by Anandaraj L. Ponnambalam
It was February 2002 when I returned to Sri Lanka from the US, scarcely a month after the announcement of the Ceasefire Agreement that ended hostilities, following the 20 year old civil war. Now, for the first time the marvel of peace among our people was a real possibility. Like many other Tamils of my generation who were nurtured on the premise of achieving our rights via peaceful and non-violent means, I was able to leave the country at the onset of the civil war when it became evident that violent means had hijacked all peaceful methods of non-violent agitation and activism for our rights. In effect, Black July 1983 or thereabouts till February 2002 was a form of exile that ended for me as well as many other Tamils of my generation who took the first opportunity to return when the fighting stopped during that period of ceasefire. The moment I landed in Colombo, I could sense an immense feeling of relief among almost all cross sections of the people, most tangibly due to the removal of the various barricades and security checkpoints that dotted the highways and by ways of Colombo.
A few days into savoring every moment of the once familiar sights, smells, and sounds of my former haunts in Colombo, I would read the newspapers that published articles and items of news that embodied sentiments such as regret at missed opportunities, acceptance of responsibility for past wrongs, and the need for atonement for the terrible atrocities of the past. These were sentiments that I had never seen expressed openly, let alone published in private and government controlled newspapers in all my life. All I had experienced was an eerie silence that greeted the aftermath of the many riots and pogroms. Hear nothing, say nothing, do nothing was the order of those days of my growing up. Not only in these newspaper articles, but also in the camaraderie of old friends, Singhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers, I experienced this new found sense of hope for peace and the spark of an enlightened future for our country.
By November of 2002, having taught for a few months at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) on the invitation of its Chairman, Professor Sam Karunaratne, a former colleague of mine at the University of Moratuwa, I linked up with the International Tamil Technical Professionals Organization (ITTPO), an NGO registered in the US and Colombo. ITTPO was launching an IT school in Kilinochchi, the de-facto capital of the rebel held areas of the Vanni. I offered my services as a teacher in a voluntary capacity at the school that came to be known as VanniTech. When I visited the school for the first time, I could not believe my eyes at the devastation that the war had wrought not only on the environment of the Vanni and its basic infrastructure but mainly on the physical and psychological well being of the people of the Vanni. The children looked emaciated compared to the children in the South and almost without exception, every family bore the terrible scars of the 20 year war. There was no mains for electricity or water supply in the whole of Kilinochchi and the Vanni. It was sad for me to see what was left of the demolished Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Sub Station in Kilinochchi. I had so many fond memories of visiting and working at the Kilinochchi Sub Station installing and commissioning power line communications gear from Brown Boveri of Switzerland when I was an Engineer in the CEB during the 1970’s time frame.
Despite all their suffering and deprivation during the war, the spirits and dignity of the people of the Vanni were resolute and indomitable. That spirit was infectious, and I felt for the first time that I could hold my head up proudly and not feel the indignity of a lesser class of citizenship in my own mother country. Their hospitality and generosity towards me and those of us engaged in rehabilitation work in the other NGO’s such as the UN, Oxfam, WFP, USAID, etc. knew no bounds and was so very spontaneous. I was embraced into their families and daily lives as if a long lost member. However poor and humble their abode and resources, they would offer me the best they had of their basic shelter and simple food.
The school was a bombed out old motel that ITTPO had renovated and turned into a school house with two classrooms, a computer room, administrative office, cafeteria, and dormitory. The school would accommodate about 60 students in all, approximately 20 in the dormitory and the remainder as day students. Invariably the student population was split 50/50 male to female. We had 4 courses of study, namely, Networking, Electronics, Database Management, and Applications Development, which were conducted over a period of two years. At the end of the two years of study and assessment, the students were awarded a Diploma in IT. I conducted lectures and assessment in the Networking course as my expertise was in that area of study. At the crack of dawn I would leave the little room I was allocated a mile or so away from the school, and return only at about 11:00 PM in the pitch dark walking back along the A-9 road that straddled the new buildings that were taking shape in the clearing of the dense jungle on either side of the road. In the mornings I would reach the school both physically and spiritually awakened by the chirping of the birds of the jungle, the ringing of the bells in the nearby Hindu temples and Churches. There was always one thought in my mind: I was surely in God’s own country with God’s own people and I wished and hoped that I would be able to spend the rest of my mortal life here in the midst of these idyllic surroundings and people.
Lectures would commence at 9:00 AM only if we were able to get the two renovated generators to start, the water pumped from the well, and concoct some form of breakfast for the students on time. Clearly, all this was touch and go with the jerry-rigged systems we had at our disposal. After school was over at 5:00 PM, the students would linger for play, rest, and small talk in the little courtyard while I would have my dinner with the other 4 or 5 permanent young Lecturers recruited by ITTPO mainly from the Universities of Peradeniya and Moratuwa. The curriculum was painstakingly developed with the inclusion of the latest IT concepts and applications by some of my former colleagues of IBM in the US and young Tamil engineers working in the Silicon Valley high tech companies in California, USA. Lectures were conducted in English as we wanted the students to force themselves to learn and understand technical English that was necessary for proficiency in IT. This led to students staying after school and wanting me to explain my entire lectures of the day in Tamil! This I would do and hence the wonderful time I had in explaining, teaching, interacting and getting to know the students and their stories until about 11:00 PM when the generators shut down and lights would go out in the school. I would walk back in the pitch dark to my little room a mile or so away, completely rejuvenated in mind, body and soul, ready and waiting for the next exhilarating day to dawn.
I would spend two to three weeks at a time in the school and return for a week-end to Colombo to rest and recuperate. My travel to and from Kilinochchi would always be by bus, train, van, three-wheeler and whatever means by which the ordinary people would travel through the military and rebel (iyakkam) checkpoints and no-man’s land of the Red Cross. I came to meet and understand people from many walks of life on these travels. After some of those grueling night journeys from Colombo, I would find myself standing in line at a military checkpoint when a helpful Singhalese soldier recognizing me as a teacher at VanniTech would motion me to break the line so that I could reach Kilinochchi in time for my classes! I would of course politely decline while the soldiers would then assist the elderly and the disabled Tamil travelers to fill in their forms and help them onwards towards the rebel (iyakkam) checkpoints. These were probably the first ever encounters that these Sinhala soldiers had with their Tamil brethren and vice versa. The bantering and conviviality all around in broken Tamil/Sinhala/English was hilarious but nonetheless touching and heart warming to see.
During my stay in the Vanni I did not ever once see a beggar anywhere in Kilinochchi, or in any of the other major towns or villages in the Vanni. The students who were injured during the war or disabled would be entrusted to caregivers who would see that they are brought on time to class, taken to the cafeteria for their meals and returned to their homes in three-wheelers, all their needs meticulously met in full. The orphanages I visited, and there were many, were the best run that I have seen, be it in Colombo, the North, East or South of the country. The Kilinochchi market was full of produce with lorries plying back and forth from the South. The Tamil Vanni farmer was for the first time enjoying the benefits of commerce with the Sinhala South.
Five years passed, including a couple of graduations that resulted in about 50 of our VanniTech students finding IT jobs locally and in Colombo, Jaffna, Batticaloa, in other parts of the country and abroad. I would travel to Jaffna with one of our Lecturers on his motorbike, this time in the reverse sequence of rebel-to-military checkpoints, to open a Business Unit in Nallur for our graduating students to apply their expertise. One of the stark contrasts that I could not help but noticing on these trips was the abject apathy of the people of Jaffna compared with the “can do” attitude, motivation, and enthusiasm of the people of the Vanni. I had also by now completed a proposal at the instance of ITTPO for VanniTech to be expanded into a University level institution with 4 year Degree awarding courses in IT. This institution was to be located in 70 acres of land in Ariviyal Nagar in Murugandi a few miles south of Kilinochchi. I had already pitched these proposals to the World Bank, UN, UNESCO, etc. representatives in Colombo who were happy to provide funding but with a “wait and see” proviso. The reasons were obvious as storm clouds were now brewing as attacks into the Vanni escalated and the ceasefire became a misnomer. The closest I came to feeling the change was when six of my colleagues working in another NGO were abducted and killed as they traveled through the jungle from Kilinochchi to Batticaloa.
By the end of December of 2006, I had actually lived 5 of the most exhilarating years of my life and career consisting purely of voluntary work. In this period, what I gained in the priceless understanding and meaning to life and work from my students, colleagues, and especially the simple, honest, and hard working people of the Vanni, was infinitely greater than what I had imparted to them by my services. This was also the time I turned my back on my people thinking (more correctly, salving my conscience) that maybe when the fighting stops again, I would return to my Shangri-La. It was not to be, and the rest is the unmitigated horror of the decimation in the most ruthless and meticulously executed manner, the people of the Vanni whom I left behind.
Today, I find myself steeped in the guilt that I was able to return to the safety of the US while my beloved students, colleagues, friends, and most of all, the ordinary folk of the Vanni could not do so and had to face that horrible torture and death, and if not, the current and ongoing humiliation and suffering. However, I am sure that the 40,000 or 100,000, or maybe the more exact 146,678 innocent souls did not die or go missing in vain and neither are their loved ones, the remaining 300,000 people of the Vanni, suffering in vain. What could not happen in the many years of impunity that spawned the many riots and pogroms due to the lack of accountability and justice, cannot be repeated today. The perpetrators of this, the most horrendous and meticulously planned crime against humanity committed at the dawn of this new century will most certainly be brought to justice BEFORE there can be any semblance of reconciliation, peace and development in that country. Today, we can see the climate for such accountability and justice for the people of the Vanni already taking shape. When that is achieved there will be some solace for the loved ones of those that perished and the remaining people of the Vanni.
More importantly, all people of the island, the Singhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, the Burghers and all others will for the first time be able to find accountability and justice for all the innocent and precious lives that were snuffed out since 1948 to date, due to the rampant cancer of impunity. That cancer and culture of impunity will be arrested for the first time in the history of the country since it attained independence in 1948. Moreover, truth, accountability and justice will be followed by reconciliation and peace that will result due only to the supreme sacrifice of the people of the Vanni. That is their legacy, and it is actually the vast majority of the Singhalese people, their brothers and sisters, who will most of all be eternally grateful for the end to impunity brought about by the ultimate sacrifice of the people of the Vanni. Working towards such an end is what I (and may I say all of us) owe the people of the Vanni for the ultimate and supreme sacrifice they made.
Anandaraj L. Ponnambalam
BSc (Colombo, Ceylon); BSc Hons (Manchester, UK); MS (RPI, Troy, NY, USA); MA (CUNY, NYC, USA); CEng MIEE (UK); Senior Member IEEE (USA);
Retiree IBM (Global HQ USA); Formerly of Global HQ USA: PwC, KPMG, and Bellcore; One time Senior Lecturer, University of Moratuwa, Ceylon; and Engineer, Ceylon Electricity Board. Teacher/Adjunct Professor, NYC DOE/Westchester Community College.