Then They Held Guns, Now They Battle Hunger Pangs
by Tharidu Jayawardana, Idunil Ussgoddarachchi, Udaya Karthikan and R Indumathi
She gave up the T-56, her constant companion for over three years when the bloody war ended. Selvi wanted a clean break.
When she walked into a government run rehabilitation camp in mid-2009, Slevi, harbored faint hopes for a better life. When she left the rehabilitation camp a year and half later, those hopes had galvanized.
She returned to Killinochchi, her home town, like a teenager, not like a 24 year old rehabilitated former combatant. She was giddy with new hopes, new dreams – a home, a husband, children.
But she was in for a rude shock. Her own villagers rejected her, she was used commodity. For some she was a former cadre with the Tamil Tigers, sullied by blood and gore, for others she was a woman brainwashed by the government. All of them rejected her, some even called her a whore.
“In my life, the life that we have known, a woman’s life is not complete without marriage, without children, but everyone looks at me with suspicion,” Selvi said, her eyes blank.
She joined the Tigers when she was 19, in 2006. She had to join the Tigers as her brother who was a cadre had died in battle. Then onwards her life became the Tigers. That was until the war ended.
“People have a lot of suspicion on us, nothing like that happened. We were taken care of really well during rehabilitation,” she said.
Selvi’s plight is not unique; unfortunately it is the common refrain among over 12,000 former Tigers who have gone through government sponsored rehabilitation.
“We had lots of food during rehabilitation, but nothing else of use to us,” Manimekala, from Jayanthi Nagar in Killinochchi said. “During the time we were with the Tiger, we were not jobless, we had something to do, now nothing, no jobs, how can we live like that,” said the 34 year old woman who spent several years as a cadre and surrendered during the final stages.
Manimekala said that there was some talk of jobs with the civil defense force but that too never materialized. Her husband has left for the Middle East, but she says he is still unemployed there. She does have a small job, that pays her Rs 7000. “But what can you do with Rs 7000?”
Despite the gloom, she is sure of one thing, she does not want to go back to her past. “If we can live in peace that is enough.”
Peace is enough for Sathyan as well, a disabled former cadre. He was with the Tigers since 1993, but lost his right limb in 1996 in a mine blast in Jaffna. He surrendered after the war and went through one year of rehabilitation.
“When I was released I got Rs 250, I got off in Killinochchi and paid Rs 250 for the three-wheeler to get home. I entered home penniless,” he said.
Sathyan says that the Tiger badge is hard to shake off, it’s stamped on the former cadres like a branding. He wants to apply to get a prosthetic, but to obtain an Rs 50,000 grant, he needs certification from his village government representative. But the form has a line that says that the aforementioned has at no time worked against the Sri Lanka government or the Army. With Sathyan’s background, the government official is reluctant to sign the form.
Sathyan has been doing odd jobs since his return to Killinochchi to look after his wife and three daughters. He has started to build a house but is not sure when it will be completed.
He also hires a three wheeler. But he can not afford the special vehicle that is tailor-made for disabled, that is too expensive.
“I like to get involved in activities in the village, but I can’t., the moment I get involved, the Tiger label is pasted on me.”
These rehabilitees feel that the villages they returned to were never sensitized to accommodate former combatants.
Dinesh is yet another man who feels hard-done. He is 30, and joined the Tigers in 2008 after marriage. “The Tigers said that married men would not be sent to the frontline, but only be involved in support work. I got seven days of weapons training and was in the front.”
He says that when he was taken in for rehabilitation, because of his short stint with the Tigers, authorities promised to release him in six months. He spent two and half years in rehabilitation.
One of his sisters was also killed in battle in 2008 in Mannar, his father died in 2007 from cancer. The illness forced him to give up studies in 2003 and seek work to look after his seven siblings.
All the former cadres say that the Vanni they returned to is much more chaotic and undisciplined than what it was during the war.
“Then no one was doing anti-social activities, they were all scared of Prabhakaran. Now a girl can not walk on the road after six in the evening.”
Dinesh feels that if a factory is set up in the area and the youth provided with employment, lot of the youth related issues could be controlled.
Vadivel, served in the LTTE for 13 years and lost his eyesight on April 17, 2009, a month before the war came to an end. His final task was providing security to top ranker.
“We were treated well in the rehabilitation camp. But we did not get any vocational training. After my release I learned to stitch door mats through the help of a NGO. A coir mat will sell for about Rs 250, but what is in demand are the mats made of cloth. So I got trained as a cook, and now I run a small catering service. But there are newcomers who spend a lot of money and get into the business; it is difficult to compete with them.” Soon after his release he met a woman who happened to call his mobile phone by accident. They are now married and Vadivel is the father of a one year old. The struggle to make ends meet is acute for him.
He says he harbors no animosity towards the military. He wants to be on friendly terms with them. “But the attention from the government towards the disabled like us is not very much. I don’t want to be branded as a former Tiger. Everybody has the feeling of race, be they Sinhala or Tamil, we did what we had to for that then, now all that is finished. I will not go back to that, I will not get into politics. We don’t want another war.”
According to social workers and civic leaders in the region, rehabilitees face mounting problems.
“There are three main concerns, one, they get rejected as agents of the armed forces, they get segregated as being spies, two, during the time of the Tigers, cadres were recruited by visiting houses, if somebody recruited like that died in the war and the recruiter survived, the latter will face rejection from the deceased’s family and relatives. Third is that people feel that women who have been through rehabilitation are sullied, there is no looking into their position, they are rejected automatically, ” said Rev S K Daniel, from Killinochchi.
Rev Daniel is also critical of misguided interventions. “Sewing machines are distributed to those engaged in farming, no one teaches them how to stitch. There is no use. About 2000 (rehabilitees) were absorbed to civil defense force, others are still looking for work.”
He also recounted the difficulties faced by former cadres because of their past affiliations.
“A teacher who served in a school for eight years before she joined the LTTE went to the school to get an employment certificate, the principal refused because she served with the Tigers, on another occasion when another wanted to leave for India for a yoga course, there were all kinds of issues when his passport number was entered.
It came back that he was a former cadre.” Six years since the war ended, the rehabilitees are fighting new battles. The biggest issue they have right now is acceptance, to be accepted as ordinary people.
“We lost a lot of things to war, both sides did. There should not be a war again. It really does not matter what you call us, but please don’t desert us,” one rehabilitee said.
Some names have been changed on request
The production of this story was an outcome of the Journalist Sprint initiative supported by Internews Network.