An Expatriate’s Visit to Eelam
After Twenty-one Years
Having emigrated from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as a physician in 1971, I have been President of the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) in USA since its inception in 1995. We at TRO have worked closely with the local TRO in Vanni, Ceylon, over these years.
It was a dream come true when I got the chance to visit Ceylon in April, after the ceasefire. The visit was brief; lasting only two weeks, but despite time spent traveling I was able to spend ten days studying first hand the conditions prevailing on the ground in many parts of the North-East. This note is a summary of my observations and experience during my memorable visit.
Thirty-six hours after leaving home in Maryland, USA, I landed in Katunayake at 7 am. The airport personnel were a lot more courteous than I had anticipated. The ride from the airport to Anderson Flats in Narahenpita (Colombo-5) was uncomfortable, in an old van without air-conditioning, and the hot sun blazing down on us. Colombo is a lot more crowded now, and it was amazing to see so many SLA troops, young kids perhaps 18-20 years old armed with AK 47’s. The public did not seem to mind it. We were stuck in traffic behind an SL Army truck carrying about fifteen soldiers. I was nervous, and avoided making eye contact with any of the troops. There were many Army check points, but no checking is being done now, thanks to the ceasefire in place for the past four months and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Tamil Tigers and the Prime Minister of UNF Government, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe (Ranil W.).
I was excited to be in Colombo, 35 years after living there as medical student. Yet, I felt as if I was in a foreign country, and did not have the emotions I expected to feel returning home after so long.
In the company of Dr. N. Jeyalingam (Jey) from New York, we drove north in an air-conditioned van, to Vavuniya. This was an uneventful six-hour journey, except for one time when we were stopped by the police. We had been assured that we would not be harassed by the Army or police, but it was a major relief when we found that we were stopped was for speeding, and the driver had to pay an on-the-spot fine of Rs. 200 ($2.00).
Till we reached Madawachchi, about 150 km from Colombo, roads were OK, (recognizing that we were not on New Jersey Turnpike or I-95). After Madawachchi, traveling north to the border town of Vavuniya, there was a vast change in the condition of the roads, which were now filled with potholes, and at times only barely passable (Jaffna-Kandy Road, also called A-9 in war terminology). This was a harbinger of what’s to come in the Vanni. I was reminded of the price Eritrea paid in its liberation war, to secede from Ethiopia. Just south of Vavuniya is a huge army camp, at Eratperiakulam, encompassing miles and miles of land on both sides of A-9 with bunds, barbed wires, SLA security posts, trenches and barriers all over.
We had to make an unscheduled overnight stay in Vavuniya since our guide had not been able to meet us in time. Since we couldn’t make the crossing past the Army checkpoints without our guide we spent a night, in Hotel Vasantham, where we were lucky enough to get the last available room. The name “Vasantham” meant springtime and I prayed that spring is in the air not only in USA, but also for the suffering people of Ceylon. We took lap top computers with us and had to cart them around wherever we went. We went to a nearby rest house at 5:30 PM to have dinner, but were told that it was too early. So we paid the waiter Rs.100 in advance to prepare a meal, and arranged to get back around 9:30 pm, after viewing a Tamil film titled “Thamilan”. The theme of the film was that Thamilan (a Tamil) cannot fail! We had our dinner after the movie and were surprised to find the rest house full with Sinhalese people - soldiers, telecom workers, et al, assembled there to cool off with local beer.
More bad news. our guide told us that we couldn’t pass the SLA checkpoint without identity cards or special MoD (Ministry of Defense) clearance. To avoid wasting the weekend and few more days in Vavuniya, we decided to go west and get across the ‘no man’s land’ in a boat and land in “un-cleared area”. We landed in Vanni by 8:00 pm and went to a home, which had no electricity or running water.
After a hurriedly prepared dinner, we were given beds to sleep. No mattress, pillows, etc. Lying in the bare bed, a lyric sung by Pon. Suntheralingam, in Canada, came to mind. “Veruntharayil Paduthalum Urakkam Vendum”, where he asks God for a mind that can overcome all adversities. Surprisingly, I fell asleep but an hour later we were woken up.
We got into an SUV to go to Mallavi, a distance of 15-20 km, but the roads were so horrendous, it took us over two hours to cross this distance. It was a testament to our escort’s driving skills that we were able to reach Mallavi past midnight.
We were taken to Kilinochchi, a northern town in Vanni, which has fallen on hard times with the war. The town had changed hands several times during the war and was taken back finally by the LTTE after a bloody battle.
Operation “Jaya Sikuru” (“Victory Assured”) could not dislodge the Tigers from Kilinochchi, and every building in this town including church and temple has pock marked walls and gaping holes in the roof, as reminders of the ferocious battles fought there. The place was heavily mined by both Army and Tigers, and only after local TRO had de-mined the town, people are resettling in Kilinochchi, over the past eighteen months. I was surprised that TRO (instead of UN or other aid agencies) had to spend its scarce resources to remove landmines.
The TRO Coordinator in Eelam, explained that TRO has been removing landmines in Vanni for over five years and that so far they have removed at least 260,000 mines, using primitive equipment. Norwegian aid workers who visited them recently had promised to send more modern de-mining equipment and this is anxiously awaited. De-mining is hazardous work done at great personal risk, with TRO employing 150 workers at Rs 6,000 per month; a total cost $9,000 per month!
One worker was killed accidentally, and two maimed while de-mining. Trying to save civilians from mine explosions with resultant loss of life and limb, these workers were putting themselves at risk on a daily basis. TRO Coordinator explained that it costs them Rs. 650 ($7.00) to remove one landmine, whereas north of Muhamalai, NGOs have spent as much as Rs. 30 million to remove 800 mines so far, costing Rs. 37,000 ($400) for each mine removed.
We were glad indeed to be able to meet two liaison officers of the SLMM (Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission), one from Norway and the other from Sweden. We had lengthy discussions with them. We admired their commitment to ensure that the peace process moves forward, and their willingness to put up with a lot of inconvenience and hardship, with the hot steamy weather, mosquitoes, poor roads, lack of electricity, etc. Electricity was available in brief spurts, through a generator, and they used these windows to send e-mails, etc. It costs them $6.00 per minute, for the satellite companies, to send e-mail.
As I lay on my bed (this time with mattress, pillows and clean sheets) and under a fan that night in Kilinochchi, it suddenly dawned on me - finally I was back home. If ‘home’ is where the heart is, I was at home in Vanni. So many emotions hit me - euphoria, relief, sadness, bitterness, impotent fury and even joy - at having finally ‘come home’. I also felt sad that my wife Vimala couldn’t be there to share this with. I smiled at the thought of her taking a ‘nervous’ boat journey, and the rough and bumpy drive to Mallavi, and was happy that we decided that I would go alone this time!
I was puzzled that I would feel so elated at having finally come home, in Kilinochchi but not in Colombo, the difference perhaps was the frightening presence of soldiers around me in Colombo. In Vanni I felt free, free as a Tamil, free from all the fear.
I bear no grudge, nor do I hate the Sinhalese people, but it is hard to imagine liking the SL Army, knowing what crimes they committed on helpless Tamil civilians. I could not find it in my heart to think of the Sri Lankan soldiers as human beings, at least not yet!
April 21st and 22nd
After restful night and hearty breakfast we set out to Puthukudiyiruppu, which literally means New Settlement. The roads were bad but not as bad as in Mallavi. We were accompanied by the TRO Coordinator, who updated us on TRO. activities, as the van crawled along the road with warning signs on both sides about the landmines. The signs read - mines have been cleared only from the roads, but not beyond 15 yards from the road. Toilets are hard to come by in these areas and we could not even relieve ourselves in the bushes for fear of landmines. We were also told that there is heavy snake infestation, many poisonous, both in Vanni and in Jaffna.
Puthukudiyiruppu is a bustling though poor town, with dirt roads, numerous bicycles and shops. We could see the extent of poverty, which was heartrending. I did not encounter a single obese person in Vanni, this being a novelty for a physician practicing in USA!
We visited a doctor friend of mine who was with me in medical school. He now works as a physician in Vanni and I was amazed to see that he had a large garden and many animals including leopard cub, deer, rare birds, etc. He explained that the “Zoological Gardens” were for the mental wellbeing of the children attending nearby schools. They come there on weekends and it helped to keep their minds off the constant bombing, shelling, etc. He is doing great work, courageously coping with adverse and trying circumstances.
We visited a children’s home called “Punitha Poomi” – holy land – at Oddusuddan. They had just moved in to this facility, three days prior to our visit. The coordinator of this home, explained that there were about 200 children ranging from 3 years to 16 years, most of whom had lost one or both parents. These children had to move four times in the past 10 years and now they have finally come back to their original ‘home’, where huge mango trees and other plants make the stifling heat more bearable. We were shown report cards of the children. The staff there seemed to be caring for the children admirably. Some of the children had scabies and were being segregated and treated by medical personnel from nearby facilities, who visit the home once a week.
Caring for each child including food, accommodation, education, etc. costs about $20.00 a month and the total monthly cost of $4,000 is borne by TRO Inc. USA. It felt great to be a part of this worthwhile effort. We were told that there are other such children’s homes in the area, and that there are at least 2,500 to 3,000 such orphaned children to be cared for in that area alone! We saw two other children’s homes and I admired the people caring for these orphaned children in the midst of war.
I wondered about the emotional scars these children must have endured and how much love would be needed to make these children learn to trust adults ever again! Lost innocence would never be regained and it takes a special breed of person to become the father and mother for so many children.
Next came the most emotionally trying moment of our trip, when we went to see a home where there were about twenty young girls, paralyzed with spinal injuries sustained in the war. They were all in wheelchairs and were so young, younger than my daughter (Bharathi). After some initial reluctance, they opened up. As we were doctors they talked to us about their injuries, asking whether they would ever be able to walk again. I had to blink hard to keep tears from rolling down. These youths had sacrificed themselves in the prime of their lives; a sacrifice for their people and future generations. Yet they all had smiles in their faces and did not want any pity.
I felt that they were starved for contact with outsiders and that they were enjoying our visit immensely. They were mesmerized by the digital camera that Dr. Jey carried with him and were very curious about its workings.
Despite the challenges that life had dealt them, they seemed intent on moving on. They explained that they were learning independence skills and needed additional computers for computer training. I was informed that in the absence of electricity, generators provided enough power to power their computers, though severely limited.
Next we went to “Vattapalai” Amman temple, situated in the eastern coast bordered by lagoon. The sun was setting and the temple had only a few devotees at the time. It was such a peaceful place, to wash away the emotions of despair I had felt on seeing the paralyzed girls. I realized that these girls were also in the hands of God and that the same God who oversaw their fate would give them the courage to handle life from this point on. This thought was a great relief to me and set the stage for the next segment of our trip, visit to Jaffna!
After our breakfast, we were able to get a ride in an ambulance to Jaffna. We were accompanied by a doctor, who had been working in Vanni. Going in the ambulance was a great help at the Muhamalai Army check point. I had placed a stethoscope on top of my clothes and when the bag was opened for checking, the soldier realized that I was a physician and did not trouble me.
There were long lines of people sweating in the hot sun, all waiting for hours, eager to visit their homes in Jaffna after many years. North of the SLA checkpoint was Jaffna, an area that the government calls “cleared”. We had crossed into this “cleared area” with the huge Army presence, and once again I felt uneasy. I had by now learnt from others to avoid eye contact with these soldiers, which I did, but resented it nevertheless. The people themselves did not appear to be in any immediate fear, and I stored away another lesson that fear is also a state of mind.
Few kilometers north, we were entering Chavakachcheri, a once very prosperous northern town prior to its destruction in the war. The devastation was stark. Coconut trees with their tops blown off by shelling and multi-barrel rockets reminded us of the ferocity of the war that had been fought there.
Someone had remarked that A-9 was the only ‘toll road’ in Ceylon. Every mile post showing bullet holes and the heavy human ‘toll’ paid in close fighting, with the area changing hands from Army to Tigers and back, several times.
I could not believe the total devastation of Chavakachcheri, and Prime Minister Ranil W himself had remarked that this was like visiting Bosnia after the war. Every house in town was destroyed and the schools, hospitals etc., all showed the calamity that had taken place. I saw the home for the aged where at least twenty-five senior-citizens had died in Sri Lankan bombing. It was several days before their bodies were discovered.
We then passed Chemmani, on the outskirts of Jaffna town. More than six hundred bodies are said to be buried here, victims of torture at the hands of the Sri Lankan army when it took Jaffna in 1996. The existence of these bodies was disclosed in the courts by one of the soldiers, who had helped to bury them. All details are not known yet; hopefully, one day the truth will be known.
We got off at the YMCA in Chundikuli, near St. John’s College, where I had studied from the age of 9. I had left in 1971, and after a thirty year absence and the war, I could not recognize the place. It appeared to be a place where time had stood still or gone backwards, and the distances between landmarks seemed compressed. We were told that there was no room at YMCA or any other hotels nearby. The ambulance had to go back to Vanni and after bidding farewell we were on our own.
Plan A was to locate my cousin who lives in Press Lane, and plan B was to secure accommodation in a hotel room, both of which failed. It was past noon and the YMCA manager graciously offered us mats to sleep, if we could not find a place to stay. Plan C was to go to St. Johns College, and we walked into the Principal’s office. Mr. Thanapalan, the principal, was a classmate of mine and we were lucky that he was in his office, despite the fact it was a school holiday. Mr. Thanapalan recognized me, he said from my ‘distinct walk’, even though we had seen each other for 40 years.
He immediately offered his bungalow. The oriental hospitality – I walk in unannounced to a friend’s place after forty years, and he accommodates us for the next two days (and more if had wanted!). If this didn’t happen, I don’t know what we would have done.
After take-out food from nearby restaurant, and a cooling shower, we set out to the Jaffna Hospital in a three-wheeler. These three-wheeler autos are contraptions that are actually a cross between scooters and sub-compact cars like Geo Prism. They accommodate two people (and the driver) and run on kerosene oil, spewing great amounts of pollutants into the air!
Jaffna Hospital is probably the only ‘decent’ functioning hospital in the entire northeast, except perhaps Vavuniya Hospital. I have of course not visited the Trincomalee hospital on this trip. The hospital was not crowded at 3:00 pm, though I could visualize very crowded outpatient clinics in the mornings.
I had worked with Dr. Miss Kanagaratnam in Vavuniya Hospital 30 years previously and she is now the medical superintendent of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital. The wards were relatively clean despite the fact that running water and electricity are not available much of the time! We met several doctors there and were happy to learn that conditions are improving after the cease-fire. Jaffna Hospital used to be a premier health care facility in the old days, and my wife (Vimala) had done her internship there, in 1970. The guilt of having not been there during its most difficult days still stays with me. It was sad that Jaffna, which produced so many doctors, had to face severe shortage of doctors and had to depend on MSF doctors during wartime. Even now, the hospital, which caters to the entire Northern Province, does not have a single Pediatrician.
We then walked up to the Jaffna Public Library, which was set on fire twenty years ago by racists (army, backed by cabinet ministers) bent on cultural genocide. Now it is being reconstructed, but nothing can ever replace the priceless books nor erase the deep hurt to the psyche caused by this deliberate and destructive act.
Luckily we reached the Nallur Temple around 5:40 pm, just twenty minutes before closing time, as I discovered later. Temple, itself is undamaged and functioning normally. It was so spiritually satisfying to be able to pray at the Nallur Temple, where I had gone to every Friday evening in my (on a bicycle without headlight), after an absence of thirty years.
We met Dr. Sivarajah, Professor of Community Health at the Jaffna University in Thirunelveli, on our way to Mallakam. He is the president of AROD (Association for Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons). I have been working with them on a personal level for over ten years and know the good work they have been doing with limited resources.
Dr. Sivarajah showed us some of the handicapped children and the crafts made by them. At present they sell their products to St. John’s School, Jaffna Hospital, etc. It is admirable that they have been trying to bring the handicapped into the mainstream society, even as the society was being devastated and displaced by war.
At Mallakam I met Miss Sinnathamby who runs “Vaazhvaham”, a home for blind children housed in a newly constructed home in Maruthanarmadam. Almost single handedly she has been managing these children until recently and now there are some well wishers from UK and USA providing some support to the home. We also visited Thurgapuram Temple but I could not meet Ms. Thangamma Appakuddy who has been doing great service to the people there. I had to go to the AGA’s office to get special clearance to visit my wife’s home in Kadduvan and our parental home in K.K.S. (where I grew up). Since these are now in “High Security Zones” I was advised that I needed at least 48 hours notice, since Army had to take me personally to these places. So near and yet so far away - I could not visit the cherished homes.
We left Jaffna at 7:00 AM, starting our long journey back to Colombo. Unfortunately, there were no seats in the flight to Colombo that day, and so we had to take the land route back. We spent over an hour at Army checkpoint at Muhamalai and eventually reached Kiknochchi by noon. We visited the local TRO office and were at Vavuniya Army checkpoint by 3:00 pm.
We could not find any private vehicles to take us to Colombo and therefore had to settle for public transport bus. The fare was only $1.50 and so we paid for an extra seat so that we could stretch ourselves during the long journey. The bus was hot and steamy and finally we left Vavuniya around 4:00 pm.
It was not an ‘express’ bus. It also stopped to pick up off-duty Army personnel, giving them short rides. The speaker was just above our heads, loudly blaring out Tamil songs; they had only two tapes and so the songs were repeated again, and again! This trip was pure torture and it reminded me of the book “The Smile of Murugan” by Michael Wood, where he describes a bus trip in South India on a pilgrimage.
Despite the loud music, I fell asleep and when I woke up we were in Puttalam. After a short break we were back in the bus, with cooler evening air lifting my spirits. By now there were people standing in the bus and we, feeling guilty about the empty seat, had to give it up! I bid farewell to Dr. Jey at the end of this trip, at Gunasingapara bus station (Pettah area). I was happy that he was there to share the Vanni and Jaffna trips with me.
Now that I was in more comfortable surroundings in Colombo, I visited Ramakrishna Mission in Wellawatte, accompanied by my brother-in-law (Kulam), who had joined me on my trip from London. We both wanted to visit Batticaloa Ramakrishna Mission and the staff at Wellawatte kindly arranged for sleeping births on night train leaving Colombo fort at 7:00 PM. We were told that the train will go only up to Valaichenai and that the Mission will send someone to meet us at the station at 7:00 am.
Our escort for the day was a man of 67-years with boundless energy. It was so good to meet someone with such enthusiasm for the work of the mission. He and his friend, a much younger but just as enthusiastic fellow, took us around and showed us some of the children’s homes in the area including Mankayarkarasi Illam, which is going through hard times for lack of funds. They have some 67 children and are trying hard to buy an adjoining house since they are cramped in their present home.
Next we were taken to the Mission and met Swami Jivanandaji, with whom I had corresponded for fifteen years, but never had the fortune to meet, until now. It was a combination of fifteen years’ dream and prayers that I was able to visit them now, and I remembered Swamiji’s words. In a time of despondency I had written to Swami my fond hope that I would like to see the Mission homes and the nursery schools funded from USA, sometime before my death. Swami had replied that if my wishes were sincere and my motive was pure it had to happen!
We were then taken to the Mission boys’ home and later to Karaithivu girl’s home. These two homes were the best we had seen in our trip and are a model to emulate, children were well dressed, had smiles in their face and seemed to be more knowledgeable (including religious knowledge).
We were fortunate to visit Swami Vipulanantha’s tomb. Studying in St. Johns’ College, Jaffna I had no idea what a great person Swami Vipulanantha was, till recently when I read his poem “Eesan Uvakkum Malar”. He had sung that the best flower God wants is purity of human heart. Standing there, in the place where he cared for helpless children, I could understand what he meant, that anyone with a pure heart cannot turn a blind eye to the destitute amongst us. These same sentiments had been expressed by Swami Vivekananda before him “service to mankind is service to God”.
We were entertained like royalty, at the mission, with sumptuous meals. In the afternoon, we went to the nursery school and I was pleasantly surprised to see the students and their parents turn out to greet us. The three teachers were also there and it was gratifying to see the school. By 7:00 pm we were back at Valaichenai Station for the return night train (sleeping berth!). I slept so well in the sleeping birth that the next night in Colombo I missed the rocking motion of the train and had fitful sleep!
A PERSONAL APPEAL
I would also like to share a few personal thoughts kindled by my experiences during my trip. The heavy price paid by the Tamil society in the last twenty years is written about in articles and books. Yet, until I was in Vanni I did not fully comprehend the seriousness and gravity of the ground conditions in the Vanni. So much deprivation, starvation had been meted out to the people, and the rest of the world is blissfully ignorant of all this. Now peace prevails in the land, but more than 65000, perhaps closer to 100,000, lives have been lost, and everyone else’s life had been disrupted and unalterably changed. I saw poverty as I had never before seen in Ceylon. Yet the people are incredibly courageous and resilient and uniformly expressed the hope that peace will hold and that they would be allowed to run their lives freely. This is not too much to ask for.
I realized that TRO is one of the few NGOs that had stood between the people and starvation, and if not for their maternal - child welfare centers, feeding centers, building of huts, purchase of medicines, etc, thousands of others would also have perished. Under the wings of this organization we, at the TRO-USA, have been one of many groups helping out, and during these heart rending two weeks I recalled the names of all our contributors over the years. I wish you were all there in person, in Vanni, to see first hand how much your contributions meant to the helpless people there. Thank you for being there when you were most needed. To those who have not worked with us, I invite you to walk in this journey with us. To me personally it is a sacred journey with our only goal being the welfare of our suffering people.
Mahatma Gandhi said that worship without sacrifice is one of seven cardinal sins in the world. Our temples are damaged and will be reconstructed with time. I submit to you that restoration of the heart, minds and bodies of our people is equally important, if not more, and that you will see this as an opportunity to be part of something positive in a hurting world.
N. A. Ranjithan MD
Photos by Jey
May 18, 2002