled with faeces) that smeared out bodies. From that time we had lost hope that as civilians we would be spared. It was imprinted in our minds that if we run in the opposite direction to the army we may somehow survive. That belief was confirmed on many occasions. But at Mullivaikal the opposite direction was the sea! When we were at Vellaimullivakal, the Tamil Nadu (in India) Chief Minister's fasting drama created some hope of a ceasefire, a restriction on the use of heavy weaponry. There was brightening in the faces of people. There was no food to eat, no water to drink, no medicine for wounds but we believed the person who represented 60 million Tamils.

Only that night the peak of heavy weaponry power was displayed. Artillery shells with phosphorus fell near our bunker and caught fire. Everywhere there was marana olam (death wailing). Even at night, with the fond hope of saving the lives of our children we ran where our legs took us. We rested on the sea shore sands. We did not believe we would be alive the next day. My aunt had been burning after being struck by a shell when we ran. When we came the next day, only her head and chest remained for us to bury in the nearby bunker. In every bunker two to three people had died. We joined those camped on the seashore. Fear of death had created a sense of comradeship with others. We were ready to share anything we had.

Death was ubiquitous ( see Figure 4). People who come out of the bunker to have a tea, fell back dead. Shells did not spare those in bunkers. My elder sister in law was injured in her head by a 'canon' attack and died due to lack of medical attention. Elders and children standing in queues for bread were slaughtered. Those who stood for gruel, to buy milk powder all went in the carnage.

While running to Vadvahal we had to duck for cover in a palmyrah cluster by an open bunker. There were altogether ten children from my family and relations when a shell fell by the side killing our neighbor. The children were covered by sand. I was dazed thinking they had all died, when on pulling out one child, it was unharmed. When the other children were also unharmed, a belief that there was a God became strong. Finally we reached Vaddivahal. My brother was injured on the way while another was missing. The injured brother was taken away by the army and lost all his money but he survived. When we approached Vaddivahal a soldier called us females and showed it by signs. Why were men called this way? Later, why were we locked up like prisoners? There were many questions but no one to answer us.

Many of the militants (LTTE cadres) who surrendered in front of our eyes were not in the ICRC register. Many said they had been shot. When will we be allowed to resettle in our own places? With the armed groups destroyed, will ordinary civilians like us be given freedom of opinion, freedom to protect our lives? Only the world can give an answer.

This is a much more individualistic presentation elicited by a doctor from a medico-psychiatric perspective that was diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):

To be continued...

Ubiquitous death | International Journal of Mental Health Systems