Historic Exodus Out Of Jaffna

By Rev. Fr. S. J. Emmanuel

Rev. Dr S.J. Emmanuel

This mass exodus of half a million Tamils proclaims to the world that our people are determined to live as free beings with dignity and prepared to face any form of suffering to be independent rather than subjecting themselves to domination by the aggressor’’ – (LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on 27th Nov.1995)

The night of Monday October 30, 1995 was a black night in the entire history of the age-old City of Jaffna. Never has history witnessed such an exodus of fear and panic stricken people screaming and squeezing themselves out of the narrow roads and lanes of Jaffna. Nearly half a million population in and around the Town was literally on the roads in pouring rain inching its way out of the densely populated town into the sparsely populated and ill-equipped suburban villages of the southern Peninsula. For each of these 500,000 it was a flight for survival.

1. Tamils fleeing away from Sinhala “liberators’’

In 1987 when the then Minister for Security Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali suggested that the people of Jaffna move to the South of Vavuniya so that the Sri Lankan Army could take on the LTTE in a straight war, the Tamil population laughed it off as a joke. It was such an impossible and ridiculous task to evacuate the large population of the once second largest town of Sri Lanka. But this “impossible and ridiculous’’ scenario was forced on us and was happening before our very eyes in 1995.

The fear and the horror the Tamils have for the Sri Lankan Forces are well known. The Colombo Government kept proclaiming loudly to the world outside that the State Forces were moving into Jaffna “to liberate the Tamils from the clutches of the LTTE’’. But the bitter lessons, the Tamils had learnt for four decades at the hands of the Forces, were never to be forgotten. Hence at every military operation the fear-filled Tamils were fleeing with all their might away from an advancing army as if all hell had been let loose on them! The Riviresa Operation to capture Jaffna and the consequent exodus out of Jaffna was no exception.

Those who sat in authority in Colombo continue to think that their army is disciplined and courteous. This may be true to a certain extent in the South where an almost hundred percent Sinhala army moves at ease among its own people. But when the same army is among those whom they consider as potential terrorists, if not LTTErs, their behaviour is charged with fear and anger reaching a heightened level of state terrorism. The attitude of a nearly one hundred percent Sinhala Army to the exclusion of Tamils has been an important factor in the escalation of anti-Tamil operations of the army. Even the break down of the cessation of hostilities on the 19th April 1995 many Tamils know, was largely due, to the Army being unwilling to implement or give in to the decisions of the Government

Hence on the whole, the Tamil experience of Sinhala army during the last few decades was never a fearless one, but one fraught with unforgettable incidents of death, disappearance, destruction, loot, rape and bribery. And these hard learnt lessons of bitter experience cannot be easily erased off from the Tamil mind.

2. Waves of Displacements

Already as a result of the earlier military operations against the LTTE, the Peninsula had experienced many waves of heavy displacements. As soon as Eelam War II started in 1990, the Army had forcibly occupied the villages of Mathagal, Ilavalai, Vasavilan and the islands of Mandaitivu, Kayts, Delft and Pooneryn. The people who fled the atrocities of that military occupation moved into Manipay, Sandilipay, Chunnakam and even Kilinochchi. Many were surviving in cadjan-sheds and tents made out of their rags without proper shelter against wind and sun. They had already lost their only means of livelihood, namely fishing, because of the military ban on going out into the seas. Their survival depended entirely on the rice-rations distributed by some cooperatives and non-governmental organisations. Their ill-fed children were accommodated in make-shift huts looked after by some volunteer teachers. This situation had already continued for almost five years and their survival under such inhuman conditions is almost a miracle.

The Talks between the Government and the LTTE broke down on April 19, 1995. The economic embargo on the Tamils which was partially lifted during the Talks were again brought into full operation with lightening speed and a series of three military operations followed. As a result, between April and September 1995, three mass displacements had already taken place in quick succession before operation Riviresa started in October for the take over of Jaffna.

After much planning and shopping for weapons from many countries around the world, the Government heaped up nearly four thousand troops with sophisticated weapons in about five large army camps around the Peninsula to take over Jaffna. The Sri Lankan Army’s first major operation in Eelam War II was operation “Leap Forward“. The army kept harassing and threatening the population from their Palaly Base with long-range artillery shells. Even after a limited operation the so-called “Shake- Hands“ the people didn’t have the courage to go back to their badly destroyed homes for fear of land mines.

Besides the heavy death toll for the Armed Forces and the LTTE, the destruction of homes and the displacement of people from almost 78 square kilometres of the Peninsula, Jaffna town witnessed the second wave of displacement from Valigamam West and its peripheries towards the centre of the Peninsula. Soon afterwards, in a bid to extend the Air Base at Palaly to suit the landing of planes with the monsoon change in the direction of winds, operation “Lightening Thunder“ started moving in the direction of Atchuvely. This brought a third wave of displaced people into the Jaffna area.

The newly occupied area of the Army around Atchuvely and Urumpirai was the rich red soil region of Jaffna which produces good fruits and vegetables for the Peninsula. The people who were chased by shelling and bombing had to leave behind all their fruits of labour to the state-forces and flee for survival. The Jaffna population, now swollen by many waves of displacements, was already experiencing heavy shortage of fish, vegetables even plantains and were driven further into malnourishment.

Above all, these shortages caused by the inhuman embargo of the Government on essentials for life coupled with the army occupation of Tamil lands with vegetables and fruits, there hang over the dense population of residents and refugees in Jaffna, the dark clouds of an imminent major military operation to capture the densely populated Jaffna. The artillery shelling of the outskirts of the town with increased frequency both during day and night, heightened this imminent danger and kept the population nervous and in a state of unending anxiety.

3. Presidential Excuses to cover up the Sinhala Invasion

Just before the longer, “Riviresa” Operation towards Jaffna, the Sri Lankan war planes dropped two types of handbills in Tamil around 10.00pm on October 12 and 13, 1995. Because of the monsoon winds, the handbills were carried largely into the army occupied areas. By some chance, some fell into the fields around Kilinochchi, a refugee-centre for people fleeing away from the Peninsula. What was in these hand-bills?

After setting in motion a series of military operations against the Tamils from April 1995, President Chandrika came out on the 3rd. of August 1995 with a set of proposals which were held out to the Singhalese and the international media to justify her military operations. These proposals were not sent to the LTTE nor were they addressed to the Tamils in their language. But now on the eve of capturing Jaffna, war planes were dropping two types of handbills giving a summary of her peace-proposals to the Tamils who were fleeing for survival. These proposals at the time were of least interest to the majority of Northern Tamils living on that dark prison-peninsula in their refugee camps and shivering with fear about an imminent attack.

But the larger handbill, with a good colour picture of the President, carried a letter of the President, addressed specifically to the civilians of Jaffna, not to the de facto leadership- the LTTE. It was like an invitation into a spider’s web, to wean the people from the LTTE’s protective and defensive leadership into her destructive war. It was addressed to a people for whom she first promised “peace and no more war” but now dropping bombs over them. Even here she tried to speak of this destructive war as a “war made for peace”. Apologetically she spoke of “a war thrust on her”. And finally she to1d the Tamils, already shivering with fear for their lives, that this war was not against the Tamils, but only against the LTTE! Was this message of the President not a last minute effort to quieten her own conscience? With her promises of peace was she not trying to cover up the atrocities committed in that massive and murderous plan to take over Jaffna?

The Paris-educated lady knew only too well how densely populated the Jaffna town was. She knew of the waves of displacements which had made Jaffna already a badly congested town. She knew that it was a spacious town now reduced to be like a dark dungeon of a prison, without basic facilities of electricity, transport, and communication. She knew the desperate situation of a congested population eating the bare minimum and languishing on the borders of death and destruction . She also knew the anguish and agony of the increasing number of orphans and widows as a consequence of the twelve years of war waged by the State from 1983. But all these were drowned in her lust for power and in her loyalty to the chauvinistic ideals of her race and above all by her rage against the de facto leadership of the Tamils, the LTTE.

4. Last Days of Jaffna

Operation Riviresa” the finale for the take over of Jaffna, commenced on October 17, 1995 under a cloudy weather with signs of imminent monsoon showers. Day and night it thundered and shuddered and people trembled and shivered. The whole peninsula was vibrating day and night with the tremors of aerial bombs and shells, which were directed to scare and drive away the people from the approaching State Forces. They were falling far beyond the combatant area of Atchuvely, Neervely and Kopay obviously directed into the densely populated town of Jaffna. Powerful search lights rotating from the army camps lit up the skies periodically and kept up the fear among a people engulfed in darkness.

How could the population survive such aerial attacks, bombardment and artillery shelling and wait for the arrival of their “Sinhala liberators“? The Sri Lankan Army having learnt many useful lessons from the experiences of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) against the LTTE in 1987, started its own Operations after many weeks of intense military planning and preparation.

The approaching sounds and tremors sent a cold and frightening message into the heart of the Jaffna population, that was fast becoming a dense dungeon already overflowing with three waves of refugees from the peripheral villages. The message was fatal. It read – The Sri Lankan Army is poised for a ruthless and destructive but definitive takeover of Jaffna

In summary, with nearly forty thousand troops and tanks with modern weapons of destruction surrounding them, the population of Jaffna, shrunk with fear and hopelessness, summoned utmost courage to face the ordeal of a final encounter.

If the intended take-over was to be a direct confrontation on land, then the people could have, to some extent, relied on the defensive and protective strength of the LTTE. But the Army movement towards Jaffna was prepared for many miles ahead by indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombing against the civilian population. The State Forces purportedly coming “to liberate Jaffna and the Tamils from the clutches of the LTTE“, were not approaching them with a bouquet of sudhu nelum (white lotus) for the people of Jaffna, but with a shower of shells, bombs and bullets. The world has still to learn from the Sri Lankan government Forces how to liberate a people by showering destructive weapons over them!

5. A timely warning from a responsible Leadership

The Sri Lankan Government may have partially succeeded through its false propaganda in convincing the world that this war was a war for peace and not war against the Tamils. But the Tamils of the North knew by bitter experiences of forty years of death and destruction what the state with its military was up to.

Day by day the LTTE followed the advancement of the military operation code-named Riviresa and on the eve of October 30, 1995, the final warning was made by the de facto leaders of the Tamils and it was a necessary one. It said:- The State Forces are approaching the town of Jaffna and the Tigers will fight tooth and nail to defend it. It is advisable for the people to move to safer areas of Thenmaraadchy, Vadamarachy or Wanni.

This warning was enough to move a whole population into a panic-stricken exodus. There were no forcing or threats from the LTTE as made out by the Sinhala journalists and some anti-LTTE Tamils living far away from the North in their Colombo hide-outs. They were the Judasses earning their living by sending false media reports to the world outside.

Surprised by the massive exodus from Jaffna, the hired Tamil politicians of Chandrika, started shedding crocodile tears for the Tamils. They first accused the LTTE of having forced the people out from Jaffna at gun-point. Unable to sell their own version to the people, they turned around in favour of the Government and said that the Armed Forces gave wise and timely instructions to the people to move out of the war Zone. Naturally those who lived away from Jaffna did not hear the shells nor saw the bombs, they only saw Tigers in every nook and corner of Jaffna. They did not hesitate to tell contradictory lies to the world in an attempt to discredit the LTTE.

When there is a fatal threat to life of a people, it is the duty of all responsible leaders to warn of the dangers to life and even help people to move out of the danger zone. This is what the LTTE did on the days around October 30, 1995. They announced by means of loud speakers the growing threat to life and provided whatever transport possible to the old and the sick to move out of the danger-zone. It is true that this sudden exodus for safety caused much hardships, especially for the old and the sick, and deprived many of taking all their belongings with them. But the most important thing was survival.

Because the Tigers were successful in delaying the army-advance near Kopay the civilians were allowed and even helped with vehicles in the case of transferring the sick and the aged even to re-enter Jaffna and recover some more essentials. Many made use of the first week of November to re-enter Jaffna and collect a few more belongings while others were not able to do so due to reasonable fear and high cost of transport. A timely warning given to flee away from the dangers of bombs and a help-given by the LTTE for the orderly and safe removal of certain belongings from Jaffna was mischievously construed by the Government propaganda and anti-Tamil agents as ,,forcing the people to flight at gun point“

6. Squeezing out “through the Eye of a Needle’’!

The attempt of a few hundred thousand people rushing with their belongings to go through the one and only exit-bridge at Navatkuli was almost like the biblical camel attempting to go through the eye of a needle. But, thanks to the street-discipline maintained by the LTTE -Police Force, the population really went through this eye of a needle-bridge.

With the successive coalescence of all the previous waves of displacements, the number of civilians fleeing from the threat of Sri Lankan Army atrocities during that fateful night of October 30, reached an unbelievable 300,000 people in flight.

The monsoon rains beating hard on the faces of weeping mothers and hungry children washed away the sweat and tears. They were all drenched, not so much by the night rains but in the sorrows and pains of leaving their houses in the much loved citadel of Jaffna. Most of them had to leave behind their treasured houses, furniture, gardens and produce – not once, not twice but even thrice, before they undertook this ultimate flight for survival. There was a sorrowful silence enveloping the slow and reluctantly moving crowds. Whenever they spoke each had a more sorrowful story to tell the other.

7. Moving out with deep sighs of desperation

They were like those rushing out of a house on fire, neither screaming in fear nor yelling in anger. It was a serious and sorrowful rush for survival, slowed down only by heavy hearts, massive crowding and bad roads. This panic and fear-stricken population evacuating the Peninsula was forced further to slow down as it approached the 6 feet narrow neck of the town – the Navatkuli bridge. Here they were literally trying to inch their way out of danger zone. True, they were moving out of a dangerous zone, but their destiny was still unknown and undecided.

They had no choice between life and death. For survival, they said “let us move out, as quickly as possible and with the maximum that we could carry in our hands, or on a cycle, or in a shared tractor or kerosene van”. But once they passed the Navatkuli bridge, they sighed relief, having come beyond the dangerous zone, but their journey continued. The biggest question of survival now was: “Where are we to seek shelter?“

While standing for hours in the rains in that long queue towards some unknown destiny in the Thenmaraadchy and Vadamaradchy districts, babies cried for food and drink, some vehicles impatiently tooted their horns while all the others were sunk deep in their silence of sadness.

Either about 15 people of all ages were moving in a single row or Six or seven bicycles or kerosene-powered motor cycles, each loaded with at least two bags of personal belongings on the carrier filled the narrow road. An elderly mother or father or a baby was seated on the bar of a cycle either ridden or pushed by a younger son or daughter.

Yet another scene was kerosene-oil powered tractors with trailers loaded with people as well as a variety of things – mats, pillows, kerosene oil lamps, cooking utensils, domestic pets and some food-stuff.

A third pattern was that of a few well-to-do and the aged – in an old Austin A40 car running on kerosene oil (Rs.200 a bottle!) packed with one or two families, their belongings loaded into an open dicky and on the hood-carrier. In between these modes of transport, walked the majority poor with their half naked little ones most of them carrying at least one plastic bag of belongings – their goats and cows meekly following them.

Even this inching in the rains ground to a halt when a heavily loaded lorry or tractor turned off the track or one of its tires went flat. Between 5.00pm on Monday and 5.00am on Tuesday three babies had died through the stampede and a pregnant mother gave birth on the road. Hundreds of the aged who crossed the bridge that night did not survive for long. They died a short while later in exile.

There was not a single good hospital outside Jaffna town to cater to the thousands who suffered. Chavakachcheri and Manthikai hospitals were too small and ill-equipped to cater even to a few hundreds.

The pathetic exodus of people carried the inhuman marks of cruelty inflicted over a long time by many of the anti-Tamil measures taken by successive Sinhala Governments, especially by the present one. The inhuman economic embargo enforced by the government on the Tamil people, reduced them to primitive forms of life. The embargo on fuel and closure of the peninsula for outside vehicles made all petrol fuelled vehicles disappear out of Jaffna. Only kerosene fuelled motor cycles and old cars were available for transport. Instead of diesel for lorries, some Tamil brains developed a new fuel from vegetable oils and other chemicals. Though the last 13 years of war and economic blockade have shattered the general quality of life of people, reduced many of them to their skins and bones, isolated them without communication and transport these have spurred them to new discoveries for survival.

8. Seeking shelter in the wilderness

Those who had some relatives or friends beyond Navatkuli, on the safer side of the Bridge, made a bee-line to those houses for refuge. But to each house in Thenmaraadchy and Vadamaraadchy came not just one relative or friend from Valigamam, but several hundreds were knocking on their doors for help.

Those who rushed for help claimed different degrees of relationship and friendship with the prospective hosts. Sri Lankans in general, and Jaffna Tamils in particular, cultivate an “enlarged family relationship“ which includes third and fourth degree relations. In Western countries there is a distinction made between a very small circle of people called “friends“ and a larger circle of acquaintances – people referred to as known to one another. In Sri Lanka, almost everyone, once met and shortly spoken to, is referred to as a friend. And in time of need, these quickly built relationships become very useful and made best use of. Hence almost every house in Thenmaraadchy was flooded with friends – guests without prior notice – and had to host at least five to six families of instant refugees.

Those who knew no one in these regions went to public places such as temples, churches and schools. In the temples and the churches, no place was too sacred to be reserved for the divine. Even the presbyteries (houses for priests), convents (houses for nuns) and sacristies ( preparatory rooms for divine worship) were overflowing with priests and nuns and some of their bed-ridden parents.

The poorest of the poor were still left on the roadside, under trees, in old and dilapidated shelters at bus-stops and in railway stations, unused for almost a decade. The Sri Lankan Railway and Transport Services had already stopped their services in the North for over a decade. We were a people not only forbidden to go out of the North but also ‘a frozen people’ devoid of mobility and transport services within our homeland in the North!

9. Providing minimum food-clothing-shelter for so many

A sudden and massive influx of refugees from the Valigamam urban area into the sandy suburban area of Thenmaraadchi with very limited facilities posed a huge human problem. Besides the inclement weather, the dewy nights, the food shortages, problems of sanitation, shelter and medical care there was the absence of any organizational structures to meet such a sudden and heavy demand. But with willing co-operation from all sides, the impossible ceased to be so.

It is to the credit of the LTTE that within two days of the exodus, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) with assistance of the Government Agents, Non-governmental and religious organizations set up a network of services to cater to the very minimum needs of such a massive population:- cadjan-sheds to protect the people from the rains, tube wells at crowded centres, temporary toilets-ditches to preserve sanitation, distribution of clothes, mats and sheets to stand the colder nights of November, dry rations or cooked food at least once a day kept the population alive.

Without a single hospital with reasonable facilities like sufficient medicines, drugs, antibiotics, lab-facilities leave alone operation-theatre facilities, the biggest problem was the sanitary-threat to the survival of the refugees. And that too was solved to some satisfactorily level within a week.

10. Government unwilling to accept the Tragedy caused

Unashamedly, the government was unwilling to accept the reality of this tragedy of a mass exodus and gave false statistics to local and foreign media. The President meeting a high religious dignitary as the Bishop of Jaffna dared to tell him that the exodus was forced by the LTTE and it numbered no more than 50,000 people! Mr. Kadirgamar, the Foreign Minister was reluctant to recognise the displaced as refugees by his sardonic reference that they had not crossed national borders! Based on his own definitions of “national boundaries“ and “refugees“ he found fault with the appeal made by the Secretary-General of the United Nations for international help to aid the half million ,,Tamil refugees’. Had these refugees been caused by a flood in the South, this same minister with a Tamil name would have brushed aside all definitions and protocol and himself appealed for help.

Reluctance in accepting the truth of this exodus caused inhuman delays on the part of the Colombo government and its offices. Aid delayed was aid denied and hundreds succumbed to hunger, thirst, inclement weather and sickness.

The growing restrictions imposed by the Government on the flow of food, medicine and other essential items for life, the restrictions on the NGOs in not allowing them to get their means of communication, the restrictions on the media and prohibition of journalists to the North, and continued aerial attacks even on the displaced population were all causing the slow death of the Tamil population as exiles even within their own homeland.

11. Humiliation and Fear of the Tamils in the South

While celebrations were high among the Sinhala majority in the South over the conquest of Jaffna , security measures had to be tightened up to prevent them becoming another anti-Tamil racial hunt for civilian lives. All the Tamils living in the South, especially in Colombo, whether they were supportive or not supportive of the Tamil political demands, whether they were supporters or sympathisers or even opponents of the LTTE, they were all reminded of the ghastly and genocidal horror of the 1983 Holocaust of Tamils. They stayed away from offices and abstained from using public transport. Staying behind closed doors they left no signs outside their houses as to their identity. Even the arch enemies of the Tigers, who might have wished a complete defeat of the Tigers, were not happy about the capture of Jaffna nor about the Sinhala euphoria that might spill over into anti-Tamil riots again.

At least for the previous few weeks following the capture of Jaffna there was a tightening of the security measures in the City of Colombo. The Tamils coming from the North and even those living in the South for many years, were subjected to tight security searches. By these measures the Tamils were painfully reminded who they were in this country and how they were tolerated in the South. The house to house search done on the Tamils, the suspicion cast on them even by their long-time Sinhala neighbours and even friends, the checking done on them by any Singhalese on the road humiliated them a lot. Even the three-wheel drivers and hawkers overnight turned out to be Sinhala security personnel suspecting every Tamil to be a potential bomb or Tiger. The unlimited detention of Tamils in police stations without questioning, the denial of public transport to them in some areas, and a number of inhuman checks done on their person and their belongings, insisting on special police passes in addition to their national identity cards, were all shameful and humiliating acts done as “security measures“ by a Government and people who keep just saying for the last fifty years that the Tamils are “equal citizens” in the island as if to satisfy their own conscience. Without finding the facts and the truth whether the Tamils in effect are treated as equals, whether the Tamils feel as equals, it is unwise and counterproductive to force them by military might to that conviction.

12. Irrepressible Truth emerges and challenges

After a few weeks, the euphoria of victory fades away, the celebrations too come to an end and real life begins. It is then that the true significance of this deceptive victory begins to emerge. The enlightened Singhalese begin to realise that it was an expensive pyrhic victory at the cost of peace and conflict-resolution in the country. So long as the Sri Lankan Army holds on to Jaffna, Sri Lanka has to pay the high price of occupying an alien territory and the Singhalese will be haunted by a continuous “fear of a Tamil victory’’.

The government conducted its war in the Northeast with draconian measures such as media blockade (war behind closed doors!) and using “inhuman weapons“ such as economic blockades. Not allowing local or foreign journalists to go into the war zone, dishing out military reports as media reports, censoring all war-reports in the Colombo media, cutting many essential food and medicine supplies to the North, were resorted to unashamedly by a so called democratic government of Sri Lanka. Were these measures intended to be a “ slow death of a population within a gas chamber? The diplomatic missions of the international community and the foreign media correspondents did far too little or nothing to cross into the war-zones to find out the whole truth about the war waged behind closed doors and to ascertain the plight of the population dying there. Thus the war waged by the Sri Lankan Government behind closed doors and economic blockades was in open contravention of all Geneva conventions.

Thanks to the modern ways of communication which pierced through military and diplomatic curtains, reports about the real situation found their way to the Home Pages of the expatriate Tamils all over the world. The international media, which depended heavily on government and Colombo-based reports and were deaf to the cries of the oppressed victims were questioned, if not challenged, by these expatriate efforts. A true interpretation and analysis of the political and imperialistic forces behind the Second World War emerged only after decades of search and study. And the reconciliation of those peoples, even after decades, is not yet complete. Hence the deaths and destruction in the Northeast of Sri Lanka through so many military operations – Leap Forward, Thunder Strike, Hand Shake and Riviresa just to mention a few within a short period of three months in the tiny peninsula – may remain hidden or covered up for many years, but truth will emerge sooner than later. And hopefully, there will be still time for repentance and reconciliation!

Already three months have elapsed since the alien Sinhala Military occupied Jaffna and chased out the indigenous population. The world has neither known the whole truth of this exodus and massive suffering nor has any Government condemned the actions of the Sri Lanka Government for its inhuman military action. Thus the world which is quick to condemn the counter-violence of a desperate people but reluctant, if not sinfully silent, to condemn state-terror or to search out and treat the underlying cause of violence will one day wake up to this reality and answer its own conscience.