| by Pearl Thevanayagam
(July 20, 2014, Bradford UK, Sri Lanka Guardian ) Under a spreading tamarind tree in Pandivirichchan just past Omanthai on the way to Kilinochchi the female Tiger cadres are awaiting transportation home from their official duties. Dressed in blue Tiger uniform and two braids bereft of make-up such as eye-liner, lipstick and nail varnish a teenager aspires, they wear cyanide capsules, their only ornament. Their faces are devoid of any emotions either laughter, bonhomie and they were not engaging in chit-chat.
And they pay allegiance to their Sun-God Pirabakaran who would determine whether they would live or die for the cause of a separate state of Eelam, the traditional homeland the LTTE perceived for Tamils in the North and East. This utopia would send the island into a spin and turn it into a nightmare which was unprecedented in the island’s history.
After Thandikulam where travellers from the South undergo checks by soldiers you are in a no man’s land where both the army, PLOTE and the LTTE traverse the jungles and the civilians have to satisfy all parties. PLOTE collaborated with the army and identified suspected LTTE supporters with cardboard boxes on their heads nodding incognito to apprehend them.
Nineteen years ago on July 14, 1995, this writer made a journey to the forbidden North to find out why 165 civilians who were ordered to seek refuge in a church in Navaly on the outskirts of Jaffna Town were killed in an air raid few weeks before. The price paid was arrest by the CID at Vavuniya railway station and subsequent fingerprinting and mug-shot photograph taken along with many youth aged between 18 and 40. The crime was breaching an unwritten rule no journalist should venture North and gather information on the warfront. I was working at the Sunday Leader and only Lasantha Wickrematunge and the driver knew about my trip.
It was on this momentous day on July 14th 1995, this writer made the decision to go to the North to gather first-hand information of the Navaly church bombing and to seek an interview with LTTE supremo Velupillai Pirabakaran.
Having gone through Thandikulam – the checkpoint between the North and South - and thoroughly searched by female army officers I proceeded to the LTTE controlled area through the jungles with a female pastor who claimed she would get me an interview with Pirabakaran. So carrying two cans of kerosene oil, sugar, safety matches and other essential banned items for the pastor bought with my money she decamped after the LTTE security check instead of accompanying me.
I was left to the mercy of the Tigers who after checking me out gave me a vegetable rice packet which I ate with glee since I had been walking through the jungles for nearly five hours in the scorching sun with not even a drop of water. A Tiger cadre had given me a lift for the last leg of the journey on his pushbike for a fee of Rs 75.00.
There was a hall where civilians venturing North are vetted and issued with permit to proceed. The bags are checked on placing them on plundered railway tracks. Then they took me to their offices sprawled across into different sections with proper administrative units……….
Having heard so much about the cyanide capsule, while I was riding pillion on a motorbike with a female LTTE cadre, my curiosity got the better of me and I felt the black cord on her nape. She grimaced and for one brief moment I thought I had made a major faux pas. Nevertheless I was graciously given shelter in an LLTE household for three days and inculcated into their ideology which included heroic songs for Kittu Mama.
It was during the early hours the following morning I heard the explosion – I did not know where it came from – But I was so mortified that it has landed above my head. All I could think of was that if I died my mother in Colombo who thought I was in Kandy attending a conference and who suffered from diabetes would be all alone. I invoked all the saints and prayed that God should let me live at least for my mother’s sake.
That this writer is alive today is largely due to concerned colleagues including Nick McFee of Reuters and Waruna Karunatilleke who pleaded with the Defence Ministry and President Kumaratunga to release me as I was detained under PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act).
Nimal Leuke was the SP in Vavuniya then and a classmate of Lal wickrematunge. He treated me kindly although I was made to sleep with two women constables in the room at Vavuniya police station. I was grilled by the CID and for 19 hours I refused food claiming that I had done nothing wrong and until they release me I was willing to fast.
My journey to the North was prompted by curiosity and the urge to find out the truth regarding Navaly church bombing. I was an utter fool and to this day I do not know why I took such a perilous journey when I could have been safe and sound in Colombo.
While the ICRC sent out a press release the air force bombed the church, the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, tried to force the ICRC to detract its statement claiming the LTTE had conducted the raid. The LTTE did not have air power then and there was no way the dome of the church could have been demolished and many civilians including women and children massacred by government air force even as they dropped pamphlets urging them to seek refuge in the church.
Journalists have paid with their lives in pursuit of truth but today we find journalists genuflecting before politicians, businessmen and casino kings masquerading as media champions. Social media in Sri Lanka are run by egocentric neophytes who are generously funded by foreign donors and they frequent up-beat Colombo joints feasting lavishly with the funds they obtain and write lengthy harangue which has nothing to do with reporting. However, there are some decent and upright journalists who cannot be bought out or bribed. We still live in hope.
(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)