The Social Architects story 3: Shanthi’s story

Shanthi is a mother and widow, forty-two years of age, who has been displaced many times in the course of the war. In her early childhood, she lived in a cadjan hut with a palmyrah leaf roof and walls

constructed of a double layer of woven coconut palm leaves. Local red clay was used for the floor and the lower part of the walls, to keep out poisonous snakes. The house had a veranda and two rooms. She was born in this house. Shanthi’s mother taught her how to cook traditional Tamil foods like pittu, iddiyappam, dosai and palappam over a fire in the small low-roofed kitchen that was a separate structure about eight feet from the house. She is the second born of eight children, with six brothers and one older sister. Her father, who worked in Colombo as a bus driver, came home to visit twice a month.  When Shanthi was eleven years old, her father died. Then, to help with the household income, Shanthi’s mother taught her how to weave palmyrah leaf mats. 

Palmyrah trees grow wild in the Jaffna landscape, and every product of the tree is used by the local people: the flowers for kul (soup), panaiyarum or fried fruit sweets, the whole fruit or panampalam as roasted fruit, pinattu or fruit leather, the young root boiled or panankilungku, the dried young root or pana kalkandu, odiyal, the leaves or pana ole for roofing, fencing, mat and basket weaving, the strong barbed sticks or panaimattai for fencing, and the tree trunk for construction.

Shanthi’s story speaks for the experiences of many ordinary Tamil people who fled across the Vanni as the military forces advanced. Her story is typical among survivors’ stories in many aspects. This is the story Shanthi told:

When I was a little girl, my mother hired men to cut palmyrah leaves and bring them to our house in an  ox cart. We bought green, red, and purple dyes at the shop, and soaked the palmyrah leaves in the colors. Then we spread them out to dry on the sand around our house. My mother and I wove them into designs with names, like Iviral (“Five fingers”) and Muviral (“Three fingers). My mother and I still weave mats with these designs. When I was young we also dried chilli peppers. We grew chilies, onions, and long beans in our garden, and we sold them in the market. 

In 1990, when I was twenty-three, we were displaced for the first time. A helicopter gunship flew low and strafed the village…everyone ran. The man who would later become my husband carried his sister’s son and waded along the edge of the water where it was waist-deep. When the helicopter came near us, we put palmyrah leaves over our heads for camouflage and waded into deeper water. When his sister died, my family helped with the funeral and the thirty-first-day death ceremony.

This man who became my husband lived near us; he was handsome and intelligent. I worked very hard at gardening and he noticed that. He asked me to marry him when he was twenty-eight. One day, when I was taking care of my blind grandmother, he came and asked, “Are you in love with me? I want to marry you.” 

He wanted to marry me without any dowry. My mother, my two uncles, and my cousins arranged the marriage. My mother had already taught me to cook, and for several years before that I cooked as frequently as my mother. All the relations came and we had our wedding in the house. I wore a red saree and he wore a veshti. First we put banana in milk. Then they put a banana leaf on the floor of the prayer room with all the curries. I gave curries to him from the leaf, and then he gave curries to me.  We were machchan and machchal.

In 1995, the Army attacked our area during the Suriyakadir operation. They started shelling the village and everyone ran. The Air Force bombed Navatkulipalam (a key bridge in the area), so a huge crowd of people were trapped there. Many elderly people from the village died during the bombing and shelling.

We ended up at an uncle’s place. We constructed a house with palmyrah leaf roof and woven palm walls on his land and stayed for ten years. 

In 2004, during the ceasefire agreement, my husband and I went back to the place where we were married after fourteen years of being away. No one else had returned, and the whole village looked like a jungle. We cleared our land. My uncle’s house was partially standing, so we stayed there at first, and then we built a house on our land. That same year, after fourteen years of marriage, I was blessed with a daughter. We were very happy in that period. My husband was always employed as a mason, or as a laborer, loading cement bags and sand into trucks. We grew panankilungku (young palmyrah tree roots) that we boiled and sold. We also dried the roots to make odiyal to sell in the market. We also gathered coconuts from places where people had not returned, and sold them.

On our daughter’s first birthday, we went to the Nagatambiran temple in Poonagiri during the festival.  We dressed her in new clothes, and keeping an old vow from the days when we were without children, we took katpurachati (a clay pot of flaming camphor on a bed of neem leaves) and circumambulated the temple.

Two years later fear returned, after executions of some villagers by the Army. We went to Poonagiri for safety and lived there for over a year. In 2006 the Army started shelling Poonagiri from Pallaly, so everyone fled again.

We decided to stay with my younger brother, and after a month we found a place to rent for 170 Rupees a month. When shelling from the Army in Kilinochchi came close to us in January 2009, we fled to Visvamadu. We packed up kitchen utensils; clothes, rice and lentils, and we carried these essentials on a bicycle. My husband put our daughter on the front of the bicycle. I walked next to it. We abandoned our milk cow and chickens. The road was packed with people. I remember a truck carrying injured people was blowing the horn and going fast through the crowded road, heading for Visvamadu hospital.

After four days in Visvamadu, we went on Suthanthirapuram for six days. We made a tent with two sticks and a tarp and we dug a bunker using cups and plates. We bought needle and thread and cut saris and made sand bags. Put the sand bags one on top of the other on all four sides and left a small hole to get inside, and then we hid ourselves in there. The shelling was continuous so we couldn’t cook. When the shelling stopped we immediately cooked some kanji (rice and water). We always had to be alert to the sound of shells and bullets. First we lit the fire, and when the shells came, we ran back into the bunker. Then, when we thought the shelling had stopped, we came out to get the pot and ran with it back into the bunker.

We spent a sleepless night at Senduran Silai junction, under a tree. We went on to Aachchithottam (Vallipuram) and stayed for three days and during those days we were attacked by multi-barrel rocket launchers, KFir fighter jets, artillery, five-inch mortars, tanks, and cluster bombs. Doom! Doom! Doom! Doom! Doom! Each cluster bomb splits into ten upon impact. Most of the people in this place were killed, and we left them and ran. 

We fled to Kombavil where we stayed a little more than a week. On the way there was no shelling, but as we neared Kombavil there was evidence that it had already been attacked. It was attacked from five directions: from Kepapilavu, Visvamadu, Killinochci, Suthanthirapuram, and Mullaitivu, and by the Navy Dora craft on the water. Each day forty, fifty, one hundred, were killed. We saw all along our way the bodies in death positions with maggots and there was a terrible smell and we felt like vomiting. In front of us two were going in a motorbike and when the shell fell on them their heads were cut off and the motorbike kept going and fell in a canal.

Around 200,000 people gathered from all across the Vanni in Pokkanai, and built bunkers close to one another. It was a so-called Pathukappu Valaiyam (No Fire Zone). We dug a bunker and put up a tent as we had before, and we were seated there. My mother, my daughter, and my brother were there. It was March 23, 2009. My daughter and I were crying because we were hungry, but shells, multi barrel rocket launchers, tanks, and K-Fir jets relentlessly attacked the place where we were. We couldn’t go out, we had only a little rice and we had no firewood. When the firing stopped for a moment, my husband went out and tried to chop some firewood. While he was chopping, a shell fell a short distance away, so he lay down on the ground. The rest of us hid inside the bunker. Another shell came and fell close to him where he was lying down. As soon as he could, my brother went out of the bunker to find my husband. 

He came back crying, and when he was able to speak he said, “Attan died instantly.” We took my husband’s body into the bunker and we put that body on a sheet and mat and covered it. 

The people in the next bunker to us had covered his head with a cloth because his brain was severed in half. We carried his body in a tractor and we buried his body in Valaiyarmadam. My mother was feeling very sick that day onwards.

We stayed in Pokkani for twenty-one days longer after he died. In Pokkani I saw women holding their infants that had died. Ammale! I was mentally affected from such terrible things. I didn’t know where I was staying, I would get lost; I couldn’t remember where I was staying because I was in such a state of shock. We had no hope that we would survive. We thought that we would not live and we were going to die.

One of my brothers died twenty-one days after my husband, and on that same day my nephew was badly injured. My brother came out of his family’s bunker to get some water for everyone when his mother-in-law said she thought the shelling had stopped. He had the kettle in his hand when a five-inch shell fell and injured him in the head, legs and hands. His brother-in-law was killed. His mother-in-law was alive, but both of her legs were severed. We took them to the Manjolai hospital near Pokkani, but they died there. We buried their bodies in Valaiyarmadam in between the shelling. A bullet entered my nephew’s chest and exited the middle of his back; he was at that hospital and lived.

Manjolai hospital was in a house adjoining a large hall, and was so crowded we couldn’t put our leg in the place. Every person there was bleeding. Everyone who got injured was screaming and crying. There was no medicine. The doctors admitted a few people – only two people at a time into two rooms. The doctors couldn’t save the lives of the people. They couldn’t do surgery because of the heavy shelling.  I saw one lady who had earlier lost her daughter and son; she was carrying her injured granddaughter.  

Then a shell came and killed that lady.

They put sand bags surrounding the operating theatre, and also sandbagged the place where the doctors stayed. But there was no protection for the patients lying on the floor. People lay on the floor so close together there was no room to walk, they had no legs or arms. They had injuries on their heads, faces, eyes… some had abdominal injuries and double amputations. I couldn’t bear to look at that scene. 

As they lay there they were receiving more injuries from the shelling. The LTTE patients and civilians were lying there together. The hospital was continuously attacked for days. A ship was supposed to come for the severely injured, but it never came.

We buried the bodies of my family members in Manjolai. We buried my husband in Valaiyarmadam. We buried my brother and brother’s mother in law in Manjalai. We had to abandon one relative’s body, a cousin, in Pokkani and flee from the shelling.

I was injured and operated on in April – one month before the end of the war – I don’t remember that very well. I left five days after the operation, walking with a stick for support. I was in a sea of people. I was looking for my relations but I couldn’t find any. I just kept walking. There were abandoned tractors. 

Because there were so many bodies, the LTTE gave food rations to people to collect the bodies and put them in tractor carts. The tractor drivers just left them there fully loaded with the bodies, and the carts of bodies were blocking the road.

And we went on under K-Fir attacks and heavy shelling. At the end (the mudivu), for the last fifteen days, there was no food to eat at all. I drank tea only; I was very thin. We dug holes and put sand bags around and slept in the holes we dug. Then my daughter, my mother, one brother, brother’s wife, and I crept under a lorry (a truck). We put sand bags around us and placed some motorbikes around us for more protection. A wandering man joined us under there. We were expecting to die. We never thought we could survive. While we were all under the lorry, the man who joined us was wounded and died. My brother’s wife was injured in her back and my brother lost consciousness when he was hit. We came out from under the lorry because it was falling over onto us. We ran because shelling was continuing. 

From Mullivaikal we headed for the Army-controlled area on the road toward Vadduvahal. It was May 17, 2009. In front of me people were shot dead. I saw the Army shoot dead two elderly people and a young woman. They shot at us also, but we lay down and survived. Then I decided the road was not safe so we walked into the scrub jungle. We saw many dead bodies killed by the Army. We neared Vadduvahal, and the Army there waved and called us and they carried some of the injured. They said they would give us food.   In Vadduvahal, there were about 300,000 people. We were very thirsty. There was a water hole next to the place where people were urinating and defecating. The Army dug a hole to get drinking water for everyone. There were no toilets, and urine mixed with that drinking water. We drank the polluted water because we were so thirsty, and there was no other water. I heard stories that when young girls went to urinate they didn’t return. I heard that a day later the parents found their daughters’ bodies in the bushes.

They put us in 150 busses and took us to the Zone Four camp first. It was the worst of all the camps and  it was full. Zone Four did not have any facilities or food. They shifted us to Anandakumarasamy camp.  They gave us food, but we couldn’t eat it because it was terrible, so we bought food from shops. Then some NGOs provided dry rations and clothes. UNHCR gave some cooking pots. One of my brothers was in Zone Four and they didn’t get these things. Once a week they gave us vegetables. 

We would like to go Valaiyarmadam to the graves to do funeral rites. We cooked rice and curry for them after seven days, and we went where we buried them and we put the water and food on the ground.   We couldn’t do the thirty-first day funeral ritual because we had to run away from there when the Army shelling came too close. We were in Vavuniya on the thirty-first day. We kept the ninety-days-ceremony in Vavuniya in the camp. We cooked several rice and curries and we gave these to the Pillaiyar Kovil. There was a separate Aiyar Division of the camps called the Anandakumarasamy Camp, and no one mixed up with them (because of caste rules). They built a very small Pillaiyar Kovil with a cadjan roof and we went there for funeral rites. We didn’t cook the food, we just gave all the vegetables to that Aiyar group and they cooked it and they did the ceremony. They lived in luxury compared to us with plenty of water and food. We had to wait in long queues to get water, but in the Aiyar camp they didn’t have to go anywhere for water, the bowser came to them. They got privileges, like the government workers.

Normal people were allowed just twenty-thirty liters per day for each family.  Government workers received sixty liters per day per family. There was a filthy river in the camp and we went there for bathing. I bathed my child with good bowser water; then I borrowed water from my cousin for cooking.

Now my six-year-old daughter and I are living with my mother and my grandmother, who is blind.  My mother’s age is sixty-eight. We don’t know my grandmother’s age.

We must do something for livelihood, so I am selling panaimattai (sharp strong sticks with barbs from palmyrah trees, often used for fencing). I am selling one hundred sticks for four hundred rupees (approximately USD$3.60). It is difficult, but I must do that – we have to eat. I bring my mother, and we bring along our two dogs for safety. If my husband was alive we wouldn’t have to worry about this. My daughter has named the two dogs, Oosibabu (“Sharp-Pin-Boy”) and Pattasu (“Cracker”). My mother makes boxes out of palmyrah leaves. Ever since my husband’s death, she has been severely mentally disturbed. She was hospitalized for four months at Anuradhapura because of her mental state. She was always crying. Now she is recovering, and helps me in my work.

-Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice

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