Our Guest Author is Raj Prasanta, Chief Editor of Assam News based in India. A fitting tribute article to our friend and Rotary Peace Fellow colleague, Antony Suthan of Sri Lanka.
Typical street scene in the outskirts of Sri Lanka
A turning point in Anthony's life came in 2004. Obtaining the degree from the college, as he was on his way to home one December morning that year, a severe tsunami hit the coastal Sri Lanka. Although he reached Battikolwa safely, he found to his horror that the house in which he lived as a child had been smashed to the ground by the trees in the compound which had been uprooted by the storm that accompanied the tsunami. For a while, he looked dejectedly at the semblance of what was his home once and then walked on to the house of his aunt where the other members of his family had already sought refuge. The tsunami changed everything for him.
As normalcy returned to the costal Sri Lanka after the impact of tsunami subsided, but not before leaving a trail of devastation and causing severe disorder in the lives of the people living there, a number of volunteers of relief organizations arrived there to assist the people to put together their wrecked lives, providing them the material and medical relief. Of those organizations, there was one from the United States and Anthony became an interpreter for its volunteers, almost like an Interpreter of Maladies. The job fetched him some money. After living with his aunt for some days, Anthony came to a relief camp along with his brother and sister. For six months, he worked with the American relief organization and then came in contact with a German volunteer organization, which was dedicated to the child welfare. His association with it lasted for five years and the work he did for it provided him a different outlook towards life in general.
One January afternoon as Anthony and I were taking our meal together in the canteen of the Sasa International House, he told me: "When I was working with the German child welfare organization, the Sri Lankan army - in 2007, to be precise - launched a no-holds-barred attack on the LTTE (separatist armed group). Everybody thought the attack would be restricted to the LTTE stronghold Jaffna, as before. But this time around, it started from Battikolwa, so that we who lived there were taken us by surprise because the town had earlier been more or less untouched by the military operations. The military launched the attack just about the time when my brother, sister and I had just left the relief camp and moved into a shelter home built for us by a relief organization.
The army's attacks claimed many Tamils, and in some villages, a great number of male members of the Tamil families were either killed or disappeared. Thousands of women and children in those villages were held hostages by the army, as it were, as they were not allowed to move out. The bombarding continued unabated for days. I can't tell you how many dead bodies of children and women that I saw there, some rutting, their faces smashed or skulls blown off. And there were also decomposed carcasses of animals as many all over. No one who survived the attacks either had the time or in a position to bury the dead because all were otherwise busy saving their own lives. Even as the air bought in a nauseating odour of the dead strewn around all over, the bombs exploding every now and then also added to the stench. It fell upon my shoulder the responsibility to rescue those who were still striving gasping for life amidst the dead.
Since these men and women were either LTTE cadres or supporters of the outfit, the LTTE bosses would never allow them to be shifted for treatment or rehabilitation elsewhere. I wanted to discuss the matter with the local bosses of the outfit and talk to them about the surrender of the LTTE cadres, but their bosses would hear none of it. Finally, I enlisted the cooperation of some teachers and few businessmen to make the LTTE come round to our views that it’s important that those surviving be asked to surrender in order to ease the tense situation. The purpose of my taking the businessmen with me for my talk with the LTTE was that since they regularly provide money for the outfit's cause, they were on familiar terms with its local bosses and so they might be able to convince the LTTE, as it had already turned down my offer.
Finally, the local bosses of the outfit agreed to our suggestions, but said that those who wanted to surrender could do so of their own volition, but those who did not want to should be allowed to go to Jaffna to fight the battle there. You know, it was then that we found out that, without our knowledge, they had already decided on which of their cadres would surrender and which would not, and we came to know about it as those who came forward to surrender were only young women and children.
"Look, Raj, the LTTE's battle with the Sri Lankan army may have ended, even though no one knows whether it has ended for good or whether it is just an interlude before it starts all over again. There is no telling what future the Tamils have in Sri Lanka. We have learnt from the years past that there's no point in counting the marbles.