Header Ads

Wanni Narratives - Part Two

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

Folk lore, myth and history
Link Part One

(August 19, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)The hoary beginnings of the people of the Vanni (Vanniar) ruled over by chieftains called Vannians [33,34] has not been clearly established but settlements have been dated back 2000 years[35]. There is mention in the Konesar culvet and old vya song of sixty Vanniar coming from Madurai in South India accompanying the royal bride for the king at Anuradhapura in the first century BC [36]. They were settled in Adangapattu (Unsuppressed place)[37] while one became a Dishava in Kandy. Interestingly for long periods from the 1990's the whole of the Vanni together with other areas in northeast under LTTE control were called 'uncleared' (meaning not under state control) areas by the state. Adangapattu district is again mentioned as the residence of Paranda Vanniyan in Colonial British accounts.

Vanni came into the historical limelight around the beginning of the eleventh century [33,34,38,39] when the Cholas from South India exerted their influence over Jaffna and encouraged settlements in the Vanni. And later, more prominently in the thirteenth century, the political space for the Vanni opened up to assert itself when according to partisan versions, 'invasions by (South) Indian mercenaries', Magha from 'Kalinga' the most notorious of them, were blamed for the fragmentation of the Anuradhapura and Pollanaruwa Kingdoms of the Rajarata civilization [40]. These ethnocentric, somewhat mythic, accounts of the past feed into present day ethnic emotions, consciousness, polarized perceptions, relations and conflict[41,42]. However, other, more scholarly accounts, ascribe the breakdown to internal dynastic power struggles [43,44] and the neglect of the hydraulic infrastructure of the ancient civilization and consequent breeding of pernicious malarial Anopheles mosquitoes [45]. The malaria ridden forests of the Vanni functioned as a buffer zone between the North and the South and could have been one of the primary causes for the separate evolution of the two ethnic identities. The Vanni chieftains appear to have paid some tributary to the more powerful rulers in the north or south as the power balance happened to be at that time, but had an independent spirit with a distinct naddar culture [46,47] and dialect (language) of their own. Dissident and defiant groups found safe haven in the impenetrable forests of the Vanni from where they mounted reprisal attacks. However, this original group of peoples, way of life and language have now been assimilated into the mainstream cultures. Historically, the Vanni encompassed Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Pollannaruwa, Batticaloa, Ampara and Puttalam hinterlands [33]. The name Vanni is said to be derived from the Sanskrit and Tamil word for forest (vannam) or fire (vahni) , but there is also some historical evidence in Culverts and old songs that the Vanniar could have originally come from the large Vanniar clan/caste from North Arcot in South India [33]. One of the traditional old temples is at Vattapallai dedicated to Kannahi or Pattini deyo in Sinhala. It is from here that an annual pilgrimage (paddayattarai) goes along the coast and then through forests to Kattirgamam (Kattragamma in Sinhala) in the South East. In the western, Mannar side of the Vanni, Thirkatheeswaram temple and the Catholic Christian Madhu church, built on an old Amman temple, are popular places of pilgrimage of 'Hindu' Tamils, 'Buddhist' Sinhalese, 'Christians' and others.

The Vanniar are also reputed to belong to the warrior caste with heroic and marital skills. According to folklore, seven Vanni chieftains who fought unsuccessfully against the Dutch committed suicide to avoid capture. They are still revered as heroic devas (gods) at Natchimar temples in the Vanni and Jaffna where lamps will be lit and drums beaten in their names every Tuesday and Friday [Ahalankan, unpublished manuscript]. The most famous of the Vanni chieftains was Pandara Vanniyan or Wanni Bandara in Sinhalese, the last king of the Vanni who fought against the Dutch and British colonial powers [48,49]. In alliance with the Kandy kingdom he drove Lt. von Drieberg and his garrison from the Mullaithivu fort capturing their canons and 'overran the whole of the northern districts (Vanni) and the boldness to penetrate as far as Elephant pass into the Jaffna Peninsula'[50]. From conventional warfare, he resorted to guerilla attacks and was finally defeated by Lt. von Drieberg when the British organized a three pronged attack from Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee around 1803. This was followed by 'burning of all his houses and his people were dispersed into the jungle, and eventually out of the Vanni. The power of the Vanni Chiefs was thus finally and effectually extinguished' [50]. Interestingly, folklore has it that Lt. von Drieberg was originally with the Dutch forces where he felt humiliated by Pandara Vanniyan for having defeated him several times, including in personal combat, and had been permitted to withdraw. He had stayed on after the Dutch were ousted by the British to fight on to defeat Pandara Vanniyan. The similarity to Gen. Sarath Fonseka who developed a passionate zeal to defeat the LTTE and Prabhakaran after being trapped in the early 1990's at Pompamadu near Chettikulum in the Vanni by the LTTE when a Lt. Colonel and later, surviving a near fatal suicide attack is striking. He led the war in the Vanni and was responsible for systematically and relentlessly pursuing the LTTE till they were completely destroyed. He became a Sinhala national hero of epic proportions but ironically, with the twist of power politics, he is to be court martialed for treason for revealing evidence of war crimes [51]. Pandara Vanniyan was declared a national hero by the prime minister and a statue of him was opened in 1982 with much fanfare in Vavuniya at the main junction where the A-9 Highway between Jaffna and Kandy (and Colombo) meets the road to Mannar (and further down the road to Trincomalee) [49]. More recently, the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, has been compared to him by present day Tamil nationalists, Karunanidhi the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India in his book, Payum Puli Pandara Vanniyan, and Nedumaran. The historical parallels to what happened in the Vanni recently are remarkable except ordinary civilians were not used as hostages.

The old village, agricultural settlements of the Vanniar were mainly centered around water resources such as tanks and ponds outside the present Vavuniya town called Villangkulam earlier. The villages were reputed for their cooperative activities and absence of much caste or class distinctions or conflict. The settlements were mainly Tamil except in the north east and south eastern parts of Vavuniya there were a mixture of Sinhala and Tamil families while on the western side there were Muslim and Tamils, all of whom lived peacefully together. Vavuniya town developed with the opening of road and railway connection by the British between Jaffna in the North and Kandy and Colombo in the South. Those who came on official duties or traders settled in the town. The town grew to its present size after it became a border town with the LTTE controlled areas to the north, a centre of trade and goods moving north and later haven for refugees from other areas.

Killinochchi and Mullaithivu districts were sparsely populated, jungle areas with agricultural settlements around tanks like Iranaimadu and some permanent but largely migrant (from the western coast during their southwest monsoon) fishing villages on the Eastern coast. During the 1970's there were concerted efforts to settle unemployed, educated youth in the Vanni and involve them in agriculture and animal husbandry. Following the state acquisition of British owned estates in 1974 resulting in starvation on the estates [52] and the 1977, 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms, Tamils from the south and hill country settled in increasing numbers in the Vanni. With the Lankan operation Riviresa to retake the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE engineered the 1995 exodus from Jaffna which saw around 200,000 people with the LTTE moving to the Vanni [53]. If the people had been cornered with the LTTE in Jaffna there may have been a high number of civilian casualties then [54] as happened later in the Vanni in 2009. With the 2002-6 peace accord, some of these people moved back to their original homes, several of whom were targeted by state-affiliated killer squads after the resumption of war in 2006.

The LTTE leadership and cadres faced annihilation when they took on the Indian army in the form of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987 in Jaffna [55]. Eventually they had to withdraw into the Vanni and into the Mullaithivu jungles. Several efforts by the IPKF to round up the LTTE leadership culminated in an operation called 'Check mate' using the famed Gurkha regiment to go into the Mullaithivu jungles [56] where they cornered the LTTE, but were not permitted to proceed by Indian politics. The Indian generals complained they had to fight with one hand tied behind their back. Prabhakaran had appealed to Karunanidhi, with a personal letter addressing him as the only hope, the star of the Tamils. In the 2009 final battle too, the LTTE had pinned considerable hope on Tamil Nadu politics. Karunanidhi the chief minister in Tamil Nadu had gone on a publicity fast but called it off when the Lankan state promised not to use heavy weapons and offered a ceasefire. Some of the narrative accounts mentioned people listening intently on the radio amidst the raging battle for news of the election results from India that came in just before the last onslaught, dashing all hopes.

However, at that time the LTTE was still using guerilla tactics using civilians as shields and contrived civilian casualties [55]. With the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990, the LTTE gradually consolidated their hold in the Vanni and gradually changed from a guerilla force into a conventional army holding onto territory. They had some spectacular military successes in expelling the Lankan state forces from several garrison military complexes in the Vanni, particularly Mankulam, Killinochchi, Mullaithivu, Pooneryn, and Elephant Pass inflicting enormous casualties and capturing heavy weapons. Over the years, they managed to stave off several attempts by the Lankan state forces to retake or even create in roads into the Vanni. Killinochchi changed hands several times and a concerted operation ('Jayasikuru'- victory assured) to bisect the Vanni along the A9 highway was beaten back by counter attacks called 'unceasing waves' by the LTTE. Nevertheless, the Lankan state held onto the Southeastern Vanni renamed Weli-oya from the Tamil name, Manal aru in 1984 by expelling the Tamil population and creating garrison settlements [57]. This successful policy may foreshadow what may now be attempted for the rest of the Vanni.

With the consolidation of their military control over the Vanni, the LTTE gradually built up an alternate administrative structure in the Vanni amounting to an autonomous, separate de facto state [12]. There were separate police, judicial, financial (tax, bank), administrative, medical, social and other services. When the major A9 was opened up after the 2002 peace accord, there were tight custom, immigration and emigration control at the border crossing points. There was always some form of blockade of goods going into the Vanni by the state, as a result outside goods were always in short supply and cost much higher. Local produce sold at a lower price.

There was a certain atmosphere of Tamil nationalism, a feeling of autonomous independence, a Camelot of sorts- a Tamil de facto state with the illusion of liberation. Tamil language and culture was in unhindered if not exclusive use. The head of the UNICEF programme in the Vanni, an Australian with long experience in Sri Lanka, described the children there as being different from those that she had seen elsewhere in the North East. It was only in the Vanni that children could be seen to play freely, frolicking and jumping into and swimming in the water tanks and irrigation channels. Outside visitors were amazed at the order, organization, sanitation and activity. The Sarvodya leader from the south remarked that in the whole of Sri Lanka it was only in the LTTE controlled areas that women felt safe to walk by themselves late in the night. Unlike in the rest of Sri Lanka, military weapons, check points, barbed wire and round ups were not visible. The 2002-2006 peace period had particularly been specially propitious in this respect. However, the LTTE maintained a fascist, totalitarian control over the civilian population with a network of prisons for dissidents and enemies (throhies) [58] who were killed or tortured and a strict pass system that did not allow people under their control to leave the Vanni. They effectively dispelled the whole Muslim population from the North in 1990 and the Sinhala population much earlier. However, the Sinhala state managed to maintain a garrison Sinhala population at Manalaru (changed to Welioya in Sinhala) in the South East of the Vanni [57]. With the resumption of hostilities in 2006, the A9 highway was closed in August. However, the Lankan forces concentrated first on Eastern Lanka and brought it under their control before moving to retake the Vanni. For the Sri Lankan state there was the historic opportunity to destroy the LTTE once and for all, a designated terrorist organization that had been plaguing the country for a quarter of a century in a long drawn out debilitating civil war situation. They had marshaled all their resources, prepared, planned well from past lessons and apparently garnered international sanction in the post 9/11 'war against terror' climate. They attempted to separate the civilians from the LTTE, to coax and pressurize them to leave the fighting areas. However, they would not allow humanitarian concern for civilian casualties get in the way of the chance to finish off the LTTE. From the Lankan state perspective, the Vanni civilians were not exactly innocent: by staying on in the Vanni under LTTE control they had compromised themselves. "High-level statements have indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks" [1]. In September, 2008 the state ordered the UN and other international humanitarian agencies to leave the Vanni[59]. They did not allow journalists or independent human rights monitors into the area. Journalists, media and opposition politicians who reported adversely about the state or forces were intimidated, killed or silenced. According to reliable health workers in the field and civilian testimony, the maximum damage, both civilian deaths and injuries, was from the massive, relentless shelling of the civilian population, declared safety zones and hospitals. The Vanni population had already experienced the full brunt of state terror and had all the reasons to be afraid of the advancing army [60,61]. In the recent collective memory would have been the killing of 61 school children and youth in an air raid in Mullaithivu in August, 2006 reported by UNICEF and the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) [62]. Seventeen aid workers (working for the French International Non Governmental Organisation Action Contre La Faim (ACF) had been executed by the advancing state forces at Muttur in the East [63]. Over 120 civilians seeking refuge at St. Peter's Church in Navaly had been killed by bombing in 1995 [64]. There had been many such massacres of civilians by state forces [65] in the living memory of the Vanni people, some of which they themselves had barely survived. Many had lost a relation or faced the wrath of the forces. An epidemiological survey by a team from the University of Konstanz, Germany using the UCLA PTSD Child Reaction Index with expert validation (Kappa .80) carried out in the Vanni in early 2000's had found that 92% of primary school children had been exposed to potentially terrorizing experiences including combat, shelling, and witnessing the death of loved ones. Twenty five met the criteria for PTSD[66]. There was ever ongoing abductions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Tamils by the state forces and the paramilitaries allied with them[67]. For the LTTE as the structures of their de facto state and territory crumbled all around them in face of the State forces' juggernaut, they desperately clung onto the civilians as human shields towards the later stages. They apparently hoped that the unfolding human tragedy would precipitate an international intervention [5]. The LTTE also forcefully recruited men, women and children, gave them increasingly minimum training and pressed them into battle. As a consequence many died and the returning bodies caused increasing friction with the once loyal and passive Vanni civilians. Thus the twin forces of onslaught of the state forces and the LTTE's trapped the civilians. The Vanni population and the Tamils had learned to live between the terror and the counter terror, the parallel authorities and violence of the LTTE and the state [68], but nothing had prepared them for what was to come.

The forces launched well planned, concerted attacks from multiple fronts but the main advance was from the west. As the Lankan forces advanced using heavy artillery shelling and bombing from the air, people fled eastward and then northeastward, through Killinochchi to Mullaithivu to end up in a sliver of land on the East coast. Food became scarce and expensive, there were reported deaths due to starvation, clean water difficult to find, medical help and supplies became non-existent as people fled from one place to another seeking some respite from the continuous shelling and firing. People lay dead on the streets and in their hastily dug bunkers. Some 20,000 to 40,000 are estimated to have died in the apocalyptic carnage [2,8,69,70]. The injured cried for help, while bleeding to death where no one stopped to give a lending hand in their own desperation to escape. The elderly and disabled were left behind. Orphaned children were wandering aimlessly amidst the chaos of blocked roads and desperate humanity. Those who managed to escape this unfolding human tragedy were fired upon by both sides, were injured or killed, had to wade through deep waters, becoming separated and losing all their belongings. Once on the army side, they were checked, some separated and never seen again. They were then herded into buses and taken to temporary shelters and finally interned for months in barbed wire camps for months without access to the outside world [71]. The total thus interned in various Internally Displaced Camps (IDP) camps in Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna was just under 300,000 [72] (see Figure 1). The narratives, drawings, poems and interviews presented here are from those interned in these camps and those outside in hospitals and living with friends and relations.

To be continued...

No comments

Powered by Blogger.