Today marks the 21st anniversary of the tragic internal displacement of Jaffna, a northern city of Sri Lanka.
I was fifteen at the time. I was living with my sister who had just finished her Advanced Levels and my brother who had started to practice as an English teacher. Both my parents were not in the town by then. My cousin sister hosted a Deepavali fiesta with a delicious mutton curry and yellow rice as per my family’s usual festive custom. My tummy was full after three or four servings and I could barely walk. “Kaushalya akka, I never had such Deepavali lunch ever after!”
It was around three in the afternoon, an announcement was made throughout the entire Valigamam region that people are to be moved from the town before the dusk. Three wheel auto vehicles (Tuk Tuk) were running around the city with loudspeakers on their top announcing the news. Sri Lankan Army had initiated a military operation, was marching towards the city from the north and there was a rumor that it had reached as far as to Achchuveli and Kopai, just few kilometers from the town, and little time left before the only few routes to Chavakachcheri getting cut off. A potential fighting breakout in a civilian dense area could create a humanitarian disaster. Most of us started panicking after the announcement and the sky rocketing rumours. My sister had no idea what to do and we hardly knew anybody living in Chavakachcheri. Where could we go?
Unfortunately, there was no other option but to evacuate. We packed our suitcases. We had two or three “posh” suitcases from Middle East where our father worked in the early eighties. We packed some clothes, kitchen utensils, grocery items, Jewelry and our school text books. We tied the suitcases on our bicycle carriers with nylon rope. There had always been some dilemma on what to take and not. Would you go for the valuables? Valuables in what sense? An expensive camera against a kilo of rice? A big television box against a thermo flask and a kettle? You never know. You never know when you would be able to come back. May be next day, may be in a week time or in a month.
In our case, it was two long years!
My sister had only one thousand rupees at that time. Brother might have had another couple. I had twenty rupees which I kept in my shorts pocket. I also secretly kept my tennis ball and the cricket bat in the suitcase, something my sister wasn’t aware of. Had she known, couple of drumsticks would have replaced bat’s place. I had a big suitcase in my carrier. Two “Chandrika” bags on both sides of the front handle and, obviously, my backpack with school books. My sister had a similar setup so had my brother. He also had an extra sack full of things on his cycle bar. Our plan is to leave early so that we could reach Chavakachcheri town before it gets dark. Chavakachcheri is merely seventeen kilometers away from Jaffna town and it wouldn’t take little more than an hour before we get there. That’s what we thought.
We started pedalling. By the time we reached Nallur temple area, we realized it’s going be a nightmare. The traffic was so congested we could hardly even walk, let alone pedaling. The whole Jaffna city of ten hundred thousand people was moving on the narrow street to Chavakachcheri like wounded snails.
Nothing helped us. The sky started to drizzle. The nylon knot of the suitcase started to lose its grip. My Bata slipper was giving trouble and the imbalance of the weight didn’t help pushing the bike either. A chaos.
The time was dripping so did we. Every kilometer of our walk literally consumed more than two hours. In between, many things happened. The army started to shoot para-lights in the area, a usual sign before any bombings. Couple of war planes flew over us too. Fortunately they retreated, a rare katabasis. We were hungry and tired. We soon lost our brother in the chaos. Me and my sister were holding together somehow. But around 1 a.m. in the morning, we too got separated. We both were screaming and crying, calling each other’s name, so did so many other people too for their missing ones. Luck was on our side, we somehow managed to find each other in half an hour time. That half an hour period was my worst nightmare ever. It also helped our relationship to an extent that we became inseparable there on.
We reached Chavakachcheri in the morning around eight, took us almost sixteen hours to get there, what should have been an hour long cycle ride in normal circumstances. We then moved to Palai, another three hours long journey, stayed there for a month before getting displaced to Vanni where we lived for the next two years.
This longest worst nightmarish walk should never have happened. Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is ugly and ruthless. Both the warring parties were responsible for this and many other humanitarian chaos in the country. Sri Lankan army shouldn’t have been shelling and air bombing the civilian areas during their course. On LTTE’s behalf, they should have handled this situation better. It makes sense asking the people to displace from the vulnerable areas. But it doesn’t make sense asking people to do it in a single night for political advantages. I have to say, my experience is nothing compared to what unraveled during the last phases of Sri Lankan civil war. Yet this was my experience, a brutal unforgettable and probably life changing one too. My beloved city of Jaffna was never the same.
I was never the same either.