Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Life in Vanni

Then and Now

by K. Mylvaganam, January 22, 2008

I have come back to Vanni after 33 years in the Western world. Kilinochchi where I lived then – 1954 to 1973 - and where I live now is not the same as it was 50 years back.

Life in Vanni is both a bed of Roses and Thorns. It all depends to a great extent on how one perceives things. For example, if one were to miss watching the TV and other related facilities due to the lack of electricity and if one were to get terrified at the thundering noise of the Kfir bombers and the frequent fall of artillery shells, then life becomes a Bed of Thorns. But, on the other hand, if we were to pat our backs and say that we are safe from all the ill effects of the TV; particularly the brainwashing by the south Indian films and soap operas that ruins our culture, the violence and the sex orgies; then it is a Bed of Roses. This is especially so if one appreciates nature; the abundance of birds, their sweet sounds, the religious & cultural activities, the fine arts and the availability of the eastern food in homes and hotels are all to be appreciated.

1. Good Old Vanni:

1.1 The Rosy Part:

I have come back to Vanni after 33 years in the Western world. Kilinochchi where I lived then – 1954 to 1973 - and where I live now is not the same as it was 50 years back. For one thing, there is a population explosion; there were only Area currently under control of Tamil Eelam 2007around 20,000 people in the 1950s and now it has topped over 250,000. When we saw a motor vehicle on the A-9 (then called Kandy Rd) in the early fifties, we waited to see until it went out of sight; so seldom were the vehicles that passed through Kilinochchi. Now one has to wait for a long time to cross the road without being run over. There were not more than five people who owned a motor vehicle then and now there are thousands of them.

I lived in a house opposite the place where I live now, which was a thick jungle then. There were only a handful shops, which were then confined only to the Kandy Road and the small “Open Market” was held only on Saturdays. In fact, in the early 1950s there was only one Tea kiosk and a grocery shop called the Kaka Kadai (Muslim Shop). The owners were K.M.K. Jainulabdeen and his three brothers. I was pleased to note that the junction, where this shop was, is even now called the “Kaka Kadai” Junction.

After 7.00 p.m. there wouldn’t be a soul on the road. Whenever we had sudden visitors in the evenings with the intention of staying overnight with us, I walked across the road with my shotgun and shot some Green doves or a jungle fowl or a rabbit, which were in plenty. Now several houses have propped up on the road I live on and there are hundreds of shops not only on the A-9 road, but also on the interior roads. The open market then functioned only on Saturdays. The present market is not an open one any longer; instead there are permanent buildings in several rows covering an area that is more than ten times the old marketplace and it is open on all the 7 days.

In the past there were only a few government departments like the Irrigation, Forest, and Survey and, of course, a tiny little post office. The fatty old Nalliah postmaster used to serve bare-bodied behind his counter. Not more than 10 telephones were in operation - of a very primitive type. After dialing a number one had to wind a gadget fitted to a box for it to ring at the other end. The ones available now are ultra modern. For internal transport there were a couple of old military trucks converted into mini transporters – all locally converted – called the “Thatty Rukku” – that plied to places like Ramanathapuram, Vaddakachchi and Thunukai. Even to Akkarayankulam, which is nearly 20kms from Kilinochchi, people had to walk unless they were lucky to get a ride on a bullock cart that went past. Now there are bus services covering the entire Vanni. On the Kandy Road, of course, the busses that plied between Jaffna and Anuradhapura catered to the needs of the people. That bus company was initially owned by the Northern Omni Bus Company popularly known as NOB. The main shareholder of it was one Mr. Nagalingam, the father of the Olympic medal winner Mr. N. Edirweerasingam, who also spends a lot of his time in Vanni for the development of our motherland.

Unlike in the other parts of Tamil Eelam that are under the occupation of the army, there are no abductions, killings, missing persons, rapes, burglaries and curfews.

1.2 The Thorny Aspect:

The thorn begins to prick when one feels the ill effects of the ethnic war imposed on Vanni for the past 30 years by the successive Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic regimes. The complete closure of the A-9 highway at Muhamalai and the partial closure at Omanthai have created immense difficulties to those in Vanni. To make things worse the Sri Lankan Government (GoSL) has imposed an embargo on the transport of manyl goods, including essential ones, into Vanni. When I came through the checkpoint at Muhamalai in 2005, an army soldier removed the two pen torch batteries from my pocket radio. When I questioned them as to why they were doing it, I was told, that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would take them. This made me laugh – within me, of course. However, I asked “if the LTTE can bring ship loads of arms and ammunition including Multi Barrel guns into Vanni, do you think that they will not be bringing these batteries?” He put a gull look at me and said “I no give battery.” I got the message.

Goods like Cement, Milk foods, Fuel, Medicine, Gas, Batteries, Spare parts, and Electrical items, etc. are in short supply. The dearth of cement has escalated its price from around Rs.600.00 to almost Rs.6,000.00 per bag. This has curtailed all building works and put all workers in the construction field out of employment.

The lack of fuel also has its own sad story to tell. The fishermen pay heavily for their fuel needs fuel for their boat motors. The farmers pay extra to run their water pumps. The restriction on Diesel fuel has plunged the city into darkness, as the generators are switched off for want of diesel and lack of spare parts. It is a common sight to see motorcyclists bending over their bikes and blowing few drops of petrol into the carburetors through a tube before getting them started. The vehicles then run on kerosene giving a nasty smell. Petrol that is sold for Rs.118.00 in Colombo fetches Rs.700.00 per litre in Kilinochchi.

The infants and children are undernourished for want of Milk foods. The sick are dangerously affected due to the shortage of Medicines.

There is a grave shortage for specialists in the medical field. It will be a gracious act if some Gynecologists, Psychiatrists, Orthopaedic Surgeons, Neurologists, Thoracic surgeons, etc. could come over even for a short period. Many lives are being lost for lack of specialized treatment.

1.3 The Perilous Living:

Daily it is a case of the Kfir or MiG bombers circling over Vanni and indiscriminately bombing wherever and wherever they wish to. Civilian settlements, Churches, Temples, Schools and even Hospitals are not spared, thus making Hitler an Angel by comparison. Once the sounds of the bombers are heard, people panic and run in all directions. Especially the children are stricken with fear and run hysterically. On the 27th of November 2007 we were at the Maveerar Thuyilum Illam (Martyrs Resting House) in Kilinochchi. At about 16.40 hours a bomber suddenly zoomed over our heads and I saw the pandemonium that prevailed there. Everyone thought that the bomber was going to bomb the Illam. Within seconds we heard the bomb blast not very far from where we were. I was able to feel the terrible vibration under my feet. It was soon found out that it was the Voice of Tigers radio station that was bombed. The intention of the GoSL was to prevent the annual policy declaration of the esteemed leader Mr. V.P. Pirabakaran. But the LTTE was too wise to fall prey to that tactic. They had their own devices and the Leader’s speech was relayed precisely at 17.40 as announced previously.

2.0 Affluance and Poverty:

I have been able to note both the affluance and the poverty among the people living in Vanni. I see a marked improvement in the standard of living among the people. The daily wage of a Male labourer in 1960 was Rs.2.50 per diem. The ladies were paid Rs.1.25. Now the man gets Rs.500.00 and a lady worker receives Rs.200.00. A blue collar worker was paid Rs.125.00 to 150.00 per month. Now the pay is around Rs.5000.00 to Rs.6500.00. The poor masses were poorly dressed those days, but I am pleased to see most of them elegantly dressed now. Those days the labouerers came in sarongs or dhoties with bare body. Now many of them come in trousers and shirts and change into working attire before they commence work. The ladies come in Surithas and change into their working kit. Some of the old ladies still prefer the saris.

But I see the dark side of life as well. Especially the elderly people find it difficult to get work due to their physical inability to do hard work. Hence their income becomes very meagre and the life becomes quite miserable, particularly if there are no children to support them. However, the LTTE has institutions – care centres like the ”Anpu Ilum” (House of Love) where those who are lonely, fragile and very old are caringly looked after. Recently, the the elderly were moved into brand new buildings.

3.0 Determination of the People:

The people here have resolved to stay put in Vanni and face the war, unlike what happened in Jaffna in 1995 or in the East recently. Except a few, the majority of the people I spoke to are confident that they will not become Internally Displaced People (IDP) by vacating their residences. They are tired of it. Many of them are even prepared to give their support to the LTTE in whatever way they could to drive the enemy from the soils of our Mother Land. At a meeting of the very few from the Tamil Diaspora who are in Vanni, it was resolved to stay in Vanni until the International Airport of Tamil Eelam commences its operations from Palaly and/or Trincomalee.

4.0 General:

Apart from the Anpu Illum, the LTTE and the TRO are running several similar institutions in Vanni for children, the Differently Abled,(Partially & Totally paralysed and the blind), those without limbs, the mentally disturbed and the mentally retarded. Some of our Tamil Diaspora send their contributions to these institutions on special days like the birthdays of their children, wedding anniversaries or on the death anniversaries of their loved ones. A specially prepared rich meal will be served on those days. The contributions can be US$.150.00 and upwards, depending on the number of inhabitants in that institution. Should anyone be interested to have the adresses of these Care Centres, I will be only too willing to provide them on request. I could be reached on email  <kmylvaganam1974@gmail.com> or one could contact the TRO, A-9 Road, Kilinochchi, SL. Recently I wrote an article in Tamil on one of the Care Centers for children called ”Sencholai.” Should anyone be interested, I would be only too glad to email a copy.

Apart from these the LTTE manages its own judiciary, police, customs, revenue, excise, agriculture, fisheries, education etc that are comparatively well managed taking into consideration the limitations prevailing here. One positive and praiseworthy thing, that I noted here is that corruption is unheard of in Vanni.

Also crime is at its minimal. One can hardly see a drunkard misbehaving in public. Smoking is very minimal. Women are totally safe here. Once my wife and I were driving from Mankulam to Kilinochchi at about 9.00 p.m. when I saw a girl in her early twenties cycling ahead of us all alone in that dark night. Since my vehicle was a pickup I pulled up and offered to take her and the bicycle up to Kilinochchi.

She thanked us and said she was practicing for a cycle race to come. After wishing her success in her attempt my thoughts were around our sisters and mothers in the army controlled areas, where they get raped even when they remain locked in their own houses.

The only neagtive aspect in Vanni is that the things are very slow moving here when compared with the West. But after being here for nearly two years I will prefer to call it as a relaxed atmosphere that is prevailing in Vanni. What is the hurry after all?                                                    

As I said at the start everything depends on how we perceive things.