Dusty lanes and fences covered with fertilizer bags at houses in line at Gummidipoondi camp.
In June 1990, eleven boats carrying around 500 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in Danushkodi, Tamil Nadu, India. Four pregnant women and dozens of kids who were tethered to their mothers for safety were among those in the boats. Most were barefoot. They had no life jackets. With only the clothes they were wearing, they were stranded at sea with no food, water or hopes for the future. They were forced to experience unbelievable hardships as they fled their homeland due to the armed conflict between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Indian fishermen charged Rs.5,000 from each Sri Lankan for the boat service. The desperate victims sold all their possessions to make the payments.
After three days on the sea, they were found by the Indian coastguard officials who thoroughly examined them and sent them to Mandapam, the largest Sri Lankan refugee camp in the Tamil Nadu state. This was only one group of Sri Lankans who fled the country during the war.
According to reports, the exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces started from the beginning of Black July in 1983. Between 1983 and 1987, at least 134,000 Sri Lankan Tamils were officially estimated to have arrived in Tamil Nadu. When the war intensified in June 1990, the next round of Tamils arrived in India. The third round was reported to have arrived in 1995.
Reports of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that during the final phase of the war, there was a massive displacement of the population in the North, with some 276,000 displaced. UNHCR’s most recent statistics show that at the end of 2010, there were some 140,000 Sri Lankan refugees with a majority of 70,000 in 112 refugee camps and another 32,000 living outside camps in Tamil Nadu. Currently, the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils of Tamil Nadu is monitoring about 19,451 Sri Lankan Tamil families consisting of about 63,351 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees accommodated in 108 camps in 24 districts in the state. The camp in Gummidipoondi, situated 46.6 km away from the capital Chennai, is a shelter for close to 1000 families.
Daily Mirror visited Sri Lankan Tamils in the Gummidipoondi refugee camp. They were delighted to see a Sri Lankan visiting the camp. Some of them have almost forgotten Sinhala, as the language was hardly used by them in the past 27 years. Still, they spoke quite well in Sinhala.
Photographs by Shyam Gowtham and Steni Simon
We lived in Anuradhapura. The war started and we moved to Kilinochchi. Years later, planes started bombing Kilinochchi
Even though visible wounds can be healed, invisible wounds from the war are so devastating that they are harder to repair
Innocent lives were also lost while they attempted to make their way to India by sea
Invisible wounds from war harder to repair: Arulanandam
Fleeing for their lives, Arulanandam and his wife Victoria who lived in Anuradhapura, moved to Kilinochchi in the 1980s during the start of the war. After the fighting and bombing reached Kilinochchi in the 1990s, they decided to leave everything behind and flee to the nearest country. Now in his fifties and a father of three, Arulanandam recalled his memories of the war which turned their lives upside down.
“We lived in Anuradhapura. The war started and we moved to Kilinochchi. Years later, planes started bombing Kilinochchi. We lived in fear. We could not stay there anymore. Fear drove us to realise that there was no other option than to leave the country. We decided to go to Tamil Nadu,” he said.
Arulanandam broke down in tears when he remembered his brother’s five-year-old son who died in an aerial bombing in front of their eyes in Kilinochchi.
He said that even though visible wounds could be healed, invisible wounds from the war were so devastating that they were harder to repair.
In their desperation to escape the unbearable conditions, they embarked on a route. Innocent lives were also lost while they attempted to make their way to India by sea.
We lived in a constant state of fear and insecurity : Nandini
In each family, at least one member was killed
We were optimistic that it would be a new beginning
Forty-nine-year-old Nandini tried not to sob as she looked at her granddaughter, Sarah. Sarah, who had just celebrated her fourth birthday last month, was unaware of the problems the adults had faced and were still facing. She was busy with her double ruled exercise book, trying hard to write a letter.
“One night I heard gunshots. Soldiers were already in front of my house. I took my son and ran. That was the day my cousin sister died in a shell attack in Kilinochchi. In each family, at least one relative was killed or injured in the war. We left Sri Lanka for the future of these kids. We sold everything we had to collect 5000 for each. We were optimistic that it would be a new beginning for all of us. Life here is nothing like I expected,” Nandini said.
She said they had to go through multiple and prolonged displacements, deprivations and were living in a constant state of fear and insecurity.
We lived happily with Sinhala people before the war : Simona
Before the war started, we were living happily and peacefully with Sinhala people
We found a 70-year-old mother of five, Simona, who is now spending the rest of her life in the Gummidipoondi camp with her eldest son’s family. What made Simona’s story different from other stories was that her third son was a former LTTE cadre. He had died at the age of 22 in the war.
Simona said her husband had also died in a shell attack carried out by the Sri Lankan Army.
“Before the war started, we were living happily and peacefully with Sinhala people. We had a beautiful life in Sri Lanka before the war. I lost my son and my husband. It was easier to run from our land of birth than to see my other children die,” she said. Refugees in Gummidipoondi camp said their quest for a better future for their kids was not as fruitful as they had expected.
My brothers were captured by the Army, they never came back: Nimala
Uncertain of her life until they reached the Danushkodhi shore
My twin brothers never came back
Nimala said two youths who were in a boat had drowned in the sea after losing balance. Surrounded by the chaotic situation in the boats, attempts to save the youths were limited. Nimala said she was uncertain of her life until they reached the Danushkodhi shore.
She looked terrified when she explained how she lost her twin brothers.
“When we were preparing to leave by boat from Talaimannar, the Sri Lankan Army stopped us and suddenly captured my twin brothers aged 23. Sundaran and Sekar were captured, on the allegation they had connections with the LTTE. The soldiers said they would release them after questioning. But my twin brothers never came back,” Nimala said, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
It was not just Sundaran and Sekar, but many youth never came back after the armed forces nabbed them on alleged LTTE connections.
I didn’t care where I went, I just wanted to save my life: Mathews
The bombing started. Every time we saw a plane, we thought it was a military plane that would drop shells. We could not even come out of our houses
We didn’t care where we went, we just wanted to save our lives
Mathews (46) was another Sri Lankan among the 1990 exodus. Recalling his traumatising past about the war, he said that if he had not taken the decision to get into boats on that decisive day, he would have been killed.
“The bombing started. Every time we saw a plane, we thought it was a military plane that would drop shells. We could not even come out of our houses. We were suffering in hunger and poverty. I thought if we stayed in the country, we would be killed. So we decided to leave by boat. We didn’t care where we went, we just wanted to save our lives,” Mathews said.
I was 5 months pregnant when I left Mannar : Jothika
I gave them my gold earrings as payment and came to Tamil Nadu
We did not have travel documents or anything. We left Mannar in a hurry to save ourselves from shell attacks and aerial bombardments
Jothika was five months pregnant when she left Mannar.
“When we heard the bomb blasts, we all started running out. I went and hid. Others helped me to travel to the place where boats were waiting for people like us. I gave them my gold earrings as payment and came to Tamil Nadu,” she said.
Choking with emotion, Jothika said she had left her motherland because she wanted to survive and provide a safe future for her unborn child. She still has no idea what happened to her husband at the time she left Mannar, as he was away.
“We did not have travel documents or anything. We left Mannar in a hurry to save ourselves from shell attacks and aerial bombardments,” she said.
In this first part of their stories, we focused on their traumatising memories of the war. The next part will discuss their lives in the camps and the difficulties they face in their day-to-day lives.