The Near Distance

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Since Sri Lanka’s civil war began 26 years ago, Tamils have gone back and forth across the historically porous border with India in Tamil Nadu. About 100,000 refugees live in Tamil Nadu today. After President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared the war over in May 2009, are they prepared to make a final cross-border leap of faith?

For Martin, A driver in Batticaloa, devastation came in waves. On 26 December 2004, it came in the shape of a seismic flood, a monstrous convulsion that washed away his home, his niece, and, for a few terrifying mo­ments, his youngest son. In 2006, as the Sri Lankan army began its military of­fensive to recapture the LTTE-controlled area, artillery shells thundered over the roof of the ‘tsunami veedu’ they had been rehabilitated in, twice every month, with frightening regularity, finally shattering the roof in 2007.

“High over the electric wires, they used to go: doom, doom, doom, voooo!” recalls Tamilchelvi, Martin’s wife. “Sometimes things used to fall at our feet and explode. My daughter used to hear it sometimes, waiting for the school bus. She’d come running in, yelling, ‘Ayyo! Payyam-a-irruku! (I’m scared!)’ Our sons also used to scream and run.” But it was the white vans without number plates—those sin­ister portents of death and disappearance, of suspected LTTE sympathisers or potential recruits—that finally made them flee to India in November 2008.

Tamilchelvi vividly recalls how the vans whipped around their village, their windows occasionally reveal­ing shadowy faces in caps, mouths covered with bands of cloth. “They used to come, adi-kadi (often), for ‘enquiry’,” says Martin. “Iyyakam solli. (Saying it was to do with the Movement—the LTTE.)” Nobody ever returned from these enquiries, he knew, except to show up in bushes or roadsides or train tracks, their blackened bodies bearing signs of torture. When two young men in his extended family disappeared into the vans, Martin borrowed mon­ey from a relative to flee with his family to India.

Today, they live in a one-room shack in Gummidipoon- di refugee camp, just outside Chennai. Its cobalt-blue walls are adorned with Jesus Christ calendars, and show­er curtains divide it into smaller enclosures for a measure of privacy. Occupying pride of place in a corner is a colour TV, a DMK sop extended to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Martin tries to augment the monthly dole of Rs 1,450 with as many days of labour on construction sites as his aching 54-year-old body will allow, but it’s not enough to support a family of seven.

Now that the shelling has ceased in the war-ravaged north and east, and organisations like the UNHCR are offering repatriation aid, would they consider crossing the border back home again? Sure, they nod. “After our children complete their college degrees, we have no fear of returning,” says Tamilchelvi, adding, after a pause, “But the Sinhalese troubled us constantly. I don’t think they’ll help the Tamil community. The army will only make us suffer.”

“They all want to get back,” assures M Sakkariyas, di­rector, advocacy, of OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation), a Chennai-based NGO that pre­pares Sri Lankan Tamils, both economically and socially, to make the eventual return to their homes in Sri Lanka. “Only, the timing differs—some want to wait one year, two years...” The reasons for putting their return off, he says, include concerns about the army taking over their farmlands or homes, a lack of funds to return to the lives and livelihoods they abandoned, and waiting for the re­sumption of steamer services between Talaimannar (an island in the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka) and Dhanushkodi (on the Indian island of Rameshwaram, just 28 km away), so they can transport the “meagre pos­sessions” they’ve gathered during their stay in Tamil Nadu. “They’re also worried about the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons),” adds Sakkariyas. While most were released from internment camps over the last year, 16,606 remain in Menik Farm, one such camp near Vavuniya in the war-ravaged Northern Province of Sri Lanka, and an­other 10,000, including many children, remain in sepa­rate custody for alleged LTTE links.

There are other signs that the refugees will do well to wait and watch. With May 2009, the so-called “humani­tarian operation” to “rescue” civilians of the Vanni (Northern Province) from the LTTE may have come to an end—and with it, a bloody era of suicide bombings and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas—but signs of the struggle, and what led to it, persist. Human rights reports tell of continuing disappearances, torture, sexual vio­lence and restriction of political space. And Rajapaksa has made no mention of a political solution to the decades of ethnocentric policies that gave rise to the secessionist movement. On the contrary, repressive emergency laws are still in effect, and the north and east remain highly militarised. As the WikiLeaks cables revealed last Decem- ber, the Sri Lankan army had planned to invest $3 billion in doubling its army strength, and setting up permanent army camps under the two new military commands es­tablished in the formerly LTTE-controlled areas of Kili- nochchi and Mullaitivu in the Northern Province. The few journalists who have managed to visit the regions de­scribe how many thousands have been displaced with the army commandeering large tracts of land and designat­ing them ‘high security zones’. 

Over it all, memories of the massacres at the end of the war in 2009 hang like a putrid cloud. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, the harrowing ‘dossier of visual evidence’ screened by Channel 4 in June this year, implicated the Sri Lankan army in a number of atrocities amounting to war crimes: including repeatedly targeting civilians, shelling hospi­tals and so-called ‘safe zones’, blocking supplies of food and medicine, and assassinating surrendered militants. Despite mounting international pressure from the UN, several human rights organisations and the US, the Sri Lankan government has refused to allow any internation­al inquiries, claiming that its Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation would suffice.

These memories explain, in part, the resounding victo­ry of the Tamil National Alliance in the local body elec­tions in the north and east last month, winning 18 out of 26 seats in the region despite numerous reported instanc­es of intimidation, assault and abduction. They also ex­plain why 68,000 refugees choose to remain in Tamil Nadu’s 112 camps, and why only 924 refugees have actu­ally taken up the UNHCR’s offer of repatriation assistance up to June this year.

P Pugazhenthi, an advocate and a veteran supporter of the Tamil Eelam cause, and a familiar face in many refu­gee camps, is less than surprised. “Ninety-nine per cent of people [would] not like to go to Sri Lanka,” he says. “War over-a irrukalam, (War may be over) but life-threat is still there. But,” he adds quickly, “most Sri Lankans [would] not like to stay in India. They want to go abroad, where they get a better status: citizenship, a monthly payment they can live on.” 

Shobasakthi would agree. An ex-LTTE fighter from Allaipiddy village in Velanai island of the Jaffna peninsu­la, he fled to Bangkok in 1988 after the Sri Lankan army came twice to his home looking for him. From there on, he acquired a duplicate passport from a solicitous Frenchman (“very easy to get away with before comput­ers”) and went on to Paris, where he now lives, as a politi­cal refugee, along with his brother and sister. His parents, meanwhile, escaped to Chennai by boat in 1990 when their village was taken over and turned into a navy base. “Seeing the Sri Lanka situation, it’s better to be a refugee now, than a citizen,” he says. “That’s also the politically correct status—now that the army’s atrocities have been made public, Sri Lankan citizenship is a matter of shame.”

Not that Indian refugee camps are a matter of pride, he adds. “A refugee in India? Ayyo, paavam! (Oh, poor things!)” To write the screenplay for his film Sengadal (Dead Sea) he spent six months in Rameshwaram, close to the Mandapam refugee camp, where Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are first held when they land on Indian shores. In his description, the camp sounds rather like a custodial pris­on—inmates are corralled within its walls between 7 in the morning and 7 at night, rape is common, and those against whom there is the slightest suspicion are transferred to Chengalpet’s ‘special’ pris­on for suspected militants.

In Paris, Shobasakthi is employed in a supermarket, sweeping and hefting box­es around. He also writes searing, power­ful novels based on his experiences with the ‘Movement’ and the army, set against vividly rendered historical events. In his novels, Sri Lanka emerges an unremit­tingly bleak place, and the world of his characters, one of cruelty leading to fur­ther cruelty. Yet, he says, Sri Lankan peo­ple “laugh every five minutes” when they read his book because of his sardonic por­trayals of both the LTTE and the army. “Besides,” he explains, “Saavu, jutham, sandai, (Death, war, fighting,) we’re ac­customed to these things. What I say in my books is very little, and it’s a fraction of what they know.”

Jenny, 21, certainly has some of that stoic atrocity-

inured affect as she talks about the events leading to her leaving Sri Lanka in 2007, when the army claimed to have ‘liberated’ her village Adampan in the Northern Province. “We were caught between the Ranubham (army) and the Singhalam (LTTE). We couldn’t remain at home any­more—the army was raining artillery shells down on us, and some of our neighbours had perished in the assault. So we fled to Madu shrine (then regarded a demilitarised zone, and a shelter for refugees since the 90s), as we thought shells wouldn’t come there.”

They were wrong. “The army surrounded it and we thought they’d shoot us. So we couldn’t stay there either. We fled back to the village, and hid in the jungles nearby, with four other families. We stayed there for seven months. It was very dark, and we were terrified of wild an­imals. We were scared of being found by the LTTE, which would kidnap my little brother, and the army, which would shoot on sight. We couldn’t go back home, though every now and then my mother returned there to cook us a meal under the broken roof of our hut. She would then return, running in blind terror. Finally, in the dark one morning, we ran out and caught a fishing boat to India.”

Would she want to return? “Yes,” she says readily. “I hope so, next year. But lots of Tamil people should stream back into Ceylon. Then only will we be happy.”