THE AGONY OF
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
`Crows had already started eating the bodies,
pecking a hole around the bullet wounds. when I
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
`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
Mr. Velmurugan says he saw 17-18 bodies that
day, within a radius of half to three quarters of
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
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
`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
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
`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
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.'