Saturday, January 10, 2009


Before I migrated to the United States, I lived with my parents in my birthplace Jaffna. We had been forced by the ongoing civil war to change our dwellings frequently. We were then living in a rented house, which was our 35th address in fifteen years.  We left our ancestral home on one morning in 1990 when the fight broke out between the Tamil Tigers and the national army of Sri Lanka, in other words between minority group Tamils (Hindus) and majority Sinhalese (Buddhists).  We lived in a village in Jaffna, the capital of North where 65% of the Tamils or minority resides. We had tropical weather all year round with monsoon rains for three to four months.  The war was ethnic, religious, and racial. It has destroyed so many lives, possessions, and culture and still continues to do so. The only highway that connected the North with other parts of the nation has been shut for a long time. As results there was not enough food supply, medicines and baby food since everything had to arrive from the South. None of my family members including myself ever wanted to leave our home for any good or bad reason except for occasional visits to relatives for short periods. I always looked forward going to my uncle’s to spend a weekend and play with my cousins. Special events in the family also brought all of us together often.

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I had just finished my high school examination when the clash erupted one morning, as we had feared. It was a clear morning, sunny and warm. The lady who brought us milk also provided us with latest news. She came with some unpleasant news that day. We called her ‘mobile BBC’ (British Broadcasting Corporation). BBC was the only reliable source for news then, and we trusted their reports and predictions for some time and so as with our milk vendor.
When she brought milk that day we asked her if there was any news. We were told that that ‘they’ (military) were going to advance and the ‘boys’ (rebels) were ready to face it. She told us to be prepared to leave anytime soon with some things for a week or two. We could come back when things settle down. I still don’t know how she got those pieces of information, but whatever she told us turned out to be true. After a few minutes she left, we heard gunfire and thought ‘she was right’. We needed to leave.
The decision was made that we to go my paternal grandma’s house. Though there would be more than enough people to have fun with, I dreaded the idea of staying away from our own home. Leaving our home, possessions and vegetable garden my parents tended so lovingly did not seem right. Without any other choices we left to save our lives. I remembered how we received people from the coastal area when they fled. We had three families living in our house. The size of the house did not matter. They needed a place to sleep.  Then our turn arrived.
I saw a lot of people trying to carry as much as possible on the bicycles and vehicles. There were also people that did not want to leave immediately. They stood on their porches and watched the crowd as it moved on. My mother and I wanted to postpone the ‘trip’ for a day or two but my father’s condition required us to leave as soon as possible.  Even a sound of a trigger pulled on a toy gun scared my father so much. He would sit under a table until all the noises ceased. Our laughter and talks made him angry. We had an ‘L’ shaped bunker to take shelter from the planes and shells. It was difficult to go in there on rainy days.  Scorpions and snakes occupied it in the hot days of summer. So table was to be used as an alternate and it assured some protection to my father.
We had to switch our dwellings more than thirty times to escape the brutal killings and at times to satisfy the person who let us stay in his or her house. It was possible for us to go home for several months, to see if anything was missing or stolen and water the garden. There was no guarantee for our lives thus any body dared to spend nights in our deserted village. The invisible trust in ourselves provided us with strength and we believed we could escape any unpleasant incident in the daytime. We set our feet out whenever there was an intermission during the battle.  Temporary visits were soothing to our desperate minds.
It was in one of those day times when I discovered that one of my classmates was a helper of the rebel group.  I had less than two hours to fetch some firewood and other items from our home.  It had rained in the morning. The air was damp and cool. I could hear the bombers in the distance. They had been fighting all night along. The road was otherwise empty except for me. It could have been the rain that made people lazy. Maybe something else that I was not aware of had happened. How would I know? I was trying to think of a song when I heard the screeching of tires. It was my classmate with his friend. He did not look cheerful at all. His face was rigid.
He wanted to know where I was going and why. I was told to make the trip brief and return back as quickly as I could. “It has been quiet since early morning but was there anything wrong?”, I wondered. He told me that somethings could not be explained, the situation was band and there’s not going to be any good news. He only wanted me to be safe.  What about his destination and errand? He was not pleased to answer to my curiosity.  “I am responsible to make sure that they have sufficient supply of food at the battlefront. I will visit you on the way back, probably after five o’clock” he answered with urgency and hurried toward the North. I returned home safely but he did not show up that day.
Next day my cousin informed me that he and his friend were killed in the previous night. Their bodies had been identified and the funeral was scheduled.  It was hard to believe. Another friend who lived close to deceased friend’s parents, agreed to go with me to the funeral. He was laid in a coffin, the rebel flag covering his body. He looked happier than when I saw him the day before.  Blue speckles on his face confirmed he was truly demised. I kept staring his corpse for a long time until some one told me it was time to take leave. My belief that the death happened only to old people had struck me on my face.
When I came out of that house the world outside looked different. The air was blowing softly and the sky was clear blue. It was almost close to the end of the afternoon. A few miles of bike riding lay ahead and I had to be home before the curfew hours. The road wiggled like a snake through green fields of rice and millet on both sides.  No human being was to be seen apart from several storks and cranes looking for prey. I did not realize the danger of riding bicycle leisurely in an open field. No place to take shelter if there was a need.  
What would I do if something happens? My head was full of unavoidable thoughts driven by fear. Right then I noticed a helicopter searching for something, possibly a human for its hungry bullets. It shifted toward my side and began firing at an angle. The death appeared again. We both tried our best; the modern mechanism aiming to end my life and I struggling to stay alive. For a moment I thought my legs became immobile. Then some force made me to pedal on and I spotted a tree. I stood still with that tree until the helicopter got exhausted and disappeared. I saw children playing in the yards unaware of the situation as I started again on the road that lead me home. I have seen many deaths and births since then. I was fortunate enough to have escaped death in the war zone where I lived.
Roof tiles, windows, doors and furniture from my ancestral house were stolen. Overgrown tall trees conceal it now from human eyes. I do not know the whereabouts of my childhood friends. War made my relatives and family members to inhabit the places they never saw before. We do not get together happily anymore as we did once. Unlike most of our relatives, my family refused moving away from the country. We hoped to go back home one day, but it never came. The nasty war had made us live unhappily without hope. My country Sri Lanka, which is called a ‘paradise on earth’, is not a paradise anymore. Jaffna, my hometown that was once beautiful and flourishing is now devastated. Barbed wires adorn the beaches and lots of places are under high security zone, which do not allow any public access. Curfew is imposed for eight hours. People have to travel through the security checkpoints. Abductions, rape, kidnap, murders and disappearance have become daily routine in the lives the people of Jaffna.
For the first time in my life I left Jaffna. I had to choose between life and misery. Thousands of miles away from my family I feel guilty for leaving my parents alone in their old age. I look forward to wake up hearing someone telling me that I can go back home - Jaffna soon.