Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Sri Lank's war displaced: Despair and destitute

By Namini Wijedasa | Lakbima News

Every scrap of clothing her family owned hung on a short line inside her house of tin, clay and plastic roofing sheets. The rain pelted down noisily, seeping through a rent and dripping rhythmically onto the clay floor. Kathirgamathamby Kalachelvi sat cross-legged on the filthy ground, gazing intensely at an A4 sized computer printout. It was a picture of her daughter: eight-year-old Kirubalini, who went missing at the end of the war, was found many months after and no longer knows her mother.

Kalachelvi says she is 36-years-old. She has two other children, 11-year-old Yasinthan and six-year-old Hariharan. Her hair is plaited and twisted into knots on either side of her head – almost like LTTE women soldiers used to wear it. She makes no secret of their former connections to the Tigers. What does it matter now?

Kalachelvi’s husband once fought alongside the Tigers but as the battle became bloodier, she says, he abandoned them for his family. They chose to stay in the Wanni even as troops advanced. “We just moved, moved, moved and ended up at Mullivaikkal,” Kalachelvi recounts.

There, corralled in with hundreds of thousands of others, they waited. One day, in May 2009, her husband told her he would go for food. He asked her to get drinking water. They left the three children sitting side by side. Kalachelvi returned with water to find her husband and Kirubalini gone. Nobody knew where they were.

As the war intensified, they fled the Wanni and lived in Menik farm for two years. Kalachelvi begged for news of her husband and daughter–from UNHCR, ICRC, from officials, the army, and the newspapers. Nothing came up.

She may have left everything in the Wanni but like many others who ran from the fighting, Kalachelvi took her photos everywhere. For those with missing family members, these are now their most treasured possessions. She gave one image to the Department of Childcare and Probation which had it published in a newspaper.

In the meantime, they moved out of Menik Farm and settled in the Wanni although not in her original village. She can’t go back because her in-laws blame her for the loss of their son. Besides, they were once a comfortably-off “LTTE family” that had pulled rank on others. With the war over and the Tigers gone, they were ostracized because of it.

Kalachelvi later heard of the Family Tracing Unit (FTR)–a joint venture between UNICEF, the Vavuniya Divisional Secretariat and the Department of Childcare and Probation–and trekked to its office at the kachcheri with her photos. Since December 2009, it has received 690 complaints of missing children. They took down her details, scanned her daughter’s image for their database and sent her home.

Found and lost

Some months later, a lady from FTR called her mobile phone–an incongruous instrument seen in every home we visited however destitute its residents might be. “I went,” Kalachelvi said. “They didn’t show my daughter but they showed me a computer with a lot of photos.”She recognized Kirbulani instantly when her image sprang up on the screen.

The child, now around eight-years-old, was traced by the FTR to a children’s home. They matched her with the family to the extent possible and arranged a visit. But when Kalachelvi met her daughter for the first time, accompanied by childcare and probation officers, the girl did not recognize her mother.

Kalachelvi suddenly fell at our feet, worshipping us and wailing. She beat her chest and cried agonisingly that she wanted her daughter back, her little ammachchi. But the case is far from closed. Childcare and probation officers are counselling mother and daughter to recreate the ties they once had. For the moment, Kirubalini shows no inclination to rejoin her mother. It also remains unclear how she lost recollection of her.

Protection officers are concerned about the circumstances Kalachelvi lives in. She does not own a home and her two sons are not in school. They need clothes, books, shoes. They are badly dressed, dirty and desperately poor.

“I was told I would get a house somewhere because I’m living on somebody else’s land,” Kalachelvi sniffed. “I’m doing roadwork and I think they put my money in the bank. I also get food rations and my relocation allowance is also in the bank...”

“It isn’t enough to trace the children and to establish a connection,” explained Manaru Deen, a UNICEF protection officer. “Probation and childcare officers must be satisfied that the child will be returned to a good, safe environment. They have to assess the financial situation, whether the child will have food and clothes when she returns. The courts will make a directive.”

Flies alighted on three cooking pots containing meagre portions of food. A sheet of plywood affixed to a wall served as a shelf. It held a small bottle of talc, a hair clip, a mirror and coconut oil. Kalachelvi quietly stroked the face on the computer printout.

“I will go from here when my husband comes back,” she said. “The soothsayers say he is alive. They said the same about my daughter.”

A shattered childhood

It was dark when we reached the Vavuniya home of nine-year-old Rajeswaran Vidushan. The light of a bottle lamp fell on his twisted right leg. “Shell,” he said, when asked what had happened. The boy speaks mostly in monosyllables. His story is disjointed, sometimes incoherent. Often he just stares at you blankly.

He says he was playing with his older sister at Muttiyankatti during the end of the war when a shell landed on them. His sister, grandfather and grandmother were killed. Vidushan was grievously injured. He can’t remember the details of what happened next.

Vidushan was a Grade One student when all this happened. His sister was in Grade Three. The schools were closed because of fighting and they (Vidushan, his sister, grandmother and grandfather) were displaced “many times.” His father had abandoned the family early on. His mother was earning a living abroad. “Foreign country,” Vidushan replies, when asked where she is.

One of the boy’s cousins said Vidushan was taken by ship from Mullaitivu to the hospital at Pulmoddai where Indian doctors tended to him. He was later transferred to the Vavuniya hospital and his family lost track of him. Nobody knew which hospital he was at or whether, indeed, he was dead or alive.

In the meantime, his mother returned and started the searching for Vidushan. After seeing an advertisement about family tracing, she gave his details and a photograph to the FTR. The Probation and Childcare Department advertised his picture in a newspaper but nobody came forward. It was some weeks before the FTR stumbled upon the case of a child who was treated at Pulmoddai, transferred to Vavuniya and who now lived in an institution. Mother and son were soon reunited after their case was processed by the court.

A month later, Vidushan’s mother left him in the care of his aunt and went abroad again. He also has a sister in a children’s home in Mannar. His aunt is a farm labourer. “I worked a lot today, my back really aches,” she said.

Vidushan is permanently disabled and visits the clinic regularly. His leg is bent at an odd angle. Yet he walks two kilometres to school if the bus doesn’t come. He likes Tamil and mathematics. “Doctor,” he grins, when asked what he wants to be. His mother will come “in March,” he says repeatedly. Their time together had been painfully short.

Still missing

A rooster pecked about in 49-year-old Shanthakumar Kamala’s yard at Semamadu in Vavuniya. It was early morning. Her husband, Thurairasa, was away at work but her son, Thanuthasan, was home. He was recruited forcibly by the LTTE in 2008 but ran away to Vavuniya soon after. The police detained him and he spent ten months in jail before being released. He still attends court.

Thanuthasan had just finished his A/Levels when he was conscripted. “I was twenty-one,” he says. “I dropped out of school for one or two years to avoid recruitment,” he recounted.

In the meantime, Kamala and her family fled deeper into the Wanni as troops closed in on the LTTE. They stumbled from Kanakarayankulam to Muttayankattu; from Puthukuduyirippu to Iranapalai; and from Thevipuram to Irattavaikkal.

With them was 16-year-old Thanuraj, the youngest son. On 26 February 2009, he was sleeping inside a bunker when they came for him. “The LTTE came in a pickup,” Kamala said. “The bunker was close to the road. We couldn’t hide him. I pleaded with them. I told them he was only 16. They said his age didn’t matter. They insisted that someone must join them from each home.”

The cadres told her to come to their camp later. She could speak to their commander and if he said Thanuraj could go they would release him. She tried it but did not succeed. Instead, they gave her a poralai card–a fighter’s card–to certify that her family had given up one member and did not need to offer another.

It was the last she saw of Thanuraj. They were displaced again within five days of his conscription. She can’t remember the name of the village but says they were on the beach. She started hunting for her son, joined by another woman whose 17-year-old daughter was also forcibly recruited. This girl escaped from the LTTE just before the war ended and rejoined her family.

In March, Kamala’s husband was shot in the arm and LTTE gave him tablets. “Bullets came from every direction,” she said. “There was heavy fighting.” In April, she joined droves of desperate people to flee the Wanni, taking the Vattuvaikkal Bridge over the Nanthikadal lagoon. Asked why she didn’t leave the area earlier, she says the LTTE would not let them. “They wouldn’t give us passes,” she explained. “They kept telling us to move inside.”

“I saw bodies in the water before I fainted,” Kamala said. “I don’t know how many but others say there were lots.” After spending one night at Omanthai, they joined hundreds of people on a bus to Menik Farm. She resumed the search for Thanuraj, lodging appeals everywhere.

In January 2010, Kamala gave his details to the FTR. They haven’t been able to trace him. “They are checking in their computer but there is no match,” Kamala sobbed. Thanuthasan swatted at flies. The smell of cow dung, smeared on their clay walls to ward off termites, is strong. There are beetroot peels on the floor.

“I wasn’t there during the last days but I believe he is somewhere,” Kamala says, bringing out photos of a smart young man in school uniform and in Boy Scout’s garb. They too were well-off once. They owned seven acres of paddy land, a house, a tractor and two cars.

Now they would be happy just to get their son back.

FTU trying to locate those missing

Hundreds of family members were separated from each other at the height of the war in 2009. Vavuniya Government Agent Mrs. P.S.M. Charles spearheaded an effort within the camps at Menik Farm to reunite people. But probation and childcare authorities continued to receive complaints of missing children. In December 2009, the Family Tracing Unit (FTU) was opened at the Divisional Secretariat with UNICEF support. Up to September 2011, it received 690 applications from families looking for missing children, said Brig. J.B. Galgamuwa, the head. Of these, 490 were conscripted by the LTTE. The unit has currently matched 113 names from their database to the applications. Of these, 29 children have already been physically handed over to the parents. A number of other applications are being processed.

© Lakbima News

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