B. Muralidhar Reddy

“I have never seen so much devastation, pain and suffering even in a horror film”

The Hindu correspondent establishes telephonic contact with refugee’s daughter in Colombo

Thousands among the 2.7 lakh refugees who escaped took with them their savings of years

MANIK FARM COMPLEX (VAVUNIYA): Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. The case of Thuraiyappah Gathayaselan (who would turn 60 on October 31), an Assistant Director in the Sri Lanka Ministry of Education posted at Vadamarachi in the Jaffna peninsula, is perhaps a telling example.

A twist in his life on August 11, 2006 displaced him from his four-member family at Vadamarachi, left him with no choice but to be a captive of the LTTE at Kilinochchi till November and end up among the last batch of civilians to run away from the Tigers into the government-controlled territory.

Currently lodged in one of the 25 government camps for the war-displaced civilians in the Manik Farm Complex, 50 km. from Vavuniya town, Mr. Gathayaselan is desperate to contact his wife and three daughters at Vadamarachi. Thankfully, he has preserved the government identity card through the multiple displacements that began some time in November and the unprecedented devastation three weeks preceding the end of Eelam War IV on May 19.

Clutching the card like his lifeline, the senior officer does not miss any opportunity to display it to any outsider allowed access to the tent he shared with 21 others, in the hope that someone would facilitate his re-union with his family.

“Though I am posted at Vadamarachi, my monthly salary is credited to the district education office in Kilinochchi as Vadamarachi technically was under the jurisdiction of the Kilinochchi District Education Zonal Office. On the afternoon of August 11, 2006, I took the bus to Kilinochchi to collect my salary for July 2006. The following day the Government of Sri Lanka decided to close down A 9 Highway, which links the peninsula with the rest of the world, leaving me stranded in Kilinochchi.

“For the next few days, weeks, and months I knocked in vain on the door of every single Tiger leader and cadre in town seeking a permit to cross on foot the LTTE checkpoint on A 9. Since I could not leave Kilinochchi, the Department of Education in September 2006 attached me to the Kilinochchi District Educational Zonal Office. The last pay cheque I received from the government was in November 2008.

“Since we were ordered by the LTTE to shift out of Kilinochchi in November deeper into the Tiger-held territory in Vanni, I have lost count of the number of times I was displaced. I have never seen so much devastation, pain and suffering even in a horror film, compared to what I witnessed in the last few weeks before I decided to move into the government-controlled territory on May 13.

“I am exhausted physically and mentally. My survival springs from the hope that sooner rather than later I would be with my family. This is my residential telephone number (00-94-21-2264378). Could you please pass on a message to any of my family members that I am alive and lodged in Manik Farm Zone IV,” he pleaded with two of the foreign mediapersons who sat down with him for a conversation in his tent. A 70-member foreign media contingent was on a military-guided trip to the camp.

This correspondent, who returned to Colombo at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday, got through to the number in one try. His daughter who picked up the phone could barely converse in English and was yet anxious for details of her father. She was given the office number of The Hindu and asked to call up as and when someone who could converse better in English was available. The call did not come till 11 a.m. on Wednesday. A Tamil woman who helps in the upkeep of the Colombo office of The Hindu attempted to contact the family at 11.30 a.m. on Wednesday. A woman who picked up the phone at the residence of Mr. Gathayaselan said all his family members were out and a message would be conveyed. There was no call till the time of filing of this report.

A random conversation with the last batch of refugees reveals that the overwhelming majority of civilians chose to move with the Tigers every time the military advanced into Vanni as they were ‘afraid’ of the forces. Do they think the Tigers should have reviewed their strategy after the fall of Kilinochchi and are they angry with the LTTE? Who were the people who were selling essentials at exorbitant prices?

The response: “Well, in retrospect many things could be said. The Tigers thought till the second week of May that they would somehow turn the tables on the military and we believed it too. The Tigers are dead and gone. What is the point in getting angry with those who are no longer in this world? Cheats and thieves had managed to pilfer the goods sent by the government and were selling them to the highest bidder in hard currency.”

A remarkable feature is that thousands among the 2.7 lakh refugees who escaped took with them their savings of years. Millions of rupees have been deposited in two of the bank branches opened in the refugee camps.

Not just thick bundles of Sri Lankan rupees in cash, many of them, it seems, also carried jewellery bundled in clothes and flimsy suitcases. “The first day, Rs. 12 million was deposited in one branch, which was opened a few weeks ago. In the first few days, on average Rs. 5 million was being deposited,” as per M. Farzan Mansoor, coordinating secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

On Monday, a man wearing a torn sarang walked into a branch and deposited Sri Lankan Rs. 3.4 million. “On Tuesday, another air-conditioned branch, which is functioning out of a container-truck, was opened with an ATM machine and a net connection for people to transfer money. The bank has started issuing ATM cards,” Mr. Mansoor said.

Till Tuesday more than 7,000 savings accounts had been opened, besides at least 1,000 fixed deposit accounts. “There are 1,000 accounts in which jewellery have been deposited. At least 400 safety lockers have been provided,” he said.

A Tamil politician working with refugees in the area said it was true that many came out with a lot of money. “The Army also allowed them to bring the cash and jewellery. Many of the refugees have relatives abroad who regularly send them money. But for several months, the refugees had little to spend the money on,” he said.

SIM card revelations

Separately, in the national capital, Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs Bandula Gunawardene said the SIM card in LTTE chief V. Prabakaran’s cellular telephone revealed vital information on the activities of several leading personalities in the south.

Addressing a meeting at the Dambulla Economic Centre, he said the pro-LTTE elements in the south were responsible for many crises in the country and price hikes in the local market.