Home » The Bitter Legacy of a Blood Stained Civil War

The Bitter Legacy of a Blood Stained Civil War


Photos by Ama Koralage

Thousands of people gathered in a hot, dusty field in Mullavaikkal in the Mullaitivu district to mark the end of the bloody civil war on May 19, 2009. The area was dotted with red and yellow flags and coconut saplings representing the relatives who had been lost; later the plants were taken back to homes to be planted in gardens.

There were stalls serving kanji, the watery porridge that represented the only food many of the civilians trapped across the Nandikadal lagoon had to eat during the weeks they endured constant shelling and bombing with no medical help while sheltering under trees to escape the searing sun and heavy rain.

“Tamil civilians were trapped into shrinking so-called ‘No-Fire Zones’, with the final zone located on a strip of beach in the Mullaitivu District. Over 100,000 civilians were forced into this three-square kilometre strip of land and faced indiscriminate shelling. During these months, the armed forces targeted hospitals, and areas of refuge, while some members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) held Tamil civilians as hostage for cover and shot those trying to escape.

“After the defeat of the LTTE, government forces executed or forcibly disappeared LTTE fighters and suspected civilian supporters. The UN initially provided a death toll of 40,000 Tamil civilians, but now has found evidence that 70,000 were killed. Almost 147,000 are thought to be unaccounted for and presumed dead,” according to Sri Lanka Campaign.

Mothers and wives, sisters and brothers had brought photographs of the missing, which were placed next to the saplings and garlanded with flowers; some relatives were weeping and others were reflective as they remembered their lost loved ones. After the flame was lit on the memorial, a long line formed to place flowers and worship at the white monument.

There were old people who had witnessed much heartbreak as well as some who had not been born when the war ended. Their goal was the same – to remember and venerate their relatives who had died or disappeared in the 26 war that has left scars unhealed and injustices unaddressed.

A special guest at the commemorations was Amnesty International Secretary General Anges Callamard who said, “Today’s anniversary is a grim reminder of the collective failure of the Sri Lankan authorities and the international community to deliver justice to the many victims of Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long internal armed conflict. It is sobering to stand in the same place where, 15 years ago, countless civilian lives were lost during the last days of the war.

“The Sri Lankan government is best placed to provide answers to the victims, however numerous domestic mechanisms to establish accountability in the last 15 years have been mere window dressing…Tens of thousands of victims and their families continue to suffer in anguish as they await truth, justice, and reparations. We stand in solidarity with them here in Mullivaikkal today.”

For 64 year old Rajeswari, the yearly trip to is a way to remember and light a lamp for the nephew she lost in a shell attack on May 18, 2009. “I don’t know where to go to demand justice for his death so I come here instead,” she said.

Although university student Karish was only 10 when the war ended, he still makes the pilgrimage to Mullavaikkal each year to remember the relatives he has lost to the war. “Today is a black day for all Tamils here and abroad. We will never forget the people who died,” said Karish who lost five members of his family at Mullavaikkal.

Speaking to Groundviews from her home close to Mullavaikkal, 51 year old Rohini (not her real name) said her brother has been missing from his village since February 2009. Some people believe he had been forcibly recruited by the LTTE. Despite visiting many rehabilitation centres and military and police camps, Rohini has not been able to find her brother, who worked as a day labourer. She has handed over letters to the ICRC and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) but to no avail. She prays that he is still somewhere. But she is tired of repeating her story again and again to the numerous commissions investigating missing people, calling them “eyewash.”

Rohini stresses that she doesn’t need a certificate of absence proposed by the OMP as an alternative to a death certificate that is unacceptable to most family members; she only demands confirmation that her brother is dead or alive. “If we know that he is dead we can do the final rites. If he is alive and we do the final rites, it is not right,” she explains.

Rohini experienced the horrors of Mullavaikkal, where she spent many days hiding in bunkers to escape the constant bombardment from the security forces. Her village was just two kilometres away from Mullavaikkal. She was hit by a bullet in the head and spent two days at an LTTE hospital without treatment. Her brothers and sisters were separated, leaving her with her family – her husband and two girls of four and nine. They were able to shelter in tents but it was raining and the ground was wet. Most of the day was spent inside the bunker. They were constantly hungry with only some salt rice kanji to eat. On the 16th the security forces took some people to their side. Rohini recalls stepping over many dead bodies to leave. “There were a lot of bodies and burnt vehicles and bodies under the vehicles,” she says.

In her small makeshift house, 37 year old Navaneethan Subharanjani holds a photograph of her sister Subharajitha who was 21 when she disappeared. Another sister and her father died in shelling. Subharajitha lost her foot and the following day,  Subharanjani handed over her sister to the army for treatment. After the war ended, the family searched rehabilitation camps, hospitals and army camps but were unable to trace her sister, who had been an LTTE cadre. The family had to leave their village because of the continuous shelling and ended up in Mullavaikkal where they hid in bunkers and under trees. Subharanjani says there were many injured people who were suffering without medical treatment. There was no food and they lived under trees and tents. During last days, there was no one to help them. On the 17th the military told people to come over to their area so Subharanjani and her family walked into the army area. Because she handed her sister over to the army, Subharanjani believes she is still alive somewhere. She regularly attends the protests organised by families of the disappeared. “Fifteen years have passed with many commissions but they have been unable to find even a single person. They need to give us a reply whether she is alive or not,” says Subharanjani.

Subharanjani’s 60 year old mother suffers from depression after having lost three members of her family. Some counselling has helped but the NGOs giving the counselling have now  stopped. The family faces severe economic hardship. Her husband works as a daily labourer in the construction industry to support his wife and two children but finds it difficult to get employment because of the economic crisis.

Yogarasa Manoranjithan, 57, is searching for her son who disappeared in May 2009. She has two sons and two daughters. The remaining son does painting work and supporting his mother. Her missing son, Rinoth, was 16 years and studying for his O’Levels. In Mullavaikkal, Yogarasa had hidden her son in a bunker but as the other children were hungry and asking for food, Yogarasa went looking for something to eat. During her absence the LTTE, who was forcibly recruiting fighters, took the boy, according to witnesses. The family searched the camps but were unable to trace him anywhere. The ICRC has registered him as missing.

Yogarasa goes for the protests calling for justice and accountability. She prays to god to bring her son back. She won’t accept a certificate of absence but is demanding that the military searches for her son and gives her a definite answer. “He is the eldest son. If he was here I could have managed my life without anyone else’s support and been able to stand on my own feet,” she says.

Click to watch the interviews on Groundviews Youtube Channel

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