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Reminiscence Voices of Peace

The stories you find in this piece are shared by former LTTE cadre and those belonging to the Sri Lankan Military. These storytellers are more than former fighters: they are husbands, fathers, daughters, and lovers. They are disabled – and these disabled storytellers become care-givers themselves. We must realise the multiple identities these fighters hold and the multiple narratives they have to share.

Stories collected today become tomorrow's history. What we must listen to are the stories of those who were there, those who knew. It has been a decade since the end of the war, but we are yet to listen.

Following the end of a brutal war, today we revisit the narratives shared by the storytellers of ‘Voices of Peace’. While there is much sorrow, regret, and pain in their narratives, there is also hope for a better tomorrow. A hope that has helped them face their present, and plan for their future as well as the future of their families. Their resilience spills out of every story. These storytellers are catalysts that inspire people from their communities to those far beyond. They are influencers of positive change - if we listen.

It is important that all communities that make up Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher – listen and learn from these stories. Their stories help bridge divides, help find commonalities, and humanise the ‘other’. While reading their stories, one realises that after all, ‘they were just like us’. It is only as we hear their hopes and dreams and their efforts to reconcile, it is only as we hear their stories of pain and sorrow of the past, we can truly, as a country, say ‘Never again!’

I haven’t shared these stories with my wife or close friends. I am sharing it now because any man, woman or child shouldn’t have to ever experience the things that happened in Sri Lanka regardless of the language they speak, or religion they belong to. I have to share my own experiences and educate others about the war and how people’s lives were affected, so these things never happen again. This is my contribution to reconciliation.

- Ponkalan, 37

A good step forward would be to come speak to us and listen to our problems. Usually, most just stand at a distance and speak on our behalf, but it is only when they come close to us affected people that they will find out our problems. For example, a family I know in Colombo didn’t know anything about the war. When I went there recently, I explained to them about the war; what we went through as LTTE cadres, and how people were affected. They started crying after listening to me. Likewise, you have to meet affected people in person or have group discussions to find out the issues they have. Listen to their stories. Become close to them. Only then will the affected people share their true stories with confidence.

- Kumaran, 44

At first I was very excited to join the SLA, I didn’t realise the hardship we would have to face. We had to stand in line to get our food. We were given a thahaduwa [metal sheet] for a plate. There were around 300 of us. Sometimes I was the 300th person in line to eat. At the start, I wanted to leave but after a while I got used to it. I was sad and missed my family. During our training I couldn’t speak to my mother for a few weeks. My mother had once called the camp and my friend had told her I was in Kilinochchi. She became so sad and cried, as she was worried I was in the thick of the war zone. My sister said the whole household was eating rice and tears. Whenever I spoke to my mother, she always cried. I still think of the metal plate I had to eat in — if it fell, it made a loud noise for a long time.

After the war, our duties in the camp were very different to those we had in the jungle during the war. Here, we can’t be the way we were in the jungle. Here, you need lots more discipline. People may think it’s easier to be back here as we didn’t have electricity or water in the jungle, but it is actually harder for us. Especially, to adjust to our new tasks. Even menial tasks like ironing were difficult for us. We didn’t need to iron our uniforms before. But when we came here, we had to present ourselves neatly because we were around civilians more often. At first, I was scared to return to the camp and to even speak to civilians. It was difficult to get used to the new environment, but over time I did.

- Shanuna, 29

It was hard to remove memories of the war from my mind. For three months after the war, I struggled to sleep. I would think of the war and of being under attack. I tried to read books to help myself feel better. My wife tried hard to ease my mind too. Like her, lots of people may have indirectly faced difficulties. I was interviewed by media personnel soon after the war, but I found it hard to talk about the traumatic things I experienced. It’s easier to talk about it now… Just after the war, I wanted to forget about everything. But as time passes you become more relaxed. And it becomes our duty to tell the world what happened during the war and what the Sri Lankan Navy achieved, to keep a record for future generations. If we don’t, all these things get burnt with us when we die.

- Sanjeewa, 50

I went to visit Madhu church with my family as a civilian. There was an LTTE cemetery there, which my father wanted to see. When walking around the graves, I saw one area designated for their ‘heroes’ whose bodies weren’t found. I found the name of the man I shot. I felt terrible, but I couldn’t tell anyone. In my family, taking a life is considered unacceptable. I had fought against him, thinking of him as an enemy but when I saw the grave, I was so uncomfortable and all I wanted was to leave the place. I managed to confide in my brother-in-law and tell him that I was finding it difficult to be there. Our culture does not accept taking a person’s life for any reason. I thought my family might have sensed my guilt, and so I wanted to get out of there. Once we left I put those feelings out of my mind... We never talk about or think about the things we experienced.

- Anonymous, male

Only after I was released did I learn of a place called Vavuniya — I only knew up to Omanthai before. I then got on my bike and went to Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, and Anuradhapura. I only then realised that we were living in such a small area under the LTTE, and there was so much more to explore. Earlier we were living between three towns, unaware of how big Sri Lanka was and how much more there was to see. Since my childhood, I was afraid to travel even five kilometres as I thought I would be shot. Now, I am happy and free. I can go to Colombo in five hours, whereas before it took three days just to get to Vavuniya from Kilinochchi. People may say during a war that’s how things are, but that’s a problem. Now, it only takes an hour to go to the Vavuniya hospital from my village.

- Jeevaratnam, 29

I met a professor from Jaffna University on the train. He was with his wife. A friend and I got on the train to come to Colombo. We started talking… He told us a story. ‘Still I am living the sweet memories of my home and family,’ he said. They had a big library in their house as his father had lots of books. When SLA operations began, they had to leave their house and go to a refugee camp — he was only a child. During the IPKF’s time they were allowed back to see the house. He remembers as a child accompanying his father back home and seeing their library destroyed — the books were ruined and papers were strewn all over the place. I told him those soldiers might have not been educated enough to realise the value of books. He said he just couldn’t forget those bad feelings in the bottom of his heart. How can we expect people like that who have suffered to just get over things? Their pain and anger is justified. We need to reconcile with them as they are the people who can change students’ minds. They got very close to us in those three hours. He and his wife hugged me and left. He later phoned and invited us to have a meal with him as well. I sent him a long message afterwards, telling him how grateful I was to have met him and for sharing his stories. In response he said, ‘I have met very few military people who understand us, so I am happy to have met you.’

- Sanjeewa, 50

Sri Lankans have forgotten what we did for our country. And now, when they talk about the war, all that is discussed is either us killing them or them killing us. No one knows the reality. We saw things with our own eyes. Most people think during the war we were just trying to kill each other. Only people who were there really know the truth. I know how we women soldiers helped the LTTE. We didn’t go home. We forgot our families and helped them. But people don’t talk about that. It’s human to suspect the worst. But it wasn’t like that. Only those who were there can inform the people and educate them about what truly happened. The male SLA soldiers also helped a lot. We saw with our own eyes the way the male soldiers suffered to help those crossing over in Nandikadal. They would carry the aachchis [grandmothers]. They worked tirelessly. So I get really sad when I hear these accusations of rape and killings… We all did so much. We had to wear the same clothes for so long. My feet would get so hot from wearing boots for so long. We suffered a lot for the country... I would like people to just be open to understanding this. If they only knew and remembered what happened during the war and how much we did, people would treat us very differently... They don’t know how much we suffered.

- Shanuna, 29

I will teach my children that nothing can be achieved by taking up arms. Future generations shouldn’t be affected by war as we were. We carried weapons for 30 years, and now it’s finally over. It took 30 years of fighting. It might take another 30 years to experience the peace. Or it may take longer, and I might not be alive then. But our children should be able to enjoy freedom and peace. They need to be aware of the value of peace, so that they don’t destroy it.

- Sritharan, 43

These monuments… shouldn’t be here. They’re saying we should forget the past but they keep these things and so we can’t forget. They should make a school or nursery there instead. Every time we go past these things, we are reminded of all the pain. The wrong we did and the wrong that happened to us. People from the south come to see it.. and then when they see Tamil people, they look at us in anger. Maybe in one place they should have a memorial for both sides. We are heroes too. Both sides have heroes. When you keep things like this, it’ll take over 100 years to move on.

- Senthooran, 47

I can’t believe I fought with these people who are like brothers to me now. I work closely with Sinhalese people now, in the CSD. I get the opportunity to participate in their functions. Despite knowing that I was with the LTTE, they don’t isolate me. They show me love and respect. I went for a funeral once and was taken aback to see that I fought against such people in the battlefield. I was overwhelmed. I regret what happened.

- Thileepan, 47

When I was young, I was told the SLA would shoot us if they saw us. We were raised to fear the SLA. I feared the SLA would kill me, until in rehabilitation, when I was able to interact with them. Now, I think what a shame it was! had I known the truth…

- Jeevaratnam, 29

The government must provide ways for both sides to interact. It was my interactions with the other side that truly changed how I feel about them.

- Anonymous, male

Like us, they too have a lot of expectations in life. They left everything and came. I would feel so sad when I saw them crossing over with nothing but their land deeds and a few clothes they held tightly to their bodies. They used to have land and vehicles and some kind of livelihood. It’s good if the government can slowly give these back to them. If I lost everything and the government just looked away, I would get very upset too. If we can help them get back what they lost, it’ll make them happier. They lost loved ones too. The same way we lost our people and how our families feel is how they feel too. Some would come carrying their wounded child… They lost everything, and I can’t bear to think about the pain they must be going through.

- Shanuna, 29

Soon after the war, even at a party everyone asks about the war and about my experiences in the SLAF. Emotionally, we have to let it go now. The bitter past should be forgotten. If you hold on to it, the problem never fades. But we shouldn’t forget the history. We should learn from it, so mistakes aren’t repeated.

- Ramiru, 40

I don’t let my disability limit me… I have come this far, from being a former cadre to being in a position where I can contribute to society now… I help train disabled people, particularly those in wheelchairs. They are affected not just physically, but also mentally. Even though they try to integrate, society and the environment don’t allow them to. For example, buildings are not disabled friendly; and when a child is disabled, their family won’t take the child out as they don’t want to show their child to society. Disabled persons don’t have control of their urine or bowel movements. So we carry out awareness sessions for the disabled on how they can manage themselves. We train them on how to manage their bladder problems, and how to integrate into society. Living as a disabled person is also expensive. When you’re on a wheelchair for a long time, you get sores on your body which require medication. You also need different catheters for bladder control, which have to be changed frequently. When a normal person goes out they worry about cream or cologne. But for us, it’s the catheter and diapers we worry about. So the disabled are usually reluctant to come out. We provide training on how to prevent skin infections, sores, and urine infections. It took a year for me to learn how to be independent and integrate. Earlier, I was dependent on others. At the time, I tried several ways to manage myself. I noted down the useful points I learnt and I overcame that struggle. I discovered many things on my own, for example how to come down the stairs. I also learnt wheelchair rotations on my own. I discovered new techniques through my own effort, and shared them with others who were disabled. I feel we shouldn’t only train disabled people; we should also train and have awareness sessions for normal people too. Only then can the disabled integrate. And when it comes to counselling, only a disabled can understand another disabled. They won’t open up to a normal person. That’s why I say, ‘Nothing is without me,’ which is to say, do not talk about our issues without including us.

- Ponkalan, 37

My understanding of peace is that we should have the liberty to say whatever we want. We should have basic rights. Everyone should be treated fairly and equally; even the president’s son should stand in a queue. When people learn to queue and maintain order — that is an example of peace in practise… And if — as a former cadre — I can walk on the road peacefully, that is peace.

- Kannan, 27

I wouldn’t want the person who put me in a wheelchair to be harmed. Wrong has happened on both sides of the war. Both sides are equal. We should all unite. We are all Sri Lankan…

Now there’s no war, but the peace is incomplete. We haven’t achieved 100% peace... We think the wrong way about Tamils, the Tamils think the wrong way about the Sinhalese, and the Muslims think the wrong way about the Sinhalese, and so on. We have to put an end to these misconceptions and race divisions. All three religions should be taught in schools, and this should be in people’s minds from childhood. If we all think of each other as Sri Lankans, then everything will be okay.

- Dinesh, 33

Problems might emerge again in our country. It’s in our history: kings have been fighting one another throughout Sri Lanka’s past. Now, there are some delinquents trying to stir up issues between Muslims and Sinhalese, because they have nothing better to do. If it turns in to a conflict we will have to sacrifice our lives again and go back to war, not them. We are the ones who have to suffer. We gave up so much to end the conflict, it pains us to see our efforts treated so carelessly. I am really sad to see what is happening. I hope it never happens again.

- Pasan, 42

It is important to ensure that nothing like the war we experienced will happen again. People should be brought to a place where they are all proud to say, ‘I am Sri Lankan.’ Official forms still ask for race and religion; soon they’ll start asking for caste too. This should stop. The forms should just ask if we are Sri Lankan. I have one important message I want to share, and it applies to Sinhalese, Muslims, and Tamils: we should never say, ‘Sri Lanka belongs only to me,’ we must live together.

- Senthooran, 47