The following account is based on interviews to Together Against Genocide (TAG). Personal details of Shanthi (not her real name), place names and dates have been changed to protect her identity.
“The smell of blood was so strong, [there were] flies everywhere,
there were puddles with bodies lying in them.”
This is how Shanthi describes the final two weeks of the war in May 2009. In an interview interspersed with deep sobs, she describes how she, her mother and her 4 year old daughter cowered in makeshift shelters, avoiding the bombs that were falling all around them. On the move constantly, they hid during the shelling and ran to different places in the lulls before new waves of shelling began. There was no food or water. People were injured and dying around her. The picture she paints is of a panicked populace, on the move constantly, strangers joining with other strangers to tend to the wounded, the dying and each other. This is her story.
Shanthi, her mother and her four-year-old daughter had arrived in Mullaittivu a year before the end of the war in 2009. They had been displaced and moved around the Mullaittivu district, before ending up in Mullaivaikkal in April/May 2009. Shanthi and her family survived the shelling of civilians in the final days of the war by hiding in shell-scrapes: remnants of earlier shell-holes which were adapted to give some sort of protection from the barrage of bombs being released by the Sri Lankan Army. She speaks of the deep fear she felt for her family - her mother was diabetic, there was no food or drink, and with the dead and injured lying unaided, the fear of injury befalling any of her family was too horrible for her to contemplate. All she could do, and did do, was to find cover during the shelling, and then run alongside a sea of other civilians during pauses in the shelling, moving onto a new place, there to wait in hoped for safety to face whatever came next. It was a precarious, tense and dangerous existence, and as Shanthi recounts her story, the terror she felt can be heard in her voice - with deep sobs and words that can barely express the horrors she suffered, she describes what she experienced and witnessed.
At Mullaivaikkal, with no medical help available, the dead and the injured were being cared for by the people who were around them. On one occasion Shanthi witnessed the death of a little girl in a bunker next to hers. Everyone had taken cover during an episode of shelling, and a bomb had fallen on the bunker where this little girl was sheltering. In the brutality of a war situation, there was no time or space for this death to be mourned. In panic, the small group of people the little girl was with ran in fear - they could not bury her body, but merely covered her before fleeing. Shanthi, her mother and her daughter accompanied them as they fled.
On the morning of the 17th May 2009, when on the move, Shanthi heard announcements over loud speakers, in Tamil, urging people to cross over to the government side. “Don’t be frightened”, the voice urged, “we welcome you, we will protect you”. Along with those around her, Shanthi and her family walked in the direction of the announcements. There were thousands of people on the move, and it took Shanthi nearly 2 hours to reach the government zone by foot.
As Shanthi walked towards the place where the announcements were coming from she saw the Sri Lankan Army moving heavy artillery and weapons in the opposite direction - towards the place which Shanthi had just abandoned. As the shelling recommenced, this time flying over her head to land in areas she was walking away from, Shanthi realised that it was indeed the Sri Lankan Army who had been shelling her for the past week or so. She was walking towards the point from which the shells were being launched - but faced with meagre choices, Shanthi knew her safest course was to stay with the thousands of others heading towards the loud speakers.
With deep sobs she recounts the devastation she witnessed as she walked towards the hoped for safety. On reaching a main road she saw trucks loaded with the dead and the injured. People were dying on the roadside, in ditches, alone, in pain. There was blood everywhere. Shanthi saw some trucks that were on fire, smoking after being hit by shells. On one lay the body of a dead mother, her 5 month old baby (still alive) by her side. She saw many people, young or old, big or small, injured, dying, in a hopeless situation. After walking for two hours, Shanthi and her family reached the Sri Lankan Army positions. Here they were met by soldiers who threw food parcels onto the ground at them - “as if we were dogs”, says Shanthi.
Shanthi did survive the horrors of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. So did her mother and her daughter. Yet her story is typical of so many that have emerged from the killing fields of Mullaivaikkal. The deep fear and confusion felt by the civilians caught in the war zone, the frightening noises of exploding bombs, the horror of witnessing countless deaths, the over-riding need to escape, to survive and to endure - these are the scars that Shanthi carries forward with her. It is a burden that grows no lighter with the passing days and years.
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