Vanni : a Personal Journey

Talk given by Mr. C.N. Suseenthiran at a conference, Bad Boll, Germany, November 9-12, 2012

Heinrich Böll said of the Second World War: as long as the pus continues to drain from the wound of war, you cannot say the nation is free from war. I saw that, in Sri Lanka, an unseen war is still being waged, one that seeks to destroy the spirit of a people.

Ladies and gentlemen, rather than turn to books and documents; rather than rely on statistics and figures, I propose merely to share something of what I personally experienced, saw and heard during my recent visit to the North (Sept. 2012). I will do so as truthfully as I can, and without exaggeration. It is a situation, on the one hand, of untrammeled power, expropriation and exploitation; on the other, of helpless suffering: unseen, unheard and unheeded.

My brother-in-law, a civilian, is one of the thousands injured at Puthukudiyiruppu (Vanni) by the heavy shelling of the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009. His right upper arm’s bone was cut, and a piece of shell embedded itself there. He and his family, with two children, survived in Mullivaikkal. They were brought to Trincomalee, then to Colombo and Vavunia, and finally released to be resettled on his farm near Mallavi. The broken bone was treated with a metal plate with 6 screws. He was told that the metal plate must be removed within one to one-and-a-half years. However, several attempts to remove it failed. Because of this plate, he was unable to bend his arm, and it remained immobile for three years. He learnt to do everything with one (the left) hand. My wife and I went to Sri Lanka last August, 2012; took him to India, and managed to have the plate removed. While we were in India, we visited Thirukadaiyoor, a holy place for Hindus. One evening, we went for a walk around the temple. There were fireworks, and my brother-in-law couldn’t bear that sound: it brought back the nightmare of bombs, shells and bullets. He got into a state of panic, and we had to return immediately. He is an intelligent young man who struggles, on a daily basis, to overcome disaster.  Despite his handicap and all that he has seen and endured, he works the land and looks after his few cows.   We helped our brother; however, I come across children, women and men who suffer similarly, if not worse, but are unable to consult doctors, and are without the possibility of medical and or psychological help. We wished we could have helped them too. We grieved that our money, energy and time were so very limited.

As I talked to my relatives in Puthukidiyiruppu and made them share their horrible experiences, I came to have an inkling of post-war trauma, something Tamils in the North and East suffer.  Heinrich Böll said of the Second World War: as long as the pus continues to drain from the wound of war, you cannot say the nation is free from war. I saw that, in Sri Lanka, an unseen war is still being waged, one that seeks to destroy the spirit of a people. Relations and friends, because they knew and trusted me, described their experience during the last stage of the war, how they fled from one place to another, carrying the young, helping the old; how they desperately made pitifully inadequate, makeshift, bunkers; how they hurriedly buried those killed; how they were treated by the LTTE; how their attempt to escape the shelling was prevented both by the army and LTTE.  What they witnessed and experienced is horrible and terrible, beyond my ability to describe: I leave it to your empathy and sympathetic imagination.

The infrastructure in the North of Sri Lanka has been changed, and the intention is clear. Indeed, there is no need, and no attempt, to hide it. Everywhere, land is reserved for settlement by the army. In the past, the Vanni was able to cultivate sufficient paddy for the entire North; now I met famers turned into helpless beggars, waiting for rations doled by the army-controlled administration. In this area, property, houses and land once belonged to the people. Later, they were taken over and occupied by the LTTE. Now, they are the possession of the Army. I saw land near where my father-in-law lives which belongs to a close relation of ours. She lost her husband, and was delayed returning because she was alone. That land has simply been taken over by the army, and is being cultivated by them. It is but one way in which the government rewards soldiers, keeps them happy and, more importantly, supportive. Those few civilians who still own land in the area must come personally, register and hire bulldozers at Rs. 5,000 – 7,000 per an hour; so too, with electric saws and cutting machines.  Some pretend they are going to cultivate their land: otherwise, they’ll lose possession. The temporary huts in which they live are tin-roofed. These dwellings are hot during the day and cold at night. During the rainy season, the tin roof magnifies the noise, frightening little children, particularly at night. Their day-to-day life depends on, and is totally controlled by, the army. Though the war is long over, there are still checkpoints, providing opportunity for harassment, extortion and the display of crude, arrogant, power. Passengers from Vanni to Vavunia have to carry their luggage, walk through the checkpoints and open their bags for inspection. As I said, a psychological war is still being relentlessly waged. Continuously and arbitrarily, strange measures are brought in to keep the people uncertain and fearful.

Taking advantage of the people’s desperation, there are those who promise to help would-be asylum seekers, particularly to Australia. Payment is made in advance, but I was made to understand that for the one or two boats that reach the island close to Australia, another twenty are caught by the Sri Lankan navy, winning media attention, local and abroad, especially in Australia. Those arrested and their relations face court cases. It is a lucrative business – except for the hopeful victims.


As you perhaps know, on the A9 there’s a junction near Kilinochchi: Murikandy.  Under a very old tree, there’s a Vinajaga temple. Though it is hundreds of years old, the temple has been wantonly occupied by the military, its sacredness to the people callously disregarded, even despised. There is no respect for their religion (Hinduism); no regard for the people’s deepest feelings. Instead, almost at every junction and bend, there’s an ultra-large Buddha statue. (One wonders what the Soul of Great Compassion would have thought of such action done in His name.) A friend told me that in front of his house there is a very old “bo” tree (ficus religiosa). Before they fled the area, neighbors advised him to cut down the tree. If not, on the pretext of the bo tree being sacred, the land around it would be seized by the army. My friend was against the cutting down of the tree – and exactly what the neighbors had warned, happened. My friend’s land and house (it was once a UNESCO office) was occupied by the military, a huge camp was setup, and under the bo tree now sits a statue of the lord Buddha. The Tamils, defeated, without defense and support, have no option but to endure and accept whatever is done to them.

In Thiruvadinilai in Chulipuram [on Jaffna Peninsula’s western coast] it is even more difficult to stop land-grabbing, and effecting demographic change because that is in a high-security zone. There isn’t the faintest sign that steps are being taken to fulfill the legitimate aspiration of the people, aspirations for which they fought, for which they suffered, and for which they are now being ruthlessly victimized.  Rather, the attempt is to abolish the 13th amendment or to undermine those rights through the Divi Neguma project“(Divi Neguma” has come to have a military connotation, such as “Jaya Sikuru” and “Rivi Sera” [names of military offenses during the war].)  The state acts as a robber, openly grabbing land. It colonizes, and attempts to permanently change the demographic composition. It is left to a very weak civil society (frightened, preoccupied or indifferent) and a crippled opposition to stop and reverse these developments; to usher in justice and humanity, equality and dignity. It is sad but, to be frank, I don’t see grounds for hope. Successive governments have planned, and carried out, the destruction of the Tamils. Still, I call, urge and plead:

Implement genuine resettlement and reconciliation

Stop the increasing militarization

Stop the cultural and economic invasion.

Remove the high-security zones: they are no longer need

Implementation the 13th amendment fully

Set up a civil administration, one that will not be interfered with and dictated to by the Army

Release political prisoners

Respect the independence of the Judiciary

Comments are disabled on this page.