With just a small, bustling centre, the historic city of Jaffna feels hot, hazy and holy with stunning Hindu temples and calm waterways. Men, women and children are on bicycles due to wide, flat roads and as a legacy from wildly inflated oil prices when the city was cut off from the island during the war. The LTTE controlled Jaffna for almost 10 years during the 20 year armed struggle during which time they established a civil authority with various functioning departments. The LTTE was also responsible at this time for the grave mistake of driving the Muslim population from the Northern Province.
Today Jaffna is heavily militarised with armed soldiers stationed on many corners and vehicles on constant patrol. There are clear signs of a recent war with burnt out, blasted buildings and IDP camps in surrounding areas. There is an absence of young adults following a mass exodus over the last decade. The older people I spoke to had sold everything during the war to get their children out of the country. Every family has lost loved ones – to fighting, to prison, to bomb attacks or to ‘enforced disappearances’. The crushing of the LTTE was so brutal, the military’s presence now so intimidating and the threat of undercover CID so great that there is a real culture of fear; resulting in Tamils here not knowing if they can trust even each other.
I found some great photos of the city at this photo-journalism site.
I arranged to meet in secret with five women who were married to senior commanders of the LTTE and who witnessed their husbands surrender to government forces in 2009. However they have not seen the men since and the army now deny ever having them. Given the lack of freedom of speech and the on-going harassment and occasional disappearances of Tamil speaking people and others who speak out about human rights, these women took great risk in meeting with me. A risk which highlights their desperation in not knowing what happened to their husbands.
The women separately told very similar stories. Some of their husbands were senior combatants who had been in the LTTE for over 20 years, others were senior political figures; leaders of civil departments. In May 2009 the women and their families were forced to leave the Vanni (where some had already been displaced from their homes) as government shelling increased and they were directed to ‘no fire zones’. They moved across country in large numbers, often taking shelter in ‘safe’ schools and hospitals which were subsequently targeted by government forces. Hundreds died in these buildings. As it became increasingly clear that the LTTE was losing the battle, the husbands joined their wives as they unknowingly headed to Mullaittivu, the now famous final battle ground. 300,000 were essentially herded toward a no fire zone at what became a 2 squared kilometer patch of beach with LTTE fighters stationed on one side (accused in some cases of using human shields), and government forces the other.
The horrors of the subsequent few days are described in this excellent Channel 4 documentary. The families lived in sand bunkers for over a week among dead bodies with one cup of porridge per day. No NGOs were allowed access and there is significant evidence suggesting the government blocked food and medicines from the area.
The 5 women described how once the government forces had gained control of the area by heavy fire, the people, who were now intermingled with the LTTE combatants, were led to caged areas, searched and IDd (I was told in subsequent interviews that everybody was made to strip, a fact that is too shameful for most women here to admit). The following day the army announced that anybody who was linked to the LTTE was to surrender now and that they would be recorded and released shortly. Anybody who didn’t surrender and was found out later would be sentenced to 20 years in prison. They then identified some LTTE members and beat them so badly that the majority of combatants felt it would be better to surrender. These 5 senior commanders, at slightly different times and in different ways, surrendered with, or in front of, their wives. Two of the women had to persuade the men not to take their cyanide capsules instead. These women, and others, witnessed the majority of LTTE members being led to a different camp, but their husbands along with other senior commanders (I was told 65 in total plus a Catholic Priest) being taken onto a bus. None of these men have been seen since.
The women have spent the last 4 years quietly searching for their husbands. They have written letters to The International Red Cross, the military, the government and others. One woman brought copies of the responses which I photographed. Nobody has any records of their whereabouts, or even their surrender.
One woman was instructed to attend a military camp last year where she was told ‘stop fretting about your husband, he is dead’. She asked, ‘but how can you say he is dead when I handed him over to you and he was well?’ Later, at the same camp it was declared that ‘no senior commanders surrendered’.
Two of the other women continue today to be aggressively questioned about the actions of their husbands. One of these women asked, ‘why, if they know nothing about their whereabouts, are they asking these questions?’
The final two women have both recently been asked to sign blank sheets of paper. They asked what they were and they were told they were death certificates. They refused but were then presented papers written in Sinhalese, a language they don’t understand. This time they were threatened, and therefore they signed.
Naturally all of these women, nervous when they first started speaking to me, started to break down as we continued. Their children are constantly asking for their fathers, they struggle with loss of earnings, are still hassled by CID and feel intimidated and vulnerable without their husbands around. One woman’s little girl, not yet old enough to understand, believes that her father has divorced her mother. She keeps asking for his phone number, sure that if she speaks to him she can fix it.
I asked the women what they thought had happened to their husbands. They all said that they believe strongly that they are alive.