Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Indictment against Sri Lanka: Introduction & Index > Indictment against Sri Lanka - the Record Speaks

The Charge is Ethnic Cleansing

  • Richard de Zoysa,
    Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 1 November 1987,
    Tamil Times, 15 December 1987

`The future of the people of Jaffna lies in the depths of their bunkers.'

KOTAHENA, Wellawatte, Dehiwela - wherever you go in Colombo or its suburbs these days you find that all the Tamil houses are over populated and living space is scarce.

Three to four families living under one roof has become a common feature. The little boarding houses down Armour Street and the middle class homes down narrow lanes off Galle Road are already full to over-flowing.

As you go from house to house you notice how the same faces keep turning up. Many of these people are interrelated. They all have something in common. They are refugees from the Jaffna Peninsula, and they all have their own stories to relate.

With an estimated 400,000 people leaving the battle-ravaged north, Colombo is experiencing an influx of refugees.

It reminds one of 1983 - although this time the exodus is from Jaffna, once considered by Tamils as safer than the capital.

Now with the Indian army carrying out a similar if more intensive campaign against the L.T.T.E. as the Sri Lankan security forces did in Vadamarachchi in May, the civilian population has opted (as they did then) to leave the battle-fronts and seek shelter.

As they have learned painfully over the past few weeks Jaffna has ceased to be safe even for civilians. Mr. Velmurugan (not his real name) is on the phone when we arrived at his friend's in Wellawatte `No,no, those are rumours, let me tell you the facts, these rumours are very dangerous things,' he says to the person on the other end and then says `I'll ring you back,' when he realises we have arrived.

He turns round, a dressing on his cheek just an inch and a half below his eye. 'Some flying object, probably shrapnel,' he tells us later, and display's another, smaller, dressing on his thigh. But that is after he has told his story.

Hundred shells per day!

A native of Urumpirai, he shifted there after the 1983 riots. A retired government servant, he used his savings to build a house for six lakhs between 1984 and 1985. He left it last week, damaged but standing, and says he doesn't know whether it will be there when he gets back.

In straight forward, no-nonsense terms he tells of the agony of Urumpirai.

`Shelling was going on at a hell of a rate at least hundred per day,' he says.

`Several people took refuge in my house, because it had an upstairs, and they thought they would be safer on the bottom floor. But on Wednesday the 14th a piece of iron a size of an iddily came crashing through the roof, rolled down the stairs into the room where we all were.'

The next day he says, 'he went out in the morning to pick flowers for the shrine room and when he came back he found another shell had struck the roof. The house was full of smoke'.

It is at this point that the story of another family whom we have met earlier in the week must be repeated. On Saturday 17th a landmine went off at Urumpirai, overturning an Indian armoured vehicle. No one actually saw any bodies, but they assume from the wreck the vehicle was in that there must have been deaths. Given the history of this long conflict, this must be remembered - not in - mitigation, but for understanding, as Mr. Velmurugan goes on with his story.

`On the evening of Sunday the 18th we were listening to the radio - there is a special Indian broadcast for the troops between 5.30 and 6pm. We heard machine gun fire from close by. I rushed and bolted the door of my house. Barely ten seconds later, the windows were shattered and bullets tore through my front door. One man had a flesh wound, which we dressed.

`That night, my guest left for a place further off the main road, where they hoped to be safer. I stayed in the house. Right through the night I heard my 93 year old neighbour calling for her daughter. At about 3 a.m. the shouting stopped.'

It was morning when he found out what had happened. In the back garden of the neighbouring house lay three corpes - two women in their seventies and the 40 year old daughter of one of them.

`Crows had already started eating the bodies, pecking a hole around the bullet wounds. when I got there.'

The 93 year old woman lay in the kitchen, also shot dead. A trail of blood showed how she had dragged herself from a room towards the garden, calling to her daughter.

`There were spent bullets in the house. She had been shot there, the others in the garden. I was afraid that dogs would come and eat them, so I buried the bodies.'

On an earlier visit, to a differnt house, we have met a young girl who tells us how she helped her Chittappa (Uncle) bury four bodies.

She is here as well, and the uncle tells of how he took the jewellery from the bodies and gave it to his niece for safekeeping. Then he deepened one end of the bunker and buried the bodies there. Those bunkers - some concrete and costing up to a thousand rupees, some more makeshift - that were built in practically every Jaffna garden as Sri Lankan air strikes increased. . .

Bunkers filled in

Those bunkers, some of them filled in so joyfully when peace broke out. . . On Monday the 19th at around 11 a.m. the tanks arrived. (BMP track vehicles, ironically the same vehicles used to smuggle Prabhakaran and Kittu past Sri Lankan troops at Palaly, heralding long-ago peaceful August).

`They came through by-roads and gardens, smashing everything in their way, travelling from the North-east towards Jaffna.'

`There were about 60 soldiers running behind them' his niece adds.

Those who could leave did so hurriedly leaving their dead and dying behind. `We were afraid the soldiers would come back and shoot us', they say.

Mr. Velmurugan says he saw 17-18 bodies that day, within a radius of half to three quarters of a mile.

The dead were all old men, women and girls. We ask him if the Tigers had retreated from the area, and if so, when. He looks at us half pityingly, half suspiciously.

`They are guerrilla fighters, no? They do not retreat, they hide and attack like this and hide again. I personally did not see during that time, but that does not mean they were not around.' Another man ships in.

`But the point is that all the young and the fit had gone. Those who were left in these houses were those who were unable to get away, or wouldn't. The survival of the fittest.' He smiles wryly.

The Hindus have a funeral custom they call Vaikerasi. Rice is placed on the forehead and mouth of the corpse. the Indians brought us rice. Now they are bringing us Vaikerasi,' they say, over and over again in the crowded sitting rooms of their safe havens in Colombo.

Mr Velumurugan finally left for Colombo on Friday the 23rd. He was waiting for the ferry at Changapiddy to cross over to Pooneryn, on the mainland when he and his fellow travellers heard the sound of a helicopter. They took cover under a concrete seat in the bus shelter. From where he was Mr. Velmurugan says, he could see the helicopter clearly.

`It was Indian. It had wheels, and it was big,' he says. That was when the action sequence began. The helicopter flew straight along the jetty, dropping `Large fireballs' which exploded when they hit the ground.

A lorry went up in flames, which spread to the van in which they had arrived. Mr. Velmurugan smiles sheepishly as he tells us 'my suitcase was in the van I ran out to save it. It was so hot I thought I was on fire. I didn't want to get back to the bus stand, so I slipped into the sea, leaving my suitcase on a rock. On another rock nearby a man was dying.'

He half-ran, half-stumbled the five miles to Pooneryn. On the way the helicopter came by again, and once more he took to the water, this time holding onto a big rock on the shallow ocean bed to keep himself under. But the helicopter turned its attention to Karaitivu - the other jetty where travellers get across the lagoon.

At pooneryn. he had his wounds dressed and spent the night with an acquaintance. The next day Monday 26 by 8 a.m. all the residents of the town were rounded up by an Indian detatchment and marched to the hospital grounds with their hands in the air.

However this was only a token detention. After a lecture on the evils of supporting the Tigers the people of Poonerym were allowed to return to their homes, and Mr. Velmurugan to continue his journey.

His cynicism is apparent when he describes how the officer assured everyone the Indians were there to protect them from the Tigers.

On Tuesday he arrived in Colombo.His story over, the crowd around him stirs. One family gets up to leave. He asks the young girl, 'when is your flight?'

`Tomorrow,' she replies. He shakes her gravely by the hand. The exodus is on again. All resting places are temporary, all futures uncertain.

The history of refugee populations is a tale of sorrow. It is also frightening. Today easy parallels are, being drawn with Vietnam and Afghanistan. Facile exercies like this can mislead, but history does teach us certain lessons.

For twenty centuries the children of Israel roamed the world in search of a home. When they finally found one, they forced the children of Palestine into camps, like the ghettoes of hate they themselves had suffered in.

The word ghettoes carries too much emotional baggage, as does the story of the Jews. In Sri Lanka, we still travel light - in a verbal sense - and we have our own phrases. A young Tamil friend sums up his feelings with this line:

`The future of the people of Jaffna lies in the depths of their bunkers.'

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