“MY HOME is in Illuppakadavai in the Vanni. On January 2, 2007, at nine in the morning, the KFIRs [Sri Lankan Air Force jets] came. They bombed my village, the ground was shaking and shrapnel flew everywhere. Many people were injured, and so was I. That is how I lost my leg.”
Stella is 13 years old, fresh-faced and beautiful. I first met her on August 5, 2008, in Maniyankulam, a village in North Sri Lanka’s Vanni, territory that was until the beginning of this year under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Stella is at a pivotal stage of her life, her mind and body developing. But there is much to set her apart from others her age; she has endured far beyond what can be expected from an average adolescent.
“On June 20, 2008, there was shelling close to our new home, and we had to run away because we were afraid. We could not take many things and I had to run as fast as I could with my crutches, with help from my family and neighbours. We have been here for a week, and we have only one shelter for six families. That’s around 23 people. There are no proper toilets, and for me it is very difficult… because of my leg.
“I don’t know how I’ll manage if we have to move from this place. I have a prosthetic leg, and I can ride a bicycle. If I had a bicycle, life would be much easier.
“I’ll be happy if we can get more shelters, to sleep comfortably, and a proper toilet; but more than that, what I need most is a bicycle.”
I met Stella again on August 20, 2008. She described to me how the shelter in Maniyankulam had come under attack by the Sri Lankan Army two nights before.
“The shelling started at 7:30 in the evening and we ran immediately to Konavil school, about five km away. Our family had to spend the night in the school as I couldn’t go on with my crutches. My family was carrying all our belongings and could not help me. I felt sad for my family that I was slowing them down. That night was very loud due to the shelling. Other families had managed to get further away, but we had to stay there because of my injuries.
“We are now here in the school and again I feel bad. This school is like my old school, but we are using it for a home and the children in this area will suffer. I am very scared that shelling will happen again in this area and we will have to run again. I am tired of perennially running from place to place and not feeling safe in any place.
‘I met Stella again in 2008, who described how the army attacked Maniyankulam’
“If the Government and the LTTE allow us, I would be very happy to escape this area. I just want peace to come to my family and me, and I don’t want to run anymore. I still have very bad dreams about the KFIR attack and when I hear the roar of the KFIRs these days, I get so scared.”
What Stella has been through since that time, I do not know. The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has vowed to remove the LTTE from Sri Lanka by the end of 2009 and restore democracy to the liberated areas. Severely crippled since the SLA’s January 2 storming of the key town of Kilinochchi, the LTTE are focused on fighting for the region at all costs. At this juncture, the question remains: what lies in store for the Tamil civilian population of the Vanni?
Thanks to the 2002-08 ceasefire between the GoSL and the LTTE, communities in the Vanni largely enjoyed a sense of development and progress. People had invested in homes and livelihoods, and looked towards a brighter future of peace and reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese. These dreams were shattered last January when the GoSL formally ended the six-year-old ceasefire agreement, and Tamils once again had to deal with the grim reality of displacement and its concomitant misery, uncertainty and insecurity.
Sri Lanka now holds one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs), with the conflict depriving an estimated three to four hundred thousand people of their homes. Seventy-thousand people — and counting — have died in a quarter-century of civil war.
THROUGHOUT 2008, there was a sustained push by the SLA from the southwestern corner of the Vanni. As the army pushed forward, thousands of civilians began to flee their homes, paddy fields and fishing villages to escape the approaching artillery. People packed up their belongings and made their way on tractor or foot northwards to safer areas. The Vanni is one of Sri Lanka’s most impoverished areas, many farmers and fisherman live hand-tomouth, and their meagre savings were spent on hiring tractors for the move to relative safety. “Many of us are living under trees and looking for shelter. How do I look after my students in this situation? I have no school for them to attend and I have no idea where many of them are,” says Pillai, a school teacher from Kilinochchi.
AS THE SLA further pushed into the Vanni, many civilians, tired and virtually destitute, were forced to continue with further displacements. “I have been displaced from my home seven times over the past three years,” says Sandra from Jayapuram. “In 2005, we had a good life in Parapan Kandal, until the SLA began to shell the area near our home. My husband was a fisherman and we lived well.
“At the time of the shelling, I was pregnant and had to run through the night to safety. Since then, I have been moving every six months due to the shelling. I am now sitting here under this tree and it’s the seventh time. I am tired of running.”
The people from Mannar I met in September 2008 were hungry, tired, afraid and traumatised. Children had not attended school for months, fathers had lost their means of making a living, and mothers were dealing with the raw emotion of not being able to protect, feed and educate their families. There was a great sense of exhaustion among the people; this was the final push of a 25- year-old struggle.
Mary is a native of Jaffna but came to the Vanni in 1995. She has two children and a husband who is a paddy farmer. A loving and protective mother, she is desperate to leave Sri Lanka and start a new life with her family. “With the situation here, it is very difficult to be a mother,” she told me. “I have two children, a 16- year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. There are many problems I face, but my biggest fear is the recruitment of my children by the LTTE.
“My daughter does not understand much about what is happening here and I try not to tell her too much either; she has the chance to enjoy more of her childhood and I try hard not to spoil that for her. But my son understands everything.
“He often comes home from school and tells me that another student has been taken to fight from the grade above his. This is very hard for the children and they all discuss their birthdays and work out who will be taken first, when the time comes. My son was born in 1992; at the moment, the LTTE are recruiting children born in 1991… next year it will be 1992.
“Another major problem we have is the jealousy of our community. When a child is taken from a home, the parents will begin to tell the LTTE of other children that are hiding in neighbours’ homes. There is a sense of jealousy amongst our community that makes us tell on each other. I know a girl who hid in a pit for six months. Her father brought her food and water every night and she stayed there out of sight. One hot day, a neighbour spotted her taking water from the well and returning to the pit. The next day the LTTE came and took her from the pit. These kinds of incidents are really killing the foundations of our community.
Sri Lanka vows to stub LTTE by end 2009. What lies in store for the Tamils in the Vanni?
“My children are also so scared of the KFIRs. My son walked home from school one evening and a KFIR swooped out of the sky and bombed an LTTE base close to our house. The sound was terribly loud and put so much fear inside me. I realised that my son would be walking in that area at the time and I screamed with fright that he may have been hit. We met on the path running towards each other. I was so scared and happy to see him. But now he is petrified of the KFIRs. He hears them before all of us at home. Suddenly, he will just jump up, run out and dive into the drainage channel behind the house. When this happens in the evening, he cannot study after that, and I am so worried about the affect this has on his education.
I WANT MY children to receive the best education and study hard, but when we hear the KFIR in the morning I don’t want them to leave for school. I get so worried that they will be killed that day, so I tell them to stay at home. They sometimes miss a day or two every week because of my fear, and that makes me very sad, like I’m being a bad mother, but I’m just trying to protect my children.”
Throughout 2008, the SLA continued to advance northwards along the western coast, towards Kilinochchi and the strategic stronghold of Elephant Pass, the link between Jaffna Peninsula and the rest of the country. The civilian population began to displace again towards the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) between Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu. Until this point, the IDPs had lived in appalling conditions, but were somewhat shielded from the main fighting area around Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass.
All aid agencies, aside from ICRC, were evacuated from the Vanni on September 16, 2008 and relocated in the government town of Vavuniya. Leaving these people behind at their greatest hour of need was the most painful experience of my life. Under extreme vulnerability and a barrage of artillery and air attacks, I had to drive away, leaving behind friends and colleagues to an immediate future of violence and uncertainty. Since September, aid agencies have been struggling every day to take food, shelter and hygiene materials to the people but with limited success. Continued blockages in the multiple systems have prevented the agencies from reaching the increasingly desperate IDP population. With the onset of the monsoon in November, many thousands of families found themselves sheltering under trees and rationing their dwindling food stocks. Agencies have repeatedly called for assistance with outbreaks of malaria and malnutrition beginning to rise, but to little effect.
Up until the fall of Kilinochchi to the SLA on January 2, the IDP population could not move from the PTK area. They were trapped between the Indian Ocean, the approaching SLA and the LTTE, which has imposed restrictions on their ability to leave and is using them as a captive pool of recruits and labourers.
With the capture of Kilinochchi and, days after, the capture of Elephant Pass, the future is not looking bright for the LTTE. However, the civilian population of the Vanni are now finding themselves in possibly their most vulnerable position. With the SLA secured in Kilinochchi, they are turning the final battle towards Mulaitivu, the remaining LTTE-held town. The vast majority of the IDP population sits in-between Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu, but this time they don’t have anywhere to hide.
A great sense of exhaustion pervades. This is the final push of 25 years of war
“This crisis is now at a tipping point”, said Yolanda Foster, a researcher with Amnesty International. “Reports of civilian casualties have increased in the last week as fighting has intensified due to the government’s push on Mullaitivu. The Tamil Tigers must let civilians go, while the government must allow immediate humanitarian access to the trapped and often forgotten civilians.”
The ICRC stated recently that it was “extremely concerned” that no escape route had been agreed upon for civilians, and, as they are trapped in such a small, concentrated area, there are “serious concerns for their physical safety and living conditions, in particular in terms of hygiene”. With relief supplies having been blocked, and without the protection and assistance of international agencies, the vulnerability of the IDP community right now could not be more extreme.
EXACERBATING THE general insecurity is the fact that the Vanni population is very nervous of the SLA. With a 25-year history of atrocities on Tamils and the Sri Lankan Government’s clear agenda to wipe out the LTTE, Vanni civilians are facing their most desperate time. Almost all of them have a family member who is an LTTE cadre, either voluntarily or by conscription. This makes many feel very scared of the SLA as they will be seen as LTTE supporters and, therefore, a threat to Sri Lankan national security.
“I’m very afraid of the army coming to this area,” says Selvin from Jayapuram. “I am not sure I would leave if given the chance. If all the people from my village leave and go to the government area, then I will take my family. But we are all afraid, we have never been out there and we don’t know what to expect.”
THE GOVERNMENT has set up camps in Vavuniya, ready to receive the thousands they expect to come flooding out of the Vanni as it becomes ‘liberated’. But, as we have seen in the past, these ‘humanitarian camps’ are primarily detention centres for interrogation and screening that can take months to pass through. And what awaits the detainees then? Vast swathes of their land in the Vanni are full of unexploded ordinance from the conflict. The number of unexploded artillery shells that litter the paddy fields and coastal regions of the Vanni will take years to clear and return to farmers. What plans are being formulated for rehabilitation and resettlement during that time? Are people expected to wait in detention camps until demining is completed and handed over?
With no independent monitors in the Vanni and both sides posturing behind very well-orchestrated propaganda machines, it is almost impossible to paint an accurate picture of life in the Vanni since the aid agencies left last September. What can be categorically stated is that up until that month, the civilians were living an appalling life with inadequate food, shelter, protection and sanitation facilities. With the international agencies evacuated, relief items blocked, the onset of the monsoon and a severe escalation of the military offensive, the situation must have deteriorated to an unimaginable level.
(The author is a photographer and aid worker who left the Vanni in September 2008)