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.