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Civilians' plight : Testimonies of victims of Sri Lanka's 25-year conflict

05-06-2008 Feature

Almost three decades of armed conflict in Sri Lanka have had wide-ranging humanitarian consequences for the population. The ICRC works to improve the situation of affected populations, including separated families and the internally displaced, the wounded, the sick and the detained. Claudia McGoldrick heard some of their stories.

 P. G. Somawathi  

  ©ICRC / C. McGoldrick / LK-E-00348    
  P. G. Somawathi    

 P. G Somawathi is a 49 year-old widow with four children. Her eldest son, a 29 year-old sailor in the Sri Lankan navy, has been held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since his capture in November 2006.  


" I first learned of my son Kamal's capture when friends of his saw the news on the internet, put there by the LTTE, and informed me about it. It turned out that four naval personnel had been captured, and several others killed in the fighting, but I was assured that Kamal was alive. Still, I felt very worried for him.

I then got in touch with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombo. The ICRC was able to visit my son in Kilinochchi [LTTE-controlled town ] and they allowed us to exchange letters, Red Cross Messages.

I write a Red Cross Message to Kamal once a week and I always get one in return. It is our only means of communication, and the only satisfaction I have. It is a huge source of comfort, in fact.

Kamal always writes that he's keeping well, and tells me not to be scared. I try not to express my feelings too much; I just ask him to remain patient. I try to stay strong for him.


I have managed to see Kamal only once since he was captured. The ICRC arranged this, and my youngest daughter and I travelled to Kilinochchi to visit him in March 2007. At the time he seemed in good health, and in quite good spirits. However, I recently saw a photo of him that he sent in family parcel, delivered by the ICRC. In it, he looks very thin and weak, and I am more worried now.


I live in constant hope that Kamal will be released soon. That's what keeps me going every day.

Since my husband died seven years ago, and now my eldest son has gone too, it's very hard without a man to be responsible for the family. That's my job now, and I find it very hard. "



 M. Mallikawathi  

  ©ICRC / C. McGoldrick / LK-E-00349    
  M. Mallikawathi    

 A 46 year-old widow, M. Mallikawathi lives with her three daughters in a camp for internally displaced people near the town of Kebitigollewa. The ICRC provided emergency shelter for more than 500 families when the camp was built in June 2006. Many families have since returned home, but others are reluctant to leave the camp.  


" I fled here with my children in June 2006, after a claymore attack on a bus near our village killed 69 people. Most of them were from my village, Yakwewa, which is only 12 kilometres from here.

I remember the day clearly. A bus packed with around 170 passengers was coming to Yakwewa for an important funeral. When I heard about the explosion, I grabbed my bike and cycled to the spot where it had happened, some 7 kilometres from my house. I knew my 19 year-old son was on that bus. By the time I got there, a lot of injured people had already been evacuated. People were standing around just crying.

Someone took me to Kebitigollewa hospital so that I could search for my son. I couldn't see his name on the list. It was when I was walking through the corridors of the hospital that I saw his body lying there with many others.

I couldn't stay in Yakwewa after what had happened. I no longer felt safe. My husband had been killed in 1997, and now I had lost my only son. It was terrible.

I fled with my three daughters to Kebitigollewa, along with many other families. For about three weeks we took shelter in a school. Then the ICRC built shelters for us on land provided by the government. They also gave us various essential things like household items, since many people had fled with only very few personal belongings.

For the first five months living in the camp, I never returned to my home, even though it's not far away. We have a house and 1½ acres of land. Now, I go back from time to time to check up on our property. Wild elephants have destroyed all the crops.

I still don't feel it's safe enough to return. The situation is still unpredictable. Only yesterday someone in the village was injured by a mine. My three girls are the most important thing for me, and I won't put them at risk in any way. "



 Vairavanathar Gengatharan  

  ©ICRC / C. McGoldrick / LK-E-00350    
  Vairavanathar Gengatharan    

 53-year old Vairavanathar Gengatharan lost his left leg in 1990, when he stepped on a landmine near his home on Mandativu Island, on the Jaffna peninsula. He received a prosthesis at the Jaffna Jaipur Disability Rehabilitation Centre, which is supported by the ICRC, and still goes there for regular physiotherapy.  


" I stil l remember the day, 11 October 1990, when we returned to our family home on Mandativu. Practically the whole population of the island had previously fled due to the fighting, but then it seemed safe to return. The roof of our house had been removed, so I was salvaging some tin sheeting when I stepped on a mine.

I didn't immediately realise what had happened. There was no pain at first, but when I looked down I saw that my lower left leg had been blown off.

Relatives took me to a clinic on Velanai island, and I was later transferred to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital. There, doctors amputated my left leg below the knee. This later became infected, so I had to have a second operation.

I was in hospital for about one month. A couple months later, I came to the Jaipur centre to get a prosthesis, and I managed to learn to walk again quite quickly. I have had six replacement prostheses over the years.


I used to own a shop renting out light and sound equipment. However, I lost my business, my house and all my property when fighting once again forced us to flee our homes. For now it's impossible to return, so I continue to live in Jaffna, even though life is quite hard. Some people are even suspicious of me when they see my false leg, and think that I was a fighter.

I received some training in tailoring from the Sri Lankan Red Cross Society, but this brings in a very low income as I have few orders. And the price of food and other goods is so high now that I can't afford much.

My wife and I never had children, and this is in fact a mixed blessing. On the one hand I don't have enough money to raise a family, but on the other hand there will be no-one to look after me in later life. My wife is also sick, and bed-ridden, a problem that will only get worse in the future. "


  ©ICRC / C. McGoldrick / LK-E-00334    
  Jaffna Teaching Hospital    

 Manchula (not her real name) is the mother of a one year-old boy, Balachandran, who was transferred from the Jaffna Teaching Hospital to the Lady Ridgeway Childrens' Hospital in Colombo for medical tests. They were flown on a special plane charter service provided by the ICRC. None of the patients from Jaffna – all Tamils – felt comfortable to give their real names or have their photo taken.  


" My little boy has been sick for about five mont hs now. He kept getting high fever and having fits. In Jaffna, doctors told us he has a problem with his liver, but that they couldn't do the necessary tests or treatment there. That’s why we had to come to Colombo.

If it wasn't for the ICRC flight, we wouldn't have been able to get here. Commercial flights are much too expensive. And since there was no way to get the right treatment in Jaffna, I don't know what we would have done. We would have been in a very bad situation.

We have been here for almost three weeks now. Balachandran has had various tests and medications for his problem. I have been told he is getting better now, and that it's OK to go back home to Jaffna. But I don't know exactly when we'll be getting the plane back.

I'm anxious to get back home because I have three other children in Jaffna. It's a bit difficult here, as I sleep on a mattress next to Balachandran's cot, which I have to roll away in the day. The space is rather confined. And I don't know anyone here; I have no family or friends in Colombo. At the same time I'm so grateful that we had the chance to come here and that Balachandran will be cured. "