Having emigrated from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as a physician in 1971,
I have been President of the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization
(TRO) in USA since its inception in 1995. We at TRO have worked
closely with the local TRO in Vanni, Ceylon, over these years.
It was a dream come true when I got the chance to visit Ceylon in
April, after the ceasefire. The visit was brief; lasting only two
weeks, but despite time spent traveling I was able to spend ten days
studying first hand the conditions prevailing on the ground in many
parts of the North-East. This note is a summary of my observations
and experience during my memorable visit.
Thirty-six hours after leaving home in Maryland, USA, I landed in
Katunayake at 7 am. The airport personnel were a lot more courteous
than I had anticipated. The ride from the airport to Anderson Flats
in Narahenpita (Colombo-5) was uncomfortable, in an old van without
air-conditioning, and the hot sun blazing down on us. Colombo is a
lot more crowded now, and it was amazing to see so many SLA troops,
young kids perhaps 18-20 years old armed with AK 47’s. The public
did not seem to mind it. We were stuck in traffic behind an SL Army
truck carrying about fifteen soldiers. I was nervous, and avoided
making eye contact with any of the troops. There were many Army
check points, but no checking is being done now, thanks to the
ceasefire in place for the past four months and the Memorandum of
Understanding (MoU) signed between the Tamil Tigers and the Prime
Minister of UNF Government, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe (Ranil W.).
I was excited to be in Colombo, 35 years after living there as
medical student. Yet, I felt as if I was in a foreign country, and
did not have the emotions I expected to feel returning home after so
In the company of Dr. N. Jeyalingam (Jey) from New York, we drove
north in an air-conditioned van, to Vavuniya. This was an uneventful
six-hour journey, except for one time when we were stopped by the
police. We had been assured that we would not be harassed by the
Army or police, but it was a major relief when we found that we were
stopped was for speeding, and the driver had to pay an on-the-spot
fine of Rs. 200 ($2.00).
Till we reached Madawachchi, about 150 km from Colombo, roads were
OK, (recognizing that we were not on New Jersey Turnpike or I-95).
After Madawachchi, traveling north to the border town of Vavuniya,
there was a vast change in the condition of the roads, which were
now filled with potholes, and at times only barely passable
(Jaffna-Kandy Road, also called A-9 in war terminology). This was a
harbinger of what’s to come in the Vanni. I was reminded of the
price Eritrea paid in its liberation war, to secede from Ethiopia.
Just south of Vavuniya is a huge army camp, at Eratperiakulam,
encompassing miles and miles of land on both sides of A-9 with
bunds, barbed wires, SLA security posts, trenches and barriers all
Vavuniya Welcomes Peace March
We had to make an unscheduled overnight stay in Vavuniya since our
guide had not been able to meet us in time. Since we couldn’t make
the crossing past the Army checkpoints without our guide we spent a
night, in Hotel Vasantham, where we were lucky enough to get the
last available room. The name “Vasantham” meant springtime and I
prayed that spring is in the air not only in USA, but also for the
suffering people of Ceylon. We took lap top computers with us and
had to cart them around wherever we went. We went to a nearby rest
house at 5:30 PM to have dinner, but were told that it was too
early. So we paid the waiter Rs.100 in advance to prepare a meal,
and arranged to get back around 9:30 pm, after viewing a Tamil film
titled “Thamilan”. The theme of the film was that Thamilan (a Tamil)
cannot fail! We had our dinner after the movie and were surprised to
find the rest house full with Sinhalese people - soldiers, telecom
workers, et al, assembled there to cool off with local beer.
More bad news. our guide told us that we couldn’t pass the SLA
checkpoint without identity cards or special MoD (Ministry of
Defense) clearance. To avoid wasting the weekend and few more days
in Vavuniya, we decided to go west and get across the ‘no man’s
land’ in a boat and land in “un-cleared area”. We landed in Vanni by
8:00 pm and went to a home, which had no electricity or running
A-9 in Kilinochchi
After a hurriedly prepared dinner, we were given beds to sleep. No
mattress, pillows, etc. Lying in the bare bed, a lyric sung by Pon.
Suntheralingam, in Canada, came to mind. “Veruntharayil Paduthalum
Urakkam Vendum”, where he asks God for a mind that can overcome all
adversities. Surprisingly, I fell asleep but an hour later we were
We got into an SUV to go to Mallavi, a distance of 15-20 km, but the
roads were so horrendous, it took us over two hours to cross this
distance. It was a testament to our escort’s driving skills that we
were able to reach Mallavi past midnight.
We were taken to Kilinochchi, a northern town in Vanni, which has
fallen on hard times with the war. The town had changed hands
several times during the war and was taken back finally by the LTTE
after a bloody battle.
Operation “Jaya Sikuru” (“Victory Assured”) could not dislodge the
Tigers from Kilinochchi, and every building in this town including
church and temple has pock marked walls and gaping holes in the
roof, as reminders of the ferocious battles fought there. The place
was heavily mined by both Army and Tigers, and only after local TRO
had de-mined the town, people are resettling in Kilinochchi, over
the past eighteen months. I was surprised that TRO (instead of UN or
other aid agencies) had to spend its scarce resources to remove
TRO Sign - Demined Area
The TRO Coordinator in Eelam, explained that TRO has been removing
landmines in Vanni for over five years and that so far they have
removed at least 260,000 mines, using primitive equipment. Norwegian
aid workers who visited them recently had promised to send more
modern de-mining equipment and this is anxiously awaited. De-mining
is hazardous work done at great personal risk, with TRO employing
150 workers at Rs 6,000 per month; a total cost $9,000 per month!
Warning Sign - Mines
A-9 in Kilinochchi
One worker was killed accidentally, and two maimed while de-mining.
Trying to save civilians from mine explosions with resultant loss of
life and limb, these workers were putting themselves at risk on a
daily basis. TRO Coordinator explained that it costs them Rs. 650
($7.00) to remove one landmine, whereas north of Muhamalai, NGOs
have spent as much as Rs. 30 million to remove 800 mines so far,
costing Rs. 37,000 ($400) for each mine removed.
Meeting SLMM Members
Rest House, Kilinochchi
We were glad indeed to be able to meet two liaison officers of the
SLMM (Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission), one from Norway and the other
from Sweden. We had lengthy discussions with them. We admired their
commitment to ensure that the peace process moves forward, and their
willingness to put up with a lot of inconvenience and hardship, with
the hot steamy weather, mosquitoes, poor roads, lack of electricity,
etc. Electricity was available in brief spurts, through a generator,
and they used these windows to send e-mails, etc. It costs them
$6.00 per minute, for the satellite companies, to send e-mail.
Mallavi Rest House
As I lay on my bed (this time with mattress, pillows and clean
sheets) and under a fan that night in Kilinochchi, it suddenly
dawned on me - finally I was back home. If ‘home’ is where the heart
is, I was at home in Vanni. So many emotions hit me - euphoria,
relief, sadness, bitterness, impotent fury and even joy - at having
finally ‘come home’. I also felt sad that my wife Vimala couldn’t be
there to share this with. I smiled at the thought of her taking a
‘nervous’ boat journey, and the rough and bumpy drive to Mallavi,
and was happy that we decided that I would go alone this time!
I was puzzled that I would feel so elated at having finally come
home, in Kilinochchi but not in Colombo, the difference perhaps was
the frightening presence of soldiers around me in Colombo. In Vanni
I felt free, free as a Tamil, free from all the fear.
I bear no grudge, nor do I hate the Sinhalese people, but it is hard
to imagine liking the SL Army, knowing what crimes they committed on
helpless Tamil civilians. I could not find it in my heart to think
of the Sri Lankan soldiers as human beings, at least not yet!
April 21st and 22nd
Breakfast at Mallavi
After restful night and hearty breakfast we set out to
Puthukudiyiruppu, which literally means New Settlement. The roads
were bad but not as bad as in Mallavi. We were accompanied by the
TRO Coordinator, who updated us on TRO. activities, as the van
crawled along the road with warning signs on both sides about the
landmines. The signs read - mines have been cleared only from the
roads, but not beyond 15 yards from the road. Toilets are hard to
come by in these areas and we could not even relieve ourselves in
the bushes for fear of landmines. We were also told that there is
heavy snake infestation, many poisonous, both in Vanni and in
Puthukudiyiruppu is a bustling though poor town, with dirt roads,
numerous bicycles and shops. We could see the extent of poverty,
which was heartrending. I did not encounter a single obese person in
Vanni, this being a novelty for a physician practicing in USA!
We visited a doctor friend of mine who was with me in medical
school. He now works as a physician in Vanni and I was amazed to see
that he had a large garden and many animals including leopard cub,
deer, rare birds, etc. He explained that the “Zoological Gardens”
were for the mental wellbeing of the children attending nearby
schools. They come there on weekends and it helped to keep their
minds off the constant bombing, shelling, etc. He is doing great
work, courageously coping with adverse and trying circumstances.
We visited a children’s home called “Punitha Poomi” – holy land – at
Oddusuddan. They had just moved in to this facility, three days
prior to our visit. The coordinator of this home, explained that
there were about 200 children ranging from 3 years to 16 years, most
of whom had lost one or both parents. These children had to move
four times in the past 10 years and now they have finally come back
to their original ‘home’, where huge mango trees and other plants
make the stifling heat more bearable. We were shown report cards of
the children. The staff there seemed to be caring for the children
admirably. Some of the children had scabies and were being
segregated and treated by medical personnel from nearby facilities,
who visit the home once a week.
Caring for each child including food, accommodation, education, etc.
costs about $20.00 a month and the total monthly cost of $4,000 is
borne by TRO Inc. USA. It felt great to be a part of this worthwhile
effort. We were told that there are other such children’s homes in
the area, and that there are at least 2,500 to 3,000 such orphaned
children to be cared for in that area alone! We saw two other
children’s homes and I admired the people caring for these orphaned
children in the midst of war.
“Olympics” for Children
I wondered about the emotional scars these children must have
endured and how much love would be needed to make these children
learn to trust adults ever again! Lost innocence would never be
regained and it takes a special breed of person to become the father
and mother for so many children.
Next came the most emotionally trying moment of our trip, when we
went to see a home where there were about twenty young girls,
paralyzed with spinal injuries sustained in the war. They were all
in wheelchairs and were so young, younger than my daughter
(Bharathi). After some initial reluctance, they opened up. As we
were doctors they talked to us about their injuries, asking whether
they would ever be able to walk again. I had to blink hard to keep
tears from rolling down. These youths had sacrificed themselves in
the prime of their lives; a sacrifice for their people and future
generations. Yet they all had smiles in their faces and did not want
I felt that they were starved for contact with outsiders and that
they were enjoying our visit immensely. They were mesmerized by the
digital camera that Dr. Jey carried with him and were very curious
about its workings.
Great Heroes Resting Place
Despite the challenges that life had dealt them, they seemed intent
on moving on. They explained that they were learning independence
skills and needed additional computers for computer training. I was
informed that in the absence of electricity, generators provided
enough power to power their computers, though severely limited.
Great Heroes Cemetry
Next we went to “Vattapalai” Amman temple, situated in the eastern
coast bordered by lagoon. The sun was setting and the temple had
only a few devotees at the time. It was such a peaceful place, to
wash away the emotions of despair I had felt on seeing the paralyzed
girls. I realized that these girls were also in the hands of God and
that the same God who oversaw their fate would give them the courage
to handle life from this point on. This thought was a great relief
to me and set the stage for the next segment of our trip, visit to
After our breakfast, we were able to get a ride in an ambulance to
Jaffna. We were accompanied by a doctor, who had been working in
Vanni. Going in the ambulance was a great help at the Muhamalai Army
check point. I had placed a stethoscope on top of my clothes and
when the bag was opened for checking, the soldier realized that I
was a physician and did not trouble me.
There were long lines of people sweating in the hot sun, all waiting
for hours, eager to visit their homes in Jaffna after many years.
North of the SLA checkpoint was Jaffna, an area that the government
calls “cleared”. We had crossed into this “cleared area” with the
huge Army presence, and once again I felt uneasy. I had by now
learnt from others to avoid eye contact with these soldiers, which I
did, but resented it nevertheless. The people themselves did not
appear to be in any immediate fear, and I stored away another lesson
that fear is also a state of mind.
Topless Coconut Trees
Blown off by Sri Lankan shelling
Few kilometers north, we were entering Chavakachcheri, a once very
prosperous northern town prior to its destruction in the war. The
devastation was stark. Coconut trees with their tops blown off by
shelling and multi-barrel rockets reminded us of the ferocity of the
war that had been fought there.
Jaffna Clock Tower
Someone had remarked that A-9 was the only ‘toll road’ in Ceylon.
Every mile post showing bullet holes and the heavy human ‘toll’ paid
in close fighting, with the area changing hands from Army to Tigers
and back, several times.
Chavakachcheri Hospital in Ruins
I could not believe the total devastation of Chavakachcheri, and
Prime Minister Ranil W himself had remarked that this was like
visiting Bosnia after the war. Every house in town was destroyed and
the schools, hospitals etc., all showed the calamity that had taken
place. I saw the home for the aged where at least twenty-five
senior-citizens had died in Sri Lankan bombing. It was several days
before their bodies were discovered.
Mass Gravesite, Chemmani
We then passed Chemmani, on the outskirts of Jaffna town. More than
six hundred bodies are said to be buried here, victims of torture at
the hands of the Sri Lankan army when it took Jaffna in 1996. The
existence of these bodies was disclosed in the courts by one of the
soldiers, who had helped to bury them. All details are not known
yet; hopefully, one day the truth will be known.
We got off at the YMCA in Chundikuli, near St. John’s College, where
I had studied from the age of 9. I had left in 1971, and after a
thirty year absence and the war, I could not recognize the place. It
appeared to be a place where time had stood still or gone backwards,
and the distances between landmarks seemed compressed. We were told
that there was no room at YMCA or any other hotels nearby. The
ambulance had to go back to Vanni and after bidding farewell we were
on our own.
Plan A was to locate my cousin who lives in Press Lane, and plan B
was to secure accommodation in a hotel room, both of which failed.
It was past noon and the YMCA manager graciously offered us mats to
sleep, if we could not find a place to stay. Plan C was to go to St.
Johns College, and we walked into the Principal’s office. Mr.
Thanapalan, the principal, was a classmate of mine and we were lucky
that he was in his office, despite the fact it was a school holiday.
Mr. Thanapalan recognized me, he said from my ‘distinct walk’, even
though we had seen each other for 40 years.
He immediately offered his bungalow. The oriental hospitality – I
walk in unannounced to a friend’s place after forty years, and he
accommodates us for the next two days (and more if had wanted!). If
this didn’t happen, I don’t know what we would have done.
After take-out food from nearby restaurant, and a cooling shower, we
set out to the Jaffna Hospital in a three-wheeler. These
three-wheeler autos are contraptions that are actually a cross
between scooters and sub-compact cars like Geo Prism. They
accommodate two people (and the driver) and run on kerosene oil,
spewing great amounts of pollutants into the air!
Jaffna Hospital is probably the only ‘decent’ functioning hospital
in the entire northeast, except perhaps Vavuniya Hospital. I have of
course not visited the Trincomalee hospital on this trip. The
hospital was not crowded at 3:00 pm, though I could visualize very
crowded outpatient clinics in the mornings.
Public Library, Jaffna
I had worked with Dr. Miss Kanagaratnam in Vavuniya Hospital 30
years previously and she is now the medical superintendent of the
Jaffna Teaching Hospital. The wards were relatively clean despite
the fact that running water and electricity are not available much
of the time! We met several doctors there and were happy to learn
that conditions are improving after the cease-fire. Jaffna Hospital
used to be a premier health care facility in the old days, and my
wife (Vimala) had done her internship there, in 1970. The guilt of
having not been there during its most difficult days still stays
with me. It was sad that Jaffna, which produced so many doctors, had
to face severe shortage of doctors and had to depend on MSF doctors
during wartime. Even now, the hospital, which caters to the entire
Northern Province, does not have a single Pediatrician.
We then walked up to the Jaffna Public Library, which was set on
fire twenty years ago by racists (army, backed by cabinet ministers)
bent on cultural genocide. Now it is being reconstructed, but
nothing can ever replace the priceless books nor erase the deep hurt
to the psyche caused by this deliberate and destructive act.
Nallur Kandasamy Kovil
Luckily we reached the Nallur Temple around 5:40 pm, just twenty
minutes before closing time, as I discovered later. Temple, itself
is undamaged and functioning normally. It was so spiritually
satisfying to be able to pray at the Nallur Temple, where I had gone
to every Friday evening in my (on a bicycle without headlight),
after an absence of thirty years.
AROD Centre, Thirunelveli
We met Dr. Sivarajah, Professor of Community Health at the Jaffna
University in Thirunelveli, on our way to Mallakam. He is the
president of AROD (Association for Rehabilitation of Disabled
Persons). I have been working with them on a personal level for over
ten years and know the good work they have been doing with limited
AROD Centre, Thirunelveli
Dr. Sivarajah showed us some of the handicapped children and the
crafts made by them. At present they sell their products to St.
John’s School, Jaffna Hospital, etc. It is admirable that they have
been trying to bring the handicapped into the mainstream society,
even as the society was being devastated and displaced by war.
With Dr. Sivarajah
AROD Centre, Thirunelveli
At Mallakam I met Miss Sinnathamby who runs “Vaazhvaham”, a home for
blind children housed in a newly constructed home in
Maruthanarmadam. Almost single handedly she has been managing these
children until recently and now there are some well wishers from UK
and USA providing some support to the home. We also visited
Thurgapuram Temple but I could not meet Ms. Thangamma Appakuddy who
has been doing great service to the people there. I had to go to the
AGA’s office to get special clearance to visit my wife’s home in
Kadduvan and our parental home in K.K.S. (where I grew up). Since
these are now in “High Security Zones” I was advised that I needed
at least 48 hours notice, since Army had to take me personally to
these places. So near and yet so far away - I could not visit the
We left Jaffna at 7:00 AM, starting our long journey back to
Colombo. Unfortunately, there were no seats in the flight to Colombo
that day, and so we had to take the land route back. We spent over
an hour at Army checkpoint at Muhamalai and eventually reached
Kiknochchi by noon. We visited the local TRO office and were at
Vavuniya Army checkpoint by 3:00 pm.
We could not find any private vehicles to take us to Colombo and
therefore had to settle for public transport bus. The fare was only
$1.50 and so we paid for an extra seat so that we could stretch
ourselves during the long journey. The bus was hot and steamy and
finally we left Vavuniya around 4:00 pm.
It was not an ‘express’ bus. It also stopped to pick up off-duty
Army personnel, giving them short rides. The speaker was just above
our heads, loudly blaring out Tamil songs; they had only two tapes
and so the songs were repeated again, and again! This trip was pure
torture and it reminded me of the book “The Smile of Murugan” by
Michael Wood, where he describes a bus trip in South India on a
Despite the loud music, I fell asleep and when I woke up we were in
Puttalam. After a short break we were back in the bus, with cooler
evening air lifting my spirits. By now there were people standing in
the bus and we, feeling guilty about the empty seat, had to give it
up! I bid farewell to Dr. Jey at the end of this trip, at
Gunasingapara bus station (Pettah area). I was happy that he was
there to share the Vanni and Jaffna trips with me.
Now that I was in more comfortable surroundings in Colombo, I
visited Ramakrishna Mission in Wellawatte, accompanied by my
brother-in-law (Kulam), who had joined me on my trip from London. We
both wanted to visit Batticaloa Ramakrishna Mission and the staff at
Wellawatte kindly arranged for sleeping births on night train
leaving Colombo fort at 7:00 PM. We were told that the train will go
only up to Valaichenai and that the Mission will send someone to
meet us at the station at 7:00 am.
Our escort for the day was a man of 67-years with boundless energy.
It was so good to meet someone with such enthusiasm for the work of
the mission. He and his friend, a much younger but just as
enthusiastic fellow, took us around and showed us some of the
children’s homes in the area including Mankayarkarasi Illam, which
is going through hard times for lack of funds. They have some 67
children and are trying hard to buy an adjoining house since they
are cramped in their present home.
Next we were taken to the Mission and met Swami Jivanandaji, with
whom I had corresponded for fifteen years, but never had the fortune
to meet, until now. It was a combination of fifteen years’ dream and
prayers that I was able to visit them now, and I remembered
Swamiji’s words. In a time of despondency I had written to Swami my
fond hope that I would like to see the Mission homes and the nursery
schools funded from USA, sometime before my death. Swami had replied
that if my wishes were sincere and my motive was pure it had to
We were then taken to the Mission boys’ home and later to Karaithivu
girl’s home. These two homes were the best we had seen in our trip
and are a model to emulate, children were well dressed, had smiles
in their face and seemed to be more knowledgeable (including
We were fortunate to visit Swami Vipulanantha’s tomb. Studying in
St. Johns’ College, Jaffna I had no idea what a great person Swami
Vipulanantha was, till recently when I read his poem “Eesan Uvakkum
Malar”. He had sung that the best flower God wants is purity of
human heart. Standing there, in the place where he cared for
helpless children, I could understand what he meant, that anyone
with a pure heart cannot turn a blind eye to the destitute amongst
us. These same sentiments had been expressed by Swami Vivekananda
before him “service to mankind is service to God”.
We were entertained like royalty, at the mission, with sumptuous
meals. In the afternoon, we went to the nursery school and I was
pleasantly surprised to see the students and their parents turn out
to greet us. The three teachers were also there and it was
gratifying to see the school. By 7:00 pm we were back at Valaichenai
Station for the return night train (sleeping berth!). I slept so
well in the sleeping birth that the next night in Colombo I missed
the rocking motion of the train and had fitful sleep!
A PERSONAL APPEAL
I would also like to share a few personal thoughts kindled by my
experiences during my trip. The heavy price paid by the Tamil
society in the last twenty years is written about in articles and
books. Yet, until I was in Vanni I did not fully comprehend the
seriousness and gravity of the ground conditions in the Vanni. So
much deprivation, starvation had been meted out to the people, and
the rest of the world is blissfully ignorant of all this. Now peace
prevails in the land, but more than 65000, perhaps closer to
100,000, lives have been lost, and everyone else’s life had been
disrupted and unalterably changed. I saw poverty as I had never
before seen in Ceylon. Yet the people are incredibly courageous and
resilient and uniformly expressed the hope that peace will hold and
that they would be allowed to run their lives freely. This is not
too much to ask for.
I realized that TRO is one of the few NGOs that had stood between
the people and starvation, and if not for their maternal - child
welfare centers, feeding centers, building of huts, purchase of
medicines, etc, thousands of others would also have perished. Under
the wings of this organization we, at the TRO-USA, have been one of
many groups helping out, and during these heart rending two weeks I
recalled the names of all our contributors over the years. I wish
you were all there in person, in Vanni, to see first hand how much
your contributions meant to the helpless people there. Thank you for
being there when you were most needed. To those who have not worked
with us, I invite you to walk in this journey with us. To me
personally it is a sacred journey with our only goal being the
welfare of our suffering people.
Mahatma Gandhi said that worship without sacrifice is one of seven
cardinal sins in the world. Our temples are damaged and will be
reconstructed with time. I submit to you that restoration of the
heart, minds and bodies of our people is equally important, if not
more, and that you will see this as an opportunity to be part of
something positive in a hurting world.