Sri Lanka: I Was Born into War : Story of Thamizhini

Excerpts from the book, In the Shadow of a Sword, written by author

by Thamizhini

The broad spreading paddy fields, the water channels that snaked between  them,  the  gravel  paths,  the  sheltering  portia  trees:  my  birthplace  of  Paranthan  caressed  you  with  its  show  of  beauty.  Paranthan  was  a  small  village  where  the  great  A9  highway  met  the  two  important  roads,  the  Poonakari-Mannar  road,  and  the  Mullaitivu road. It was the people from Jaffna who came here to do cultivation in 1936 who eventually settled down here permanently. Free of luxuries, they lived a life of simplicity. About five kilometres south  of  Paranthan  is  the  town  of  Kilinochchi,  and  six  kilo-metres north is the Elephant Pass lagoon. In the old days, in order to prevent the smuggling of ivory and lumber, the Portuguese set up a guard there; then the Dutch built a fort here in 1776, which was taken over by the British, and from 1952 on, the Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) police set up a check point there. Paranthan was well known in Sri Lanka as the site of the Elephant Pass salt flats, and the Paranthan Chemical Corporation.From the early days of the war, Paranthan began to change into a  strategically  key  battle  site  as  well.  As  a  result,  the  lives  of  the  people  in  Paranthan  were  gradually  disrupted,  and  they  became  like  fledglings  displaced  from  their  nests.  It  was  at  such  a  time  that  I  was  born.  My  father,  Kanthiah  Subramaniam,  was  from  Jaffna. My mother, Sinnamma, was born and raised in Paranthan. I  was  born,  the  eldest  daughter,  when  my  mother  was  17.  My  maternal grandfather, Swaminathan, was an experienced cultivator. 

My  parents  told  me  that  my  grandmother,  who  was  a  staunch  Amman devotee, had named me Sivakami.As I was born when the Tamil people were being engulfed by war, my  childhood  was  spent  absorbing  its  impacts.  My  father  was  a  humble  man,  of  a  gentle,  loving  nature.  He  was  also  a  habitual  reader.  He  would  read  everything  from  history  and  purana  (religious) stories, to political doctrines. He would turn the things he  read  into  children’s  stories  and  narrate  them  to  me  at  night.  As I was born when my mother was very young, and had several siblings,  I  was  raised  mostly  in  my  grandmother’s  house,  as  her  favourite.  The  oldest  grandchild  in  our  family,  I  was  loved  by  everyone. My uncle, my mother’s only brother, chose to stay home and  farm  instead  of  looking  for  a  government  job,  even  though  he had completed his A levels.

 My grandfather’s younger brother, Sethupathy, never married, but lived as a member of his brother’s family. A tireless worker, and a stern man, he managed the welfare of  our  large  extended  family.  I  am  amazed  even  today  at  their  character and disciplined way of life, even though they were not highly educated. They raised us children as if we were their lives. I had never been punished by my parents or elders or ever heard a harsh word from their mouths.The sweetest moments in my memory are of travelling in a bullock cart tied to a pair of buffaloes whose bells made a jingling noise as  we  travelled  to  Karadipokku  Junction  to  watch  films  at  the  Eswaran or Parasakthi theatres. There we would sit as a family on mats set out over straw and watch ammamma’s favorite Sivaji or MGR films halfway, and spend the other half curled up sleeping on our elders’ laps; we usually arrived home fast asleep. 

Their loving guidance gave me a sense of independence even from an early age. Though I was an ordinary girl from a farming family, they never tried to control me, or force their opinions or habits on me.  On  the  contrary,  they  wanted  me  to  study  well  and  reach  a  higher level in life. That was their dream as well.I began my studies at Paranthan’s Hindu Maha Vidyalayam and went as far as the Advanced Level. Up to the point where I did my Ordinary Levels, the railway was still operating, and teachers from Jaffna and from our area taught there. There were many teachers in my school who cared for their students as if they were their own children. They nurtured great ambitions in their students for their future lives. I was determined to study and go on to university. I did not know at the time that the cyclone of war that was germinating in the country would sweep away our modest hopes.

From  the  time  I  had  any  understanding  of  what  was  happening  around me, the tranquil life of our village was frequently disrupted. It  became  the  norm  to  hear  gunshots  on  the  street  every  day.  The elders would secretly discuss who had fired the gun and who had died. Sometimes these kinds of incidents would happen during a school day. At those times the parents would come by, even in the  middle  of  the  day,  and  take  the  children  home.  The  teachers  would  announce  that  the  school  was  closing  and  leave  as  well.  The shops were closed, the streets were empty, and we would stay shut in our houses for so many days, not knowing what was going on, fearing for our lives. At an age when we couldn’t understand what was happening and why, our tender shoulders bore the heavy burden of this war.

When I was in the sixth grade, I had gone one day to the neigh-bouring village of Kumarapuram for an afternoon class. My school was situated there as well. Shortly after classes began, loud explo-sions were  heard  from  the  direction  of  the  Paranthan  Junction.  The teacher stopped the class immediately. Everyone was in shock. Some students began to cry. As soon as the explosions ceased, the teacher asked us all to run home as fast as we could. When I got home, frightened and in tears, I discovered that the sounds of the explosion had reached the front yard of our house. The neighbours had gathered in our front yard reeling from the shock. Our house was beside the A9 road. Two young men belonging to some group had  been  putting  up  posters  on  the  walls  in  front  of  our  house,  when some military personnel who had been doing their rounds in civilian clothing, began shooting at them at random. When this happened, the young men had jumped the wall and begun running toward our house. One youth was shot in the head right in front of our house and died then and there. The other youth ran to the back and escaped by way of the railway track that ran behind our house. While this was happening, ammamma had been winnow-ing  rice  on  the  verandah.  She  walked  about  in  a  daze  for  a  few  days,  from  the  shock  brought  on  by  this  unexpected  incident;  it  frightened us to see her this way. She told us that a living boy had died twitching in front of her, and that the body had been dragged away by the army.

It was customary for the Movement’s representatives to organize gatherings  for  the  senior  students  at  my  school.  They  would  not  include children from my grade in those gatherings. They would dismiss us and chase us away saying that we were only going to be noisy. But we were so curious to find out what was going on there that we would hang on the low walls and peer in, without going home.  Every  day,  different  annas  with  new  and  different  names  would  come  by  to  organize  a  gathering.  They  would  speak  with  great anger and passion. The annas and akkas in our school would ask  them  questions.  Some  days  there  would  be  heated  debates.  Even  if  we  didn’t  understand  all  of  it,  the  weapons  they  carried,  and their serious faces left a deep impression on us.In the times following, many of the older students from our school kept  disappearing.  The  students  whispered  among  themselves  in the classrooms: ‘These ones went to train with this Movement, the  other  ones  went  to  train  with  that  Movement.’  Sometimes relatives would gather at the homes of the youth who had left for the Movements from our village, and lament loudly, as if they were at a funeral.It  became  the  norm  to  put  up  posters  for  Movement  groups  on  the tall water tank at our school. The students who were divided in their support for different factions became so competitive that close friends fell out over this. They were often engaged in arguments and fights.When some of the youth who had gone for training returned to the village, they would be completely altered in appearance. They were so highly esteemed in the community that even the village elders treated them with respect. They would advise students like us  in  the  lower  grades,  saying,  ‘We’re  going  to  fight  so  that  you  can study well and advance in life.’ The young boys and girls hero-worshipped  the  youth  who  walked  around  with  their  weapons  more  than  any  film  stars.  Seeing  them  and  being  friendly  with  them elevated you in the eyes of others as well. They too behaved like family, referring to everyone as either ‘amma, appa, thambi or thangachi’ and mingling with ease.

The Kilinochchi police station had been transformed into a military camp.  It  must  have  been  1986.  One  day,  that  camp  was  attacked  by  one  of  the  groups  around  midnight.  The  fire  burned  bright  as  the  afternoon  sun  in  the  middle  of  the  night  and  could  be  seen  as far away as Paranthan. The villages surrounding Kilinochchi were startled out of their sleep. A helicopter circled overhead, firing occa-sionally. Paying no attention to the stalks that tore at our legs in the harvested fields, families fled together in the dead of the night.

The  Sri  Lankan  army  continued  to  strengthen  their  base  in  the  Kilinochchi  area.  The  Movements’  fighters  launched  counter-strikes against the soldiers coming out of there. At this time, our family, who lived so close to the A9, suffered untold misery. Every time  we  heard  the  news  that  the  army  was  coming,  we  dropped  everything as it was and ran through the paths in the paddy fields. We would only return home in the evenings, when the sound of explosions had stopped. Until then, the elders struggled to staunch the  children’s  hunger.  Often,  we’d  be  running  with  our  school-bags  in  hand.  Our  sinnathaatha  would  carry  whatever  food  was available  and  go  with  us.  I  was  at  an  age  where  I  could  under-stand a few things, and I hated losing our peace and having to run around like this.The  army  began  launching  shells  in  the  direction  of  Paranthan  from  Kilinochchi.  One  afternoon,  sinnathaatha  went  to  put  out  water  for  the  bullocks  that  had  been  tied  up  for  grazing  in  the  morning.  Suddenly  we  heard  the  crash  of  shells  landing  near  where he was. There was a cloud of smoke. When the rest of the house  ran  out  screaming,  they  saw  him  hobbling  back,  holding  his shawl to his stomach. A piece of shrapnel had torn through his stomach. Part of his intestine had come out through the wound. Even though my uncle had his own car, we could not drive him to  the  hospital,  because  an  air-force  helicopter  kept  circling  the  Paranthan area and attacking continuously. That day I cried with anger and frustration. I was shaking with the fear that we might not be able to save our thaatha. I was resolved that if such a thing happened, I would immediately enlist in the Movement. A little while later, when the helicopters had left the area, we were able to get him to the hospital and save his life. After losing my father in an accident, it was my uncle and maternal grandparents who had raised us. We had such great love for them.

There were now frequent clashes between the Movements and the army in Paranthan Junction. On top of this, the Movements also clashed  with  each  other.  I  could  not  understand  why  the  annas  who  so  clearly  explained  the  need  to  fight  against  the  army  in  all  those  gatherings  were  now  warring  amongst  themselves.  The  things I saw, because I had to pass by the Paranthan Junction to get to school every day, made me lose hope that a peaceful future lay ahead for us. Instead it paved the way for deeper fear and anxiety.

It was during this time that the Indian Forces arrived. I was in the tenth  grade  at  the  time.  The  elders  said  among  themselves  that  this would be the answer to all our problems. Like everyone else, we too stood in the streets and waved our welcome to the Indian Peace Keeping Forces.The  Indian  Forces  set  up  a  massive  base  on  the  site  of  the  Northern  Region  Grain  Research  Centre,  between  Paranthan  and  Karadipokku,  taking  up  the  huge  storehouses  as  well  as  the researchers’  quarters.  They  spoke  many  languages  that  we  had  never heard until then. The long-haired, bearded Punjabis, and the turmeric-skinned  short-statured  Gurkhas  paraded  the  India  we  only knew from schoolbooks before our eyes. Our tuition centre, ‘Science Centre’, was situated in Karadipokku. The students from Kumarapuram and Paranthan would go there in crowds. As soon as  they  saw  the  girls,  the  Indian  soldiers  would  shout  out:  ‘Hey  kutti, hey kutti, shall we “get married”?’ and other obscene things in  several  different  languages.  We  were  so  terrified  of  them  we  couldn’t even turn our heads.In  this  way  the  brief  time  of  peace  we  had  was  disrupted  again.  The  people  said  the  Liberation  Tigers’  Movement  had  begun  a  war with the Indian Forces. It had become a dangerous time for young women. Word began to spread that the Indian Forces has sexually  assaulted  young  women  in  some  areas  in  Jaffna.  I  did  not  know  if  such  incidents  had  also  happened  in  Kilinochchi.  Periyappa  brought  his  daughter  to  our  house  and  left  her  there  night after night because they feared it wasn’t safe to keep akka in their home. It was quite the struggle for our grandparents to take care of us young women, and to send us to school and for tuition classes.  At  that  time,  I  was  preparing  for  my  GCE  Ordinary  Levels exam.One day, during school hours, we were frightened by the sounds of heavy  gunfire.  The  whole  town  of  Paranthan  was  surrounded.  We  students huddled under our desks in fear. Shortly after, the Indian Forces  who  had  entered  our  school  grounds  poured  into  every  classroom.  They  asked  our  principal  some  questions  and  began  beating  him.  When  we  saw  our  revered  principal  being  beaten  where  he  stood,  in  front  of  us,  his  lip  swollen  and  bleeding,  the  students began crying out loud. Then the people of the town, men and  women,  were  brought  into  the  school  playground  with  their  hands above their heads and made to kneel on the ground. Their task of  searching  for  the  Tigers  who  had  escaped  after  attacking  them  stretched out into the evening.

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