Five years ago this month, the government of Sri Lanka began its final assault on the land held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a campaign which it claims was conducted according to ‘the Buddhist principles of forgiveness and compassion’. By May 2009, the northern territory of the LTTE had been winnowed down to a thin strip of land along the coast, less than 26 square kilometres. Into this flat geography of blasted mudflats and scrubland, were packed tens of thousands of mostly Tamil civilians. Here are the stories of two of them: Ainkaran and Ahalya.
Ainkaran was volunteering in a hospital in the northeast of the country when the government offensive began. As the fighting neared and the shells began to fall, he helped to display the emblem of the Red Cross on the roof of a school building serving as a hospital. From there he could see smoke rising over the trees and hear the distant thud of artillery. Days later, 50 people died when a shell fell through the roof of that same building. Ainkaran helped to carry the wounded and drive them to other makeshift hospitals.
Ahalya, another Tamil civilian, had been married to a fallen LTTE soldier. In 2009 she was working in the Vithiyasaalai Hospital while her parents looked after her son. Supplies brought in by sea, including medicine, were becoming scarce. Soon patients were going without essentials: bandages, antibiotics, painkillers. Then the artillery barrage began. Despite being part of the no-fire zone, her village was pounded mercilessly by artillery, rockets and bombs from the army’s Israeli-made Kafr jets. A shell demolished one wall of the hospital where she worked. There was no food. Children died of hunger. All day people stood in winding queues hoping for a bowl of rice gruel, but the queues were also bombed, killing hundreds. Nevertheless, hunger drove them back to stand in line.
During his rare moments to rest, Ainkaran, would hide in a bunker. The days blurred into each other as he treated people under a tamarind tree, using torn sarongs as bandages. Spy drones, with their mosquito whine, circled constantly. Almost 50,000 people congregated for rations from the World Food Programme, sitting on the ground in a crowd so thick no vehicle could get through. Sounds of sobbing and praying filled the air. Then, from the direction of the army lines came a barrage of artillery fire. The guns fired all at once, right into the densely populated ‘safe’ zone. Around 500 people were killed, with nearly 1,000 seriously wounded. The shells fell on food tents and hospitals alike, under the watchful eye of the circling drones.
This was the day that Ahalya’s mother was killed by a shell. She was buried nearby, without ceremony. Ahalya, her father and son, couldn’t even go to see the body as the shells were still falling. They wept in their tent, holding each other as the bunker walls and ceiling shook around them. On 21 April, Ahalya was less than 100 metres away from the village church when a bomb fell through the roof and killed the 1,800 people inside. Many tried to leave after that, but wherever they went, the shells were falling. Each one fell about 10 metres further on from the previous one, as though the army was pushing people back, combing them out of the jungle, into the sea.
Ainkaran was injured in one of the shell attacks, but it didn’t stop him trying to help. He took one day off work and then returned to the hospital, to the screams of patients and the sight of the dead lined up outside on the ground. When the war ended, he was captured and interned.
Ahalya was interned too, for six months. On her release she was told to report every two weeks to the police. She was tortured. She fled in fear, as did her family. She hasn’t seen her father and her son since.
The stories of Ahalya and Ainkaran (not their real names) are based on survivor interviews given under condition of anonymity. On 18 May, the Sri Lankan government’s Victory Day celebration involved a parade of tanks and fighter jets.
The Tamil people were not allowed a ceremony to remember their dead.
Paul Cooper works for Tamils Against Genocide.