Memories of the gruesome ethnic conflict would never fade away. While two ethnicities fought for their own freedom, there were those who viewed the conflict with much vengeance and some who supported it. But the stories of those who supported it are seldom heard of. This is the story of Vetrichelvi Velu – an Ex-LTTE cadre turned social worker -who is now supporting differently abled women to overcome challenges. Hailing from Mannar, Vetrichelvi had joined the Tamil militant group – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)- just after her Ordinary Level Examination (O/L). Her main objective then was to fight for freedom. The gruesome war took away her right eye and an arm, all which happened as the result of an explosion. Vetrichelvi decided to support the differently abled community after the war concluded. In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror, Vetrichelvi recalled her memories during the battle, experience at the rehabilitation camp and how she stepped out of the trauma. She also spoke about her social service programme – ‘Welfare Organisation for Women with Disabilities’ (WOWD). Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q Why did you want to join the LTTE?
My family was continuously displaced and I couldn’t do my studies. When I was in grade 10 I had to change my school 11 times. So it was quite stressful for me. Likewise I hadmany other reasons to join the LTTE. During the first two years, I was in the band, since my elder brother was also a member of the LTTE. They didn’t allow me to engage in the war. So I was in the band with the parade team.
In 1993 I got caught to a blast and that’s how I lost my eye and hand. Every camp had ammunition and while moving it, from one camp to the other, it exploded. Although I was in the band I was quite active and therefore I was helping the other members. After I got injured nobody allowed me to work, but I learned to ride the bicycle, read books and keep myself occupied with work in other areas
QWhat happened after you joined?
Since I considered it as my duty, I didn’t have to change anything. The training was quite strenuous, but I enjoyed it and therefore it wasn’t much of a challenge. We were taught how to use weapons and had to undergo a basic training.
Q Tell us about some of your unforgettable experiences.
In 1993 I got caught to a blast and that’s how I lost my eye and hand. Every camp had ammunition and while moving it, from one camp to the other, it exploded. Although I was in the band I was quite active and therefore I was helping the other members. After I got injured nobody allowed me to work, but I learned to ride the bicycle, read books and keep myself occupied with work in other areas.
Supporting the differently abled community
Q How did you adapt to the entire situation of the war?
We were told that if we fought, we will be free. So that was our target and whatever the task I was given I did it to the best of my ability. Sometimes I did canvassing. I also trained other differently-abled people to face their challenges. Those days the situation was such that if we didn’t fight, we wouldn’t have a future. It may have been wrong to fight with weapons and kill people, but we had to adapt to that situation and save our lives and that of others. This is also one reason why I started writing in order to convey the message that war isn’t the solution to this problem.
Q How did your family react when they knew you joined the ‘cause’?
My father and mother didn’t like my decision because they thought I’ll die. Before I left I gave toffees to my school friends, teachers and bade them farewell. I exchanged letters with my family during the war.
I was in the Pambeimadu Army camp for one year. But we didn’t receive any rehabilitative training. We just stayed in that camp, eating, sleeping and spending time. When a Minister came they would ask a few of us to come and pose for a photograph
Q Tell us about your experience at the rehabilitation camp.
I was in the Pambeimadu Army camp for one year. But we didn’t receive any rehabilitative training. We just stayed in that camp, eating, sleeping and spending time. When a Minister came they would ask a few of us to come and pose for a photograph. There were no doctors to look in to our matters and we were left in isolation. Some Army officers helped us to post letters, but some of us were harassed during that period. There were many unpleasant encounters that I could recall. We had no electricity or water and there was only one well. We had to share it and given my circumstance I needed the assistance of another person because of my disability. Initially it was very unpleasant, but I adapted to it.
Q If you didn’t receive any rehabilitation training, how did you get over the trauma?
A : Writing was my way out. We also danced and sang to forget the gruesome memories. I didn’t know that dancing, singing and drama would help in rehabilitation because we weren’t trained. But later on I realized that those activities help you psychologically. There was a girl who got depressed and eventually became mentally handicapped. She was chained and was treated quite badly. Also there were three girls who had lost both eyes. They too had to go through an unpleasant experience.
Q What did you do after you left the rehabilitation camp?
I wanted to become a public servant. Nobody was ready to give me a place to stay because they feared to help me. Then I started to work in an IT shop in Mannar. Later I became a partner in the business and eventually owned the shop. I did the business for three years. People used to come to my shop to type letters, get printouts and do other IT-related work. I wanted to share my experience and hence published three books in Tamil titled ‘Fighter’s Lover’, ‘The last days of the Eelam War’ and ‘Pain of Healing Wounds’. I also have written various short stories to motivate differently abled people to move ahead in their lives.
I wanted to share my experience and hence published three books in Tamil titled ‘Fighter’s Lover’, ‘The last days of the Eelam War’ and ‘Pain of Healing Wounds’. I also have written various short stories to motivate differently abled people to move ahead in their lives
Q What challenges did you face after you left the rehabilitation camp?
People used to suspect me a lot. As soon as I left the camp I made a statement about what I’m going to do thereafter. This statement has never changed to date. But when I go to a place sometimes, people used to have doubts about me. They would wait till I left and then inquire from another person about me. The Police and CID used to follow me. But when I launched my book in Mannar I openly asked them not to follow me again because I do my work with a genuine intention. The Tamil community especially is scared of us and therefore we are ostracised to a greater extent. But when they realise that I spend money and provide opportunities for others, people show a willingness to join hands with me.
Q What do you do at the moment?
I especially work for the differently abled people and initiated a programme titled ‘Welfare Organisation for Women With Disabilities’ (WOWD). It has already been established in Kilinochchi, Mannar, Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. The differently abled section in society comprise Army officials as well. But they receive the necessary care. Yet those who are differently abled by birth and those who once served in the LTTE don’t have the necessary facilities to attend to daily activities. So I would like to request the government to help us achieve this goal.
During the war, many people were injured and were disabled for life. These individuals need to receive more care. I have written to the district secretaries and I was asked to come and share my experiences with the people. There are many people who are willing to help others, but they are scared because in most instances we end up being questioned, either by the police or the CID. But I decided to speak out and make others aware of what we are experiencing. I also do workshops for differently abled people to motivate them and help them overcome their challenges. Therefore many of the differently abled people are already my friends. I was also awarded the Muyarchchiththirimahal Award for offering a hand for differently abled women to overcome trauma and encouraging them to be independent.
Q Are you happy with your life now?
I still fear when I would be taken to a prison again. But as at now I’m happy.
Q What message would you like to give to the society?
I don’t believe in reconciliation or any peace-building programmes. We are all humans and our responsibility is to treat others in a humane way. Humanity comes before any religion, cast or creed.