In 1995, I was studying GCE (A/L) Maths. At the time the government forces moved to catch the Tamils’ Capital Jaffna, from their north camp, called Palaly. We were displaced by the war, having to leave to survive their shelling, air bombing and bullets.
Our people were displaced inch by inch down a narrow tar road, through a salty lagoon. Everyone had to flee: families, babies, kids, the young and old, the able and disabled, with their pets and assets. All had to go the same, one long way. You can imagine; five hundred thousand people with their assets in their vehicles on the street in a day.
My family was among them. While we were running, my elder sister went to another sister’s house to attend teacher’s training for 10 days, 15 kilometers from our house. With no proper transportation, and it being very expensive to own a vehicle, it would take her 2 hours to reach the place, because of the undeveloped road and no traffic control. She had to attend to the class at 7.30 am, so planned to stay there until the training was finished, visiting our house every weekend. My dad went to see her to bring her with us, but we had to move from our place quickly. We made for a spot on the way, to meet together when my dad brought my elder sister.
But in one whole day, we moved just one kilometre because of the crowd in the road. When we got to the spot, to meet dad and my sister, they were not there. We could not wait, because of the heavy traffic. We moved on with the crowd, like sheep. We also spendt most of our money while we moved; paying double or triple to buy a loaf of bread and jam.
We were eating to kill hunger, not for health or inadequate drinks to wet the tongue. We got a shower rarely a week and slept standing or in sitting positions, hanging the clothes on a bicycle with strings.
After 3 months we reached a place called Kilinochchy. We had nothing, just a bag of clothes. Otherwise we had nothing. Because we had to travel across a sea called Kilaly 2 to 3 km, we also had to pay for a boat to go over the sea. It cost 1000 rupees a head, 2000 rupees for a bicycle and 500 rupees for a bag – they had a price for everything we’d brought with us.
We paid for our family and left all other things on the shore. When we arrived on the other side, we were told by the people already there that everything was now safe and if we registered our names with the UNHCR (United Nation of High Commission for Refugees), we would receive a tent and some utensils and could find people lost in the crowd.
We were under banyan tree and my mum went to register our names in UNHCR to find my dad and sister and get the tent and utensils.
After 7 or 8 hours, my mum came back with a tent and aluminium pot and 2 cups. She was told by that we would have to move another 2 km to make camp. We moved and lastly put up the tent.
I was the oldest in my tent, and I had the responsibility to save our family. I collected coconuts and whatever I could to sell there in a shop. At the time I looked like I was 12 years old; very skinny, small and no moustache, even though I was 18. The owner of the shop had pity on me and asked me to work in his shop.
The hot sun, insufficient basic facilities and over-flowing crowd in that area made people sick with malaria and cholera. In mid-1996, my younger brother had malaria. He was treated in the local hospital. He did not recuperate from their treatment. His situation was very serious, and he was transferred to the Vavunia hospital, in the government controlled area, for further treatment by ambulance with my mum.
I had to look after my other younger brother and sister while mum was with my brother in hospital. After 3 days my mum came back and told us that my brother was still in hospital. She’d heard from other people in there that people had been settled back in their home in Jaffna and she said we would move our own home, because she worried about my father and sister, having no job, and that we were all getting sick.
If anyone wanted to move to the government control area we had to apply for a pass with a compelling reason (like a visa to go to another country) to the Transportation Control Unit of Tamileelam (TCUT) which was run by Tamil Tigers.
My mum applied to them to get permission to go to Vavunia to see my brother, as a family. Two TCUT visited our tent, inquired about the truth and need about our reason and situation of our family. Lastly they said come to the TCUT to get permission, after 3 days.
Mum went to the office. They permitted our family to go to see my brother, except for me. They had a policy that anyone over 18 years old, single, even though a family member, could not be allowed to go or move to the government controlled area. If anyone needed to go there for an important reason, they would be allowed to go with a hostage (money or person) to make sure that they came back to their control area.
My mum begged the TCUT to let me go with her. But they firmly denied to allow me to go. She said she couldn’t go without me. I encouraged her to go with my other siblings and find my dad and sister. The shop owner also pushed her to use the opportunity to move and promised my mum that he could look after me well as his son. She thanked him and went with my younger siblings to Vavunia and then Trincomally by bus and then Jaffna by the ship.
I continued working in the shop. My mum sent me a letter, from Jaffna, that they had reached home and dad and sister were in the house. The travel took a month to reach there, because of the crowd waiting for the ship, and she said she was always thinking about me and many thanks for my boss.
After 6 years, in 2002, a new government made a peace agreement with the Tamil Tigers through a Norwegian mediator. The A9 road, which connects the north and south of Srilanka, was open for everyone’s use. It had been closed for 20 years by the brutal war. Now everyone could go everywhere. But we still had to apply for a pass to get permission from TCUT. TCUT had allowed everyone to visit everywhere.
I applied to the pass to TCUT and visited to my house to see mum, dad, siblings and all, after 6 years. I reached my house within an hour by motor bike, just 65 km between my home and shop. It had taken 3 months in 1995, and the last time my mum had to travel to Jaffna from Killinochchy – over 300 km by buses, taxis and ship – which took over a month. Now everything was easy and everyone was happy too.
But the military always suspected people who come from Kilinochchy to their control area. They suddenly rounded up every villager and checked people’s army identity cards (ID), which had been issued to people, specially, living in Jaffna, the North part of Sri Lanka before the peace, by the military.
If anyone had no Army ID, they would be investigate, clearly why, when they came there. If the army personnel still suspected them, they would be taken to a camp for further inquiry.
One day, while I was in my house, our place was rounded up by the military. They called everyone out to the front yard of the house, 2 of them checked everyone’s army ID card and another 2 went in our house to check the house. I alone did not have an ID in my family. I was questioned by those in Sinhalese language, why I had come there? I could not understand what they were asking. Because I am Tamil and never studied how to speak Sinhalese. I was threatened by them to answer the question. I told him in English how can I speak at the time that “no Sinhalese, only Tamil”. I meant that I can speak only Tamil. I do not know Sinhalese, but they understood different.
I was beaten by them and they took me to their commander. I told him the same, “ No Sinhalese, only Tamil”, before he questioned me. One of them who took me beaten me again and said something is Sinhalese to the commander but he understood what I meant. He questioned me in Tamil as much as he knew. I answered all, but lastly he said, I need to leave my house now and can not come back to Jaffna. If I came back there, I would have been killed or disappeared like a street dog, as others, and he took my details from the national ID card which had been issued by the Sri Lankan government to give to the office for record of warning.
“This is my house, where can I go?” I begged him to visit our house and stay there.
“Go back where you came from. Do not come again. If you come back, that would happen what I told you,” the commander said strongly and lastly.
I had to flee from my home. I came back to my shop in Kilinochchy. When the army was beating me, all of our family was weeping and begging to stop them beating me. But one of them started to beat our family too. Another one said do not beat them, because everyone had an army ID.
I realized what would happen if I visited them. In consequence, I could not visit our family.
One of the questions I’ve always asked in my mind is that, if I cannot visit our family, why stay there?
I decided to leave the country. When I reached the shop, I told the shop owner about everything and called my brother, who was abroad, about my problems. He said to me, “You were already alone with no family, and if you cannot go to see our family, even though you are near and able to visit them, why be there? Come with me.”
I fled from the country with his assistance.
After another restless night of interrupted sleep, I was awakened by the sense that there was someone in the room. I opened my eyes to see a piece of green coloured paper lying next to my pillow. I knew that green meant the note came from the medical centre, so I looked closely at the slip of paper to see what sort of appointment I had. It was a meeting with the psychologist at 11am, so I got up straight away, had a hurried shower and made my way down to the medical centre, in order to be there on time.
The Christmas Island Detention Centre consisted of eight compounds, capable of housing120 single people in each compound. A medical centre, a kitchen and canteen, English classrooms, a library, internet services, sporting facilities, including a gym, and so on. Everything was facilitated on site in the detention centre. Every compound could be locked up separately and was also entirely surrounded by an electric fence. Escape from detention was impossible. The centre was maintained by the Department of Immigration, but its day to day running was contracted out to a private service provider. Over one thousand people from a variety of nationalities were locked up there for identity and security checks. I was one of them.
I showed my appointment slip to the security guard outside the medical room. He, in turn, took my identity card and the green appointment slip to be checked at the medical counter, then showed me into a waiting room. The walls of the room were painted white and a table was placed in the middle of the room, surrounded by four plastic chairs. On the table was a cloth, on which I noticed the image of a kitten playing with its mother. The picture took me back to the memory of playing with my mum when I was 9 years old.
At the appointed time, a woman entered with a file, followed by a man. They sat down at the table and asked me to do the same. The woman, who introduced herself as Kate, informed me that they had been asked to submit a mental health report on all clients detained by Immigration for more than one year, which is why I had been called to meet the psychologist. She introduced me to the man, who turned out to be an interpreter.
Then she started to probe me about my past.
I described everything to her. Again, I was forced to re-live every atrocity I had experienced and which I had hoped to forget. Again and again, I had been tortured in these so-called interviews. In that one year, I had faced about seven to eight interviews with Immigration, the Federal Police, ASIO, my legal representative and now the psychologist as well. Every detail of our conversation was translated word for word by the interpreter.
Tormented, as I told my story, I sobbed uncontrollably. So, concluding that I was suffering from mental problems, she started to teach me how to focus my mind, so that I could sleep more easily. But, as I looked down, trying to control my tears, all I could see were the kitten and the mother cat, drawing me back to a past when I was nine years old. I was the youngest in our family and very picky about eating, so my mum would sing to me as she tried to feed me. On this occasion, I had run out into the front yard of our house, with Mum chasing me, trying to feed me at least a morsel. I kept on running. Suddenly, a shell came whistling from the army camp to land directly on our home, exploding with an enormous roar, an example of the way the army conducted their training by testing out their artillery on the homes of minorities. If anyone was killed or anything was damaged, there were no repercussions. Minorities were simply regarded as second class citizens.
We had escaped by a hair’s breath, but our home was destroyed in a second. Dark smoke enveloped the area. The smell of explosives was everywhere and we were coated in black soot. When the shell exploded, my mum hugged me to her, like a hen hiding her chicks in her feathers to protect them from predators. I started to howl. And, as these memories surfaced, I started to howl right there, in that white room, in front of the psychologist.
Startled, she stopped her attempts to teach me how to concentrate my mind and find a way to sleep. She stood up, gently rubbed my back to calm me down, told me to take a rest and prescribed a daily sleeping tablet. Having collected the tablets, I returned to my room, swallowing one to give me blessed oblivion.
Later, I heard from the interpreter that, according to the psychologist, her recommendations had little effect on the variety of inhumane policies of the Immigration Department.
Hail or Fail
The people are civilians
but to the military they must hail.
If not, they have to go to jail.
and their lives will have failed.
Ethnic people were living together as finger and nail,
but government has not treated them equally.
About this they sent the government lots of mail,
but it was tossed in the garbage pail.
They began to wail.
Their tragedy has been kept under a veil.
Then the people complained to the peoples of the world,
but they also made the people ail,
So they have come to Aussie by sail.
If they return to their country
they will again go to jail.
and their lives will once again fail.
7 October 2010
Alaghun came to Australia from Jaffna, Sri Lanka on 13 August 2009, in a boat to seek asylum from persecution. He has been in detention on Christmas Island since his arrival.