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Wanni Narratives - Part Three

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

(August 20, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)This paper is mainly a qualitative inquiry [73-76] into the psychosocial situation of the Vanni IDP's and their ethnography using narratives and observations obtained through participant observation; in depth interviews; key informant, family and extended family interviews; and focus groups using a prescribed, semi structured open ended questionnaire. Ethical clearance for the study was sought from the Ethical Review Committee of the University of Jaffna. Informed consent was obtained before administration of the questionnaire. Interviews were carried out by the author and by trained psychosocial workers who are involved in assisting the Vanni IDP's. The sampling frame were all those who had lived in the Vanni of northern Sri Lanka and been affected by the outbreak of the war between the state forces and LTTE in the period 2008-9 and eventually displaced as so called IDP's to Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. Generally the sampling has been purposive and convenient such as clinic, hospital patients; displaced and refugee populations; and those accessible living with friends or relations. The transcripts and translations were verified with those involved wherever possible. The author did the translations from Tamil into English for this paper. There were severe limitations to access to IDP camps and to obtaining 'information'. The narratives, drawings, letters and poems as well as data from observations, key informant interviews, extended family, focus group discussions and media reports were analysed for impact at the family and community levels. The key informants included government (Assistant Government Agent (AGA), Gamma Sevakas (GS), Social services, Women affairs, Child Rights and other officers from AGA office, International Non Governmental Organization (INGO), NGO workers, doctors, health staff, Teachers, priests, Camp officers, community leaders (e.g. chairman, president and other members of committees, organizations)- all working with Vanni IDP population. Groups included, camp groups, women groups, extended family groups, community groups (adolescents, religious, mothers, teachers, doctors, health staff). Qualitative analysis of data used standard qualitative techniques like Narrative analysis (content, idioms and structure analysis to locate common epiphanies, contexts, themes, processes, unique features, and semiotics); Phenomenology (personal and family experiences in essence, meaning, experiential description); Grounded theory (selective coding and interrelate categories to develop propositions, conditional matrix, alternate interpretations, themes, hypothesis, and theory); ethnography (cultural, religious and social contexts, events, actors, themes and patterned regularities to interpret how the culture worked in this situation); Case studies (using categorical aggregation to establish themes and patterns, direct interpretation and natural generalizations to extract in-depth picture of cases); and Discourse analysis (read and interrogate the data for patterns, perspectives; historical, mythical and sociopolitical contexts; actions, implications and social reality). The attempt was to 'extract the meaning and implications, to reveal patterns or [and] to stitch together descriptions of events into a coherent narrative' (quoted from Corbin & Strauss 2008)[72]

The resettlement of the Vanni IDP's is being planned and implemented. The paper pleads for their trauma and psychosocial needs be taken into consideration for their necessary healing and success of rehabilitation and development process. The Tamil community needs these narratives to come out to show the extent of their suffering, for their own review of what has happened and where they are going and for the outside world to understand. For the nation, the eventual process of reconciliation needed for her survival and future progress, the stories of ordinary people has to be told. Social justice, at least steps towards acknowledgement of what has happened would help towards long term psychosocial well being.

The psychosocial phenomena of collective trauma is explored and interventions suggested। the term collective trauma is being introduced to represent the negative impact at the collective level, that is on the social processes, networks, relationships, institutions, functions, dynamics, practices, capital and resources; to the wounding and injury to the social fabric. The long lasting impact at the collective level or some have called it tearing in the social fabric [21] would then result in social transformation [77], of a sociopathic nature that can be called collective trauma. Collective events and consequences may have more significance in collectivistic communities than in individualistic societies [78]. The individual becomes embedded within the family and community so much so that traumatic events are experienced through the larger unit and the impact will also manifest at that level.


Many ended up in the Vanni after many previous displacements to escape the chronic terror of continuing warfare. The following youthful narrative starts when the person was a young child but is quite typical and shows the complexities:

As a child we were living in Jaffna when the first major blow in life happened in the 10th month of 1995 with the announcement to leave Valikammam. My friends said that we would be just going today and returning tomorrow. With the clothes I was wearing and two old hand baggage (on foot) we reached the Navatkulli bridge which was rumoured to be broken by nightfall. In our haste, we crossed through mud that reached my neck, lost one of my bags and somehow made it to Chavakachcheri in two days. Here there was the appeal that "Vanni soil will make you live" and some compulsion (by the LTTE, though not named) that made us join thousands of people to journey by sea to the Vanni. We experienced two strong emotions during this journey, one was the terror for the navy- when they would cut us up (people crossing the Killali lagoon were set upon by navy patrols) and other was the longing when we would return to Jaffna. The nostalgia for Jaffna lasted for days turning into a day dream that continued for years. After this we were displaced again from Killinochchi in 1996. I lost both my parents in 1998. Then my brother was killed in a bomb blast. I came down with malaria several times. (Health officials reported a high (epidemic) number of deaths due to malaria during that period. But public health measures brought it under control). I went to school and sat for the national exams from Killinochchi. After that the Killinochchi resettlement process. We gradually became part of the Vanni soil (Vanni man vasihal). The thoughts of Jaffna faded slowly from our minds. Our longing was for freedom. Not necessarily by arms but that we should govern in our land. We wanted rule by the people because our past ethnic leaders had made many historical blunders (varallattu thavaruhal). Whether we liked it or not, we were forced to accept the struggle (porrattam). Although many of our expectations may not come to pass, at least one day, freedom and after that dawn (vidivu). This was the longing of many. Many lost much for this goal. But now we regret that the last 30 years have all been in vain. This anguish is greater than all the suffering we have been through.

The 4th phase of the Eelam war resulted in enormous suffering for the people that cannot be described. In 2006 August, the pathway to Jaffna and prize of the peace process, the A-9 highway was closed (puddu villa). Then began the forced conscription with the call, "one person for each house to guard the nation, come forward swiftly (virainthu vareer)". We'll hear loud wailing for the dead (marana olam). When we went to inquire, we would be informed that it was due to forced conscription. It was the oppari (wailing) by the conscripts and their relations. I learnt the reason for the wailing later. Many who were taken never returned. This was coerced. Some parents willingly gave their children. Willing or unwilling, some joined because of others. They hoped that somehow a change will come. Subsequently the displacements took hold like a cancer. A common saying became, "we gave our child and eventually we have to leave our home".

Our displacement from Killinochchi started in October, 2008.The reason was that shells from Mallavi and aerial attacks. The planes would drop their bombs somewhere but the pieces would spread to cause damage elsewhere. Among the planes the MIG 29 was a demon. Its sound still rings in my ears. First displacement was to Visvamadu. Everything except the walls of the house were removed. Some even took the bricks that were not cemented. This was due to the bad experiences from the last displacement (on returning they found everything possible to remove had been looted). Our household loaded two 'kandar' (heavy vehicle). Everything from a broomstick were carefully loaded and secured before moving. Somehow we will take everything possible. Then we will return with everything safely was the misplaced belief. Some even uprooted their croton plants to take with them. There was relief, a pleasure in the feeling that we had loaded all our belongings in a heavy vehicle (see Figure 2: Displacements[79]. What happened was different. We were displaced 8 times. For folks from Mannar district it was 16 times. The heavy vehicle finally became by foot (changing from tractor, land master, motor cycle, to bicycle).The items taken became finally one or two handbags, in this the story of those who crossed a waterway to reach (army) control is distressing: some finally even lost their identity card. The first displacement did not appear that major to us. In the belief that they would soon return people said, "the army will come up to Paranthan, after they have all come, they will be chased back by those responsible (the word LTTE was not used). After that we can return, no." Even after our 8th displacement, these were the words of faith used by people. After that they added safe to Visvamadu and declared it the safety zone. Relief was twofold. But it didn't last even 28 days. Attacks towards Visvamadu started. This was the most terrible harvest of the 30 years of war. With it rain floods became frightening. Nature also played with our people. Chickens that people had brought with them were swept away in their cages. Tharappal (tarpaulin- plastic sheet) cottages were swept away. Water will seep through the ground of the huts that we built. We became used to these hardships. With these burdens, sweet news reached us of worldwide ahimsa protests by the Diaspora and the neighbouring country's political drama all gave us fresh hope. It was like the person longing for rice receiving buriyani that was sweet only to our ears.

There was a strong expectation that India would do something among the Vanni people. At least they would put a stop to the shelling. The reason was the political drama that unfolded in Tamil Nadu in 2008. This appeared to us to be a big change there. After that was the dream of the Indian relief boat. Even in the midst of the horrible war the story spread of the Indian ship coming with food and clothes. We waited two months and spent two days (standing in queues) to finally get the parcel. Before enjoying it, the next displacement came. We had to leave many of the items behind. One thing became clear that people had a strong belief to the last that India would come to their rescue. One could see the sticker from the parcel, "From the Indian people" stuck on the tharapan shacks of the people for a long while afterwards. The next displacement was to Mullaithivu's Vallipunam. We could not stay here safely even for one week. Many shells landed suddenly close by. In the morning people had cooked the chickens they had been carrying as they were becoming tired of carting them around. But before they could eat their meal they had to flee leaving the food behind. With the loud explosions the ground shook. We fell to the ground on top of each other crying, "O God". Many died in that multibarrel attack (24 to 56 shells are fired almost simultaneously as a single salvo). There was a young woman very close by with a child bleeding from its mouth. I do not know how to describe the scene. She was leaning onto a tree. When I approached I found there was life. With the neighbours help I had her sent to the hospital on my motorcycle. Afterwards as we were rushing to Thevipuram, which had been declared a safety zone by the state, a child cried, 'brother look somebody's leg is lying there'. I didn't even turn to look as I pushed on in a hurry with an elder on my cycle. People were rushing in all directions not knowing where to go. The next day when I rose my heart was beating fast. As the shelling had subsided, I returned to the earlier place and inquired from those there about the child. They said that on reaching the hospital, the child had survived for just one hour before dying. This had happened in front of my eyes. I had begged God that child should not die. The news of its death caused terror in me. I had comforted many, but could not comfort myself.

Severe terror started in Thevipuram. Both sides played firing shells in turn. If you fire ten, I will fire hundred, raining shells. Some of these did not fail to fall on ordinary people. At this stage, many people from Irudumadu and Suthanthirapuram crossed over to army controlled areas. Not easily but amidst great difficulty: "come" they call but continue to shell. "Do not go, stay" and they (LTTE) continued shelling. We also do not want to go. "Our own place, our livelihood, we know the journey (struggle) we have already undergone, but who sir, is going to save us? Are we made of steel?" Shells were raining down on us. Parents with the children they have borne. Many obstacles: water comes up to the legs, a child can be carried on the hips; water comes up to the neck, the child can be put on the head; but when the water goes above the head, the mother puts aside the child she has carried so far with great difficulty to try and save herself. People will run... if someone is injured, they would leave the person and continue running. There were parents who left their injured child behind. I saw this with my own eyes at the Mother Mullai church. Again the safety zone became a place of danger. At this point I had to go the Mathanan hospital to send an elderly person by the ICRC ship. For this I had to stay one week at the hospital (now the area from Mathanan to Vaduvahal has been declared the safety zone). While staying at the hospital I came to realize in reality what I had imagined hell to be like. Without a hand, without a leg, bowels protruding out, burnt bodies without any portion left to burn, without eyes and so on of human suffering that one cannot think of. The injured would be brought in continuously from time to time. Of these, those who died on the way to hospital and those dying with or without treatment would be registered at the hospital. Who would take those who had already died due to injuries? Some died as a family. Some bodies would by lying by the side of the road. But I would like to record one thing, the selfless service of the TRO workers who interred the dead bodies to preserve human dignity cannot be forgotten. (Tamil Rehabilitation Organization a local NGO under the LTTE that did yeoman service for the public [80] but was categorized as part of the 'terrorist' organization by the state).

I first learnt of kotu kundu (cluster bombs) in Mathalan. One would hear the click of the shell being loaded but would begin to think there is no explosion, perhaps it is a dud before there would be multiple 'parapara' sounds. Then that area would be mayhem. Not one or two but many would come and fall. In one day, it was not intervals between shelling but their absence would last only for a small time. Most had dug bunkers. Many lived in open bunkers. Some trusted the open skies as their roof. In the last four months, most of our life was spent in bunkers. What has to be noted here is the continuous displacement, people had to move on. With other important things, the logs for the bunkers had also to be carried along. The last place that was declared as the safety zone was bare land used for drying fish. If one dug bunkers there, within one feet there would be water. So many built shelter bunkers above the ground. The seacoast became public toilets. Close by people had to put up their tharrapan shacks and live densely as there was no space. If one attended to their toilet needs in the early morning, they had to be patient till nightfall. Females suffered particularly. Some controlled their urination the whole day before passing it once it became dark. One could observe this directly. Many said they restricted their eating and drinking because of this. Then came the move to Mullivaikal...

Youths and children with dreams and hopes of life were killed. Conscription of a person for each house changed to whole households being taken for the war effort. Church doors were broken open and my close friend together with other youths (males and females) were conscripted whilst they were praying inside. He was a very spiritual person. I was also on my way to the church in search of succor. The state of the church made me cry, "Is this your fate, the place where people come searching for comfort?" The words of Jesus, "If this is the fate of a green tree, what would become of the dry?" came to mind as I went in search for my friend. I saw the mother's crying face. She could not speak. The family had already sacrificed one member for the war, and now those left had also been conscripted leaving the mother as the lone tree. I learnt later that my friend escaped in two weeks to return to his mother. Words cannot describe the hardships they went through to avoid conscription again. Female and male youth, even children tried many ways to save themselves from conscription. Some hid in holes dug in concealed places. Some hid in jungles. Some died due to shells falling where they hid. But due the continuous displacement they were caught while moving. Some married secretly to save themselves(there appeared to be a belief that married persons would be spared. Although this was true in earlier times, towards the later stages everyone was taken). Some were involved in this forced conscription. Some made themselves leaders. They made their own laws and were the cause of the split from the people. The selfishness of some, those who put their families and their own selves above others became the cause of problem. They stopped us saying the devil (army) was out there, but then sent on their own families. People finally asked, "To whom are you showing the devil?"

Mullivaikal became very scary. Our environs were hit by multibarrel (40) shells. We did not know what was happening. The surrounding palmyrah were burning. I fell without realization. After a few moments, I look around. Everywhere there was oppari (wailing). The elder in the next shack was killed while eating. I had just talked to him. He had said that he had not eaten in the morning (due to shortage of food), only at midday. I had seen the 14 year old female child next door cooking a rotti. It was around 12 noon. The shells hit at around 1 PM. The white rice the elder was eating had turned red. One of the rotti's that the child had been cooking was thrown on top of our torn tharappan roof. The child's abdomen had been torn asunder and was eventually sent by ship to Pulmoddai. Deaths became common. Some died inside the bunkers. They would then all be simply buried therein.

The World Food Programme (WFP) would distribute relief items. We had to stand in queues for it. It would start shelling and we would have to run. Even when dry rations were obtained amidst all these difficulties, there was always shortage. There was floor, sugar, dhal and oil. We became habituated to just Rice and dhal. There was not even an ulli to add. We developed diarrhea and had to go to the toilet often. Shells would come at any time. The price of food items skyrocketed. One coconut was Rs. 1000. Spinach Rs. 150. Once some spoilt carrot and pumpkin came by boat. Unripe mango was Rs. 100 to 150. Some mothers cried for rice...

Gunshots also started to target people in Mullivakal. When we looked outside from the bunkers we would see the trees riddled with bullets. Some described as 'dumdum' a type of bullet. An achchi (elderly lady) was sitting by our side when a 'dum' sound was heard. Later she realized her leg was broken. We later realized that a channam (round or bullet) had struck her leg and then exploded again within. Another type of missile was called 'cannon'. These were later fired continuous and many died as a result. One does not hear the 'canon' being fired or know it is coming, only after it has exploded. After this even the thorn bush at Mullivaikal couldn't stand up. Continuous missiles, rockets, gunfire, and with that bombardment from the sea. The bunkers were built facing the sea, to avoid the multipronged attacks from the land. But now shells started coming from the seaside also. For comfort we ran towards Vellammullivaikal. This was only 500 m away. In the middle the night, a hidden arms dump had exploded with burning flames. We are afraid to come out (of bunkers) in the fire light. Vandu (unmanned aircraft) are taking pictures from the sky. If people leave the bunkers to come out, at least five shells will come there. Somehow we manage to run towards Vellamullivaikal. On the way we duck for cover, but that turns out to be more frightening than where we had been. There was a school in Vellammullivaikal where the injured were being brought. This was the Vanni hospital. If I am to describe all this it would take a book. However, in short: in the front yard there were many injured. Some were corpses; by the side were the badly injured without anyone to care for them. If it was head injury nobody would even turn to look. There were two or three government doctors. However, trained local doctors (TEHS) saved many people. (Thamil Eelam Health Service was part of the elaborate de facto state infrastructures and institutions evolved by the LTTE. The parallel[68] health service consisted of medical services to the militant cadres that included doctors trained in their medical school, nurses and other medics running frontline first aid centres, field hospitals and base hospitals that carried out complicated surgeries, blood transfusions and rehabilitation[81]. Theelapan Memorial Health Services provided primary health care to civilians throughout areas under their control. Other institutional structures included White Pigeon Artificial limb organization, Centre For Health Care(CHC), Ponnambalam Memorial Hospitals and expatriate visiting specialists).

This hospital also sustained attacks. The sad part was that the place where people came searching for medicine became their grave. Shells fell on those who were already dead. There was saying that even after death devastation continues became a reality here. Before coming to Vellamullivaikal we celebrated our last mass in the Vanni. Under a tharrapan, the priest and people had done the pusai (mass) sitting on the floor (this was my first such experience) as there was no space and gunshots were crossing overhead. The day and time when ICRC ships used to come gave people some respite as shells became less. Yet, some who trusted this and got out died.

13/5/2009. World War I remembrance day. I am reading the bible in my bunker while heavy attacks are going on around. I feel my face being covered by mud. Immediately I come out of the bunker and start running. An artillery shells falls nearby covering a bunker with mud. Five children are in the bunker. Thank god they are alive. We dig them out. I turn to look, a woman is squatting on the ground with her head bent. "Iyoo, it's a known girl". I turn her head. She is still alive but there is blood pouring from her nose and ear. Immediately we run from there. 100 m from there we get into another bunker with other known people. A girl who had been talking to us leaves the bunker to come back bent over, holding her abdomen with tears rolling down her eyes. She is immediately taken to the same hospital. There were no vehicles. So two sticks are put through a sarong that functions as the stretcher. She is soon operated on and sent back. She lives with us for three days in the crowded bunker. She would cry for water but we could not give even water because of the abdominal injury. On the third night, while looking at her two children she passed away. The funeral was held inside the bunker. Within three hours we buried her in our hut by the bunker. We also cooked and were eating when an arms dump (store) nearby starts burning. This happens in many places. People grab what they can carry by hand and run where they can. Everywhere it was the same situation. This was the last stage for the Vanni. Those who believed in something became disoriented. Many of these were highly vulnerable innocents. Our faith till the last had been with god. We were very keen to listen to news till the end. Every expected the UN to intervene. NATO will send in troops. Many believed the US statement to the last (Obama administration had at one stage suggested plans to send US Air Force and Navy units attached to its Pacific Command (PACOM) to evacuate the civilians). Those concerned (LTTE) would surrender their arms to a third party. Civilians will be rescued from the government announced safety zone (up to Vadduvahal) by the intervention of outsiders and taken to a safe place. But the truth was that instead of saving the people the world nations and UN committees respected the sovereignty of a weaker developing country more. But will they avoid intervening needlessly in a sovereign country when their interest is at stake? Laws are for man, man is not restrained by laws. Laws are important but we who were facing death did not have anybody to comfort us at the end. Those who believed till the end kept looking towards the sea for a saviour. The last hope dissolved with the Indian election results. Many did not know what was happening to the end. They just stayed in the bunkers. What has happened to them?

On the last day we cross the Vaddukaval bridge. Even at the end they (LTTE) block us. But the flood of people had to cross the final blockade. After 30 years of war, more than the changes in the map or the changes in the economics and structure of Illangai (Sri Lanka), who will fill the wounds and trauma in the minds of the people who have suffered these horrors? We, who have learnt to be patient, will wait for peaceful coexistence.

In this case the displacements had started in 1977:
To Be Continued...

Displacements | International Journal of Mental Health Systems 2010

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