They Just Don't Want Us Next Door
The room is a room—not an apartment, not a flat, but mere four walls and an entrance door that never seems to shut well. They have been renting it for the better part of the last two years, yet there is no furniture to speak of. The only table in the room big enough to be used for dining is occupied by two suitcases plopped on top of it, and the lone broken chair serves more as a climbing game for the youngest one than a seating arrangement. The woman invites me to sit down, so I do: on the bare tiled floor my bones dig sharply into my muscles and I'm struggling to fight the ache a mere half an hour later. Seeing how there is no mattress in sight, I wonder what the words a good night's sleep might mean to the family inhabiting this unwelcoming space. They're Tamil and the escape from one of the bloodiest conflicts of our century still weighs heavily on their minds. As difficult as their life seems to me, they say it is an improvement over their previous one. "You see, trying to sleep curled in sand ditches during a never ending bombardment is much harder," the husband says.
"You cannot say that our lives in Sri Lanka were all bad, at least not at the beginning, when we were young," jumps in Jaso, trying to moderate her husband's words. "We both had families, we lived in a small village and our parents were farmers. My father loved me and sacrificed a lot to provide for our well-being. I remember wanting a bicycle so so much, and one day, my father returned from town with a beautiful lady bike. It was blue, I remember it clearly to this day. Even when it broke, I didn't have the heart to throw it away, it stayed in the corner of our house reminding me of my past. Only the next day did I find out that he had traded his grocery bike for it. Ever since, he carried heavy rice bags from the market on his back," says Jaso, while immediately adding a heartfelt apology for not having any refreshments to offer to her guests. The budget has been tight this month with medical expenses, she says.
Jaso's husband, Suthan, mercifully interrupts my awkward apologies for imposing on her family by breaking into a vivid memory that unexpectedly overcomes him: "When I was a child, I remember we had a black & white television that we would turn on once a week after my father came back from town with a charged car battery. It lasted only an hour, but all my friends used to gather in our living room and I'd tune in to an Indian soap opera or a nature channel to see what the world looked like."
And all the while the big world out there on TV was turning its gears, the Sri Lankan conflict went largely unnoticed by it, dragging many a young Tamil life deep into its womb. Simple pleasures of soap operas and bike rides had to be forgotten, parents abandoned—the program of the day was the struggle. The fight unfolded along ethnic lines as the country’s Tamils, a mostly Hindu majority, battled for creation of an independent state against the ruling majority of Sinhalese Buddhists. The Tamil Tigers, as they were known, were ruthless guerrilla fighters known for suicide bombing, while Sri Lankan army was an effective and brutal force with a penchant for carpet bombing. The protracted 26-year long civil war claimed at least a hundred thousand lives in Sri Lanka, uprooting and displacing many hundreds of thousands more.
Jaso and Suthan never actively took part in the conflict as fighters, but—like many young Tamils, they were both taken from their classrooms and placed in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE, military training centers at a fragile age of 17. Suthan's first months in the compound were spent studying Tamil history and shortly after finishing his first course, he was transferred to paper duty. His days consisted of assembling personal histories and photographs of deceased Tamil fighters into bright red folders marked with their names and years of service.
The job was simple enough, or so it seemed at the beginning—however, penning obituaries and personally delivering handwritten condolence notes to grieving families ultimately took its toll on him. "If there were other fighters accompanying me on home visits, I never dared to show my emotions. But when someone from my neighbors or distant family died and I was allowed to go to the family alone, I cried. It was difficult enough watching those faces staring at me from the photos all day long and not going crazy—they never broke eye contact, they just kept on looking at me and I felt guilty in spite of not knowing them or sending them out to fight. But when it's someone you know, it changes everything. I broke down many times. I was speechless, I couldn't bring myself to lie to the mothers and fathers telling them that their sons died for a heroic cause. I believed that there was injustice committed on our people, but all those dead bodies and their faces... I just couldn't do it."
Jaso confesses that when the army took her from the classroom her grades weren't deserving enough to merit being given a job of importance, so she was relegated to taking care of the cemetery and tending to the fighters' graves. Watering flowers on their tombstones, she one day saw Suthan coming in to ask about a fighter she might've known—or so he heard. She agreed to write an obituary for him and since then, they met regularly to write the condolence notes together. It didn't take long before they fell in love and decided to look for ways to get out of the service with the mildest punishment possible. "There were rumors of the military thinking about conscripting everybody into active duty and too many people were dying as it was—we saw all their photos daily—and I would rather farm and take care of a family I wanted to have with Jaso than die in a battle."
Watering flowers on graves of fighters, writing their obituaries and looking at photos of the deceased ones, forced them to face their mortality daily; their anxiety growing with every passing week. The day of their escape, their minds were paralyzed. “We just came home, me to mine, she to hers. And we stayed there. We were afraid and our minds were not working. We didn’t know where to go,” says Suthan. Needless to say, they were caught the same day. However, thanks to Suthan’s distant cousin—a higher-up in the army—their punishment was reduced to only a few months of service in the same positions as before and subsequent dishonorable discharge from the military.
The conflict wound down and ultimately settled into a fragile and short-lived ceasefire between 2002 and 2005, shortly after both Suthan and Jaso were let go. They started farming on the small rice paddy behind their house and life gradually settled into a state of tense normalcy. Bombs, both suicide and dropped from planes, were heard from time to time, but their first two children were born and the infant’s arrivals were a blessing, Jaso says. According to Suthan however, the feeling of normalcy was just a lie, a trick people played on their own minds to get a desperately needed sense of relief.
Anxiously fiddling with his big toe, Suthan continues: “The conflict was happening in spite of the guns not being fired that often anymore. During the ceasefire, Sri Lankan government was seen making lists of Tamil Tigers collaborators. One day, just before the the war broke out again, a group of men came to my house, told me they were with the United Nations and that they were investigating war crimes in the area. They said they needed help with obtaining evidence. I realized only later that they probably knew what was my job with the fighters, but I believed them at the time and told them where to find the documents. They beat me with the grip of the gun. They only stopped when my neighbors crowded around and started threatening them. I spent a few days in the hospital and when I came back, things got worse.”
The ceasefire officially ended by the end of July 2006 when the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed LTTE camps around Mavil Aru dam, however, the conflict has been burning low for months already. After Suthan arrived back, only days later, their village was full of people fleeing neighboring villages. Fighter jets were heard whizzing above their homes and rice fields, bombs were heard in the distance.
But only after a bomb hit a truck passing on the road barely a 100 meters away from their house killing all the displaced villagers in it in a grizzly scene of dismemberment and burning flesh did Suthan and Jaso realize that they are on the new front line of the conflict. Jaso still remembers the moment they picked up and left: “There were all these bodies, people’s open suitcases were all spread around the burning truck. There was no time to pack anything, we didn’t even look back. We just left for the next village on foot, running most of the time. We slept there for a few nights and then the bombs started hitting that village too. We were forced to flee like this many times over the next two and a half years, being pushed time and time again, closer and closer to the sea. In 2009, we ended up on a beach and there was nowhere to escape to anymore. The LTTE dug out ditches and bunkers in the sand and that is where we stayed for many months. Very little water, only rice to eat and just sand to sleep on. And the fighter jets, every day bombing us. The children were crying all the time, scared of the noises and explosions.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but the 26-year old conflict was slowly coming to an overwhelming and unmerciful end. In a three-year offensive increasingly supported by air raids and sophisticated fighter jets that the Sri Lankan government bought from governments around the world, one of the world’s most ruthless insurgent armies was even more ruthlessly ground to dust from above—and along with it, many civilians too.
Suthan’s parents and many of his relatives died in a single night-time air strike on a beach bunker where they were staying while Suthan went to fetch water. He was just about to re-enter the bunker with a jug of water in his hand when the bomb struck with force. The resulting explosion injured him gravely, stray shrapnels piercing his abdomen and chest. After some diggin in the suitcase in the room, he shows me his old x-rays from a field hospital where he was taken, he marks the entry points with his finger. Some pieces, he says, are still lodged in his body.
And, while there was nowhere to flee on land, many people escaped the ditches in those days, sold their last possessions of food and jewelry, and boarded boats towards the unknown. For Suthan and Jaso, their unknown ultimately turned out to be Thailand.
They are being processed for a UN resettlement to a third country, but while they have been waiting for years now, in a cruel twist of fate, these days, the family lives in a small, mostly empty room close to both a commercial and a military airport. The deafening noise of planes flying low over their apartment is incessant and during our interview, I hear at least one fighter jet whizzing by. Jaso looks up to the ceiling and quietly says: “Every time there is a fighter jet flying over our head, my son runs away from the playground and hides in the flat.”
Overwhelmed by the picture—from the window of their room, I can see the playground she is talking about: a single net-less goalpost and a lot of bare patchy concrete—I ask why don’t they move somewhere else, when this place obviously re-traumatizes their children. Is it because of a lack of money?
“No, we could’ve found a similarly priced cheap room somewhere else, but they just don’t want us there. They say they don’t like our children’s noise or that our cooking smells bad to them. I think it’s more because we’re refugees. We have searched for a long time, we’re still searching, but this is the best solution that we were able to find ever since we’ve been here. The children have not gotten used to the fighter jets to this day. There is nothing else left to do but wait for the jets to finish their exercise and for my eldest son to come out of the bathroom.”