– The smell of the army boots, the gun, never our friend
I became an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) when I was just 13 years old. Our house was bombed out. We did not know where to go. We ran and ran. The stench of corpses was everywhere. They were not just dead bodies. They were my uncles, sisters, friends and neighbours.
My mother asks me to close my eyes. I keep seeing the gun that pointed at my face. I see my sister frozen with fear of being raped. I see us running into the church. I see my neighbours crawling without legs. I see people’s feet, stepping over small babies. I see infants crying to awaken their dead parents. I see the pregnant mother running, to save herself and the unborn baby in her stomach. And I see her shatter in an explosion near the church. I see her two legs quivering in pieces on the soil. I see the fragments of shells, raining down to destroy me, to destroy my mother.
We are all packed in a small tiny space, our neighbourhood church. Hundreds of families, thousands seek here. There is no place to sit here. I just sit in one place for five days. I want to stretch myself and go to sleep. I am numb all over. There’s nowhere to even stretch my arms. Five days, I stand or sit, circulating blood. I cried for food and water, as many other children around me did. Our mothers could only give us their tears. Our fathers were nowhere to be seen. Our brothers were taken away by the army. My sisters were hidden under their folded arms, numb with fear. My uncles went with the priest to help the wounded and take the dead bodies to the cemetery as there were dead bodies everywhere. That was the last I saw of my uncles. It was the priest whose white tunic turned red, who tried to console us saying that he had to put my uncles too in the bullock-cart, they had used to send the bodies to be buried. My uncles were killed in the shell bombing while they were helping others. I never had a chance to say goodbye. We screamed and screamed until our throats went dry. No one heard our voices.
The Sri Lankan Government told the world that my uncles are safe… The Sri Lankan government told the world that my sisters did not get raped. They told the world that it was not true. But the truth is they are all gone.
Our stories are buried in our backyards, but our nights are full of these stories.
On seeing the bloodshed of innocent people, I decided to work with the community of people who most needed it. I worked in the community at the grassroots level with women raped and affected by war in many villages around Jaffna and continued my work in the first twelve refugee camps in Colombo during the 1990s.
I still recall vividly life as a community worker in the refugee camps.
I heard many voices of innocent, helpless civilians who lost their loved ones on their way to the camps. Women’s silent cries at being raped on their way to the camp. Mothers crying over their lost and disappeared children. Scattered families who had to leave behind loved ones who did not want to leave their homes, neighbourhoods they grew up in, friends, schools, temples, fields and trees even when their lives were in danger. My family was one of them. I saw entire communities of Muslims being uprooted from Jaffna with unbearable sorrow in their hearts.
But after all this struggle to reach the “safety” of the refugee camps, more struggle awaited us.
The refugee camps were packed to explode. People just had space only to lie down in the vast open halls of former schools and community centers.
People were lining for washrooms. When people had diarrhea, the last piece of cloth they had were most of the time soiled. And they had to keep wearing them until or if some help arrives. There were many contagious diseases such as rashes, dysentery, and malaria in these refugee camps which kept recurring again and again.
Armed Tamil groups who were given responsibility over the camps by the government misused their power over the innocent helpless civilians. I saw old men who went to get fresh air, escaping the fetid air in the camps get beaten up until they coughed up blood, by one of the main leaders of the Tamil armed groups for returning after 6 PM. When people speak out, they disappear the next day. Young women and men were watched constantly. The people in these camps were not allowed to return to their neighbourhoods or communities that they grew up in, even if the wanted to. For some people, there was no place to return because of the bombs. People were afraid to speak freely about even regular happenings. There was so much loss and sorrow they could not even think about it, as it filled them up. Many times, when I gave counselling, people were bottled up with unshed tears and pain. It took me a lot of time to build trust. The counselling had to happen inside the camps surrounded by the Tamil armed groups, which kept most of them silent. People were kept in the refugees camps for months without being allowed outside. Even children! Our future is lost in the refugee camps in our own lands.
I had to fight for months with the Tamil armed groups for permission to take the children and families out for a few hours to conduct a trauma workshop. However, I could not continue to just do my set out tasks. I went further and beyond my limitations and asked questions and challenged the authority of the Tamil armed groups. So, I was targeted and was put in jail for 12 days with my family and friends, under the Sri Lankan emergency law just because I spoke out. I was able to get out of the jail only with the support of the international aid community. If they had not come to my aid, my family and I would have lost our lives as many Tamils have.
The international community should not wait to pressure for answers from Sri-Lankan government during disasters because the Sri-Lankan government does not listen or follow international law. This is clear from how the Sri Lankan government is not even allowing the UN to send aid, or the aid agencies to provide much needed relief for the 300,000 innocent civilians caught in the camps. The Sri Lankan government is not even letting in the international media. The international community has to act now and not just send requests as it has done for months. Otherwise many more thousands of innocent lives will be destroyed forever.
Future of Tamils in Sri Lanka:
Refugee camps are not a solution as the Sri-Lankan government, other Tamil armed groups, and Tamil human rights activists would have us believe. Even the leaders and their supporters who propose all these, the question we have to ask is: would you put yourselves and your children through a refugee camp?
During the last 30 years, thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives and homes that they keep rebuilding, along with their identities and hopes.
I can understand the feelings of this war as the 1980s, 90s and 2000s are no different. Being raped in 1990s and being raped in 2009 is not different; the agony is the same. The loss of loved ones, the hunger, the running for safety is the same then and now. Having no hands to comfort, being alone is the same in that war and this war.
The international community and the Sri Lankan government thinks that they only need food and water, a place to sleep, and medicine to heal their wounds and they can survive. Food and shelter is important, too, but that is not enough for real peace. What about their scattered families torn apart by war, the endless mourning for them, and the endless hope for a life without guns and bombs. None of this comes into the solution of a refugee camp.
Therefore, refugee camps after the mass killings of Tamils, after the torture, after the erasure of people, the refugee camps are not a solution, especially because it is the same government who kills them and their families and then offers them refuge. Where is the guarantee of real safety inside these refugee camps? As I mentioned, when I worked in the refugee camps, what I saw was nothing less than terrifying. The threats to their lives, the torture, the violence continued even inside the camps. Therefore, this is not a permanent or democratic or diplomatic solution; it is not even a solution. It will not end the war or bring peace, and any human rights activist who works without any bias or agenda except for humanitarianism would not disagree.
It is our responsibility as a Sri Lankan, as a Canadian, as a human being to support and solve the real issue for our children in the future. The powerful leaders carry out their campaigns with both guns and pens. These guns and pens bury the stories, the pain, the faces of women and working class people in their own backyards. Sometimes, Tamil human rights activists and intellectuals cover up our pain with their personal pain and loss. Our unheard voices were buried for years and continue to be buried.
The war will end and people will be in peace only if the real root of the problem is touched and addressed democratically. Banning the LTTE or defeating them or other Tamil armed groups is not a solution. The solution will be when Tamils are treated as equal citizens in a land that they have lived in for many thousands now. The solution will be when Tamils do not have to prove their belonging or their right of place in Sri Lanka. The solution will be when we all sit down and talk with an open agenda with justice in mind.
No Justice, No peace!
By Regi David, Toronto, May 21, 2009:
Don’t Test the colour of my blood, I also, will be destroyed.
But even then, the colour of my blood is red, just like yours, my friend.