War in Northern SriLanka comes to an end. Commotions of emotional despair slowly fade in to the daily routine of the expatriates’ lives, here in Australia .
My heart suddenly yearns for that humble little village Sandilipay in Northern Sri Lanka , where I grew up in to adulthood; the village that brings sweet memories of my teen days.
A simple yearning for the village, a notion with love, materialises in August 2010.
I was joined by five oversees born visitors from the United States and Singapore . They all were with some SriLankan ancestry but some had foreign names. We landed in Colombo and I was anxiously waiting for the onward journey. The long awaited trip to Jaffna . I already started feeling the dust of Jaffna under my bare feet that strolled and ran in young age.
Ministry of Defence in Colombo granted us permits to fly to Jaffna.
A rental car operator picks us from the hotel in Wellawatte and drives us to Ratmalana airport. The man was a well read Sinhalese and he started the conversation on the way to the local aerodrome. He asked if I was going to Jaffna after a long time. I nodded with a sense of excitement “yes, after 28 years”. After a few minutes of pause, he glanced at me and I could see some moist in the corner of his eyes. He continued (in mixed Sinhala and English) “Sir, I just wondered how those innocent people endured this war. They were carrying their stuff on their heads running for cover and moving from place to place for this many years; I just don’t know. I don’t know if my people would have withstood this agony for so long. Sir, your people are very resilient. By God’s grace, I wish they lead a peaceful life”. The moist in his eyes was still there. A sweet send off for me to Jaffna.
Jaffna here we come…
The turbo propelled twin engine aircraft roared in to the horizon towards Northern SriLanka . I sat in that window side seat watching the clouds and the landscape pass beneath me. My mind went on a fast rewind to the past 28 years; the agitation, the riots, and the bloody war that ensued and the final carnage. All thoughts surfaced and vanished at the same speed. I was overwhelmed by the euphoria of setting foot on that soil that I yearned for.
Thoughts of my young innocent days caressed my heart.
The aircraft touches down at Palaly and slowly taxis towards the arrival building.
I stepped out of the aircraft in to the thick red dusty soil of Jaffna . The army and airforce personnel get busy handling the arrival of passengers.
My senses got busy feeling the idea of being in Jaffna ; the smell of the dust, the noise of the colourful roosters and morning sun beaming through the towering Palmyra trees.
Scars of war…
We begin the next leg of our journey towards Jaffna town in an army bus. The bus crawls through the garrison village hopping up and down in and out of pot holes on an old gravel road. The bus keeps tossing from left to right cradling everyone slowly in to the reality of the three decade war.
My eyes gazed out of the bus window in to the vacated lands that bore all the scars of a senseless war. The houses stood here and there without roofs completely abandoned, resembling a forgotten generation.
The scene brought home an important unshakeable fact in to my heart. The abandoned homes are all taken over by one important entity of this existence; Nature. The bullet riddled walls are completely engulfed by the trees, creepers, weeds and shrubs.
All ideals, grievances, enmities will all succumb eventually to nature. Nature always has the final answer. Nature is the owner. We are only tenants on this planet.
Does that mean we just eat and survive until we depart? No.
Jaffna town bustles with noise of buses, three wheelers and vans. Small businesses and eateries are busy with people moving in and out buying stuff. Saris, and churithar dresses flutter in the wind at every textile shop inviting people to buy and dress up and be happy.
To add to the enthusiasm, the famous Nallur Kandasamy temple was having its annual festival. Pilgrims from all parts of Jaffna and the South streamed in to the streets of Nallur in bus loads. Small shops had sprouted in every nook and corner like mushrooms.
Jaffna was smiling again.
Agony of war…
We chatted for hours through the nights with my remaining cousins in Jaffna . The stories of the past thirty years filled the air. I just sat there still, listening and listening. Being caught up in the crossfire, continuous harassment from the warring factions, addiction to alcohol caused by undue stress of harassment and many more stories kept rolling one after the other. The long walk in 1995 from their homes to escape the fighting was heartbreaking. They had walked over dead bodies of old men and women who just dropped dead out of hunger and dehydration.
Staying alive has been the first struggle. Staying neutral between the state and the rebel was another struggle. They had to face relentless terror day and night to be non-aligned and be at peace. Living daily to avoid recruitment and escape persecution would not have been a peaceful life. It is like dead man walking.
Man had wielded his power against his own kith and kin with his finger across a trigger.
How small the man had become?
Stories eventually led to the IDPs who have returned back to their villages from Wanni. I was keen to see them.
While Jaffna springs back to life, there is pain behind the cajan fences in the villages.
Small clay huts under a stack of Palmyra leaves are the shelters for these families who have returned from Wanni. A tarpaulin given by UNHCR provides some cover from inclement weather. Some families who fled with children of five year old have returned now with grown up teenage girls.
They had no basic water and sanitation facilities. Preserving the girls’ privacy is a struggle for the parents.
With the help of some generous individuals, a program was launched to build toilet facilities for these people who have nothing left in their hands after the war. This has brought some smile in the faces that saw no hope for many years.
I came across a set of documents, a list of war widows below fifty years of age who need a livelihood to look after their children. My heart sank when I saw the numbers. That list alone had seventy two registered widows who were below fifty years. They have no income and were depending on the little rations given by the state.
I walked up to a small hut where little children were playing. I met this young lady with three children. Her right leg had been operated after a shrapnel injury and the little boy had an injury in his neck. The boy has a twisted arm and he wouldn’t walk straight. He stumbles and falls often. The lady’s father, husband and the sister had perished in the war. Her name forms part of the list of seventy two war widows in that small hamlet. What could I do? I just took the little fellow and kept him on my lap for a while.
The innocent soul smiled with some temporary joy.
I met many educated men from time to time during my stay. None of them talked about the war. During one such visit, the gentleman slowly broke his silence on war and peace. His deeply buried fear surfaced in a low tone. He had seen peace come and go many a times. For him, peace is like an interval between two miseries.
He said if there is a slight outbreak of violence against the state again, that would be the end of the remaining story.
His eyes drooped as he muttered “that’s what always worries me”.
He continued, I pray that it should not happen again, we have had enough suffering, and we want to live in peace.
I was once seated in a function arranged for an elder’s home in Jaffna . The gentleman who was seated next to me was a high school principal from the area.
We started a conversation as he enquired about me and my trip after twenty eight years to Jaffna . He was forthright with what he had to say about the future of Jaffna . He said the country had gone through immense turmoil with violence and it had lost some of the important human values.
He said what this land needs is education of human values and good men and women must come back to this land to teach values to the growing children.
Lastly I visited my school that always stayed in my heart. Jaffna College , one of the best institutions I have been through in my life. The gates were locked as it was a public holiday, so I stood at the gates for a few minutes as my eyes panned through the campus. The great banyan tree (Aaladi..) with Principal’s bungalow in the background was an eye catching view. The banyan tree would tell many love stories it had watched in silence through its life. It still stands there selflessly giving shelter as generations pass through to further their lives.
Back in Australia , I was asked this question by many people. How is Jaffna ?
My message was one for all.
People have gone through immense misery with three decades of war. They want to be left alone to live in peace. Any form of agitation again would bring again unbearable suffering. If one still has love for his mother land, he should take time and go to his village where he grew up. You should walk around and talk to people. Identify the needs and help in whatever way you can.
Grama Sevakas are the best source of information to render any help. He is the first contact for every villager for his or her needs.
Always remember that we who left for other shores have a responsibility to help those innocent souls. Most of them did not know how and why it all started for they were not even born then, but they have taken all the beating.
Show them that you care and you are there for peace and not to agitate.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” - Muhammad Ali
Peace-“If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.”
Conflict-“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.”
Governance-“Generous grants, compassion, righteous rule and succour to the downtrodden are the hallmarks of good governance.”