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'The exodus was a colossal human tragedy'

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The exodus was a colossal human tragedy, unprecedented in its proportions. Heeding the appeal of the LTTE cadres and realising the imminent danger to their lives from the invading enemy troops, the entire population of Valigamam - more than five hundred thousand people - stepped out onto the roads carrying their bare essentials and dragging along their children, the elderly and the sick. Everyone knew they would be safe if they could just crossover the Navatkuli bridge into Kaithaddy, Thenmarachchi. This realisation led to a headlong rush to cross the bridge before the enemy blocked the evacuation of the Jaffna population. 

The roads leading to Chavakachcheri were jam-packed with masses of desperate, frightened people. Bicycles - the only mode of transport - became a burden as the movement of the multitude ground to a halt with the cramming and congestion of people. The overcrowded processions of people extended for miles and it took several hours to move a few hundred yards. Adding to the tragedy, it started to rain. Teardrops from the weeping sky provided only a tiny relief to the many thirsty, dehydrated mouths. children cried with the agony of starvation as their parents watched helplessly. The elderly stumbled along the roads, often stopping to draw breath. Deprived of food and water and exposed to the weather, the sick became sicker. strained and stressed by the emotional and physical upheaval of the event, a pregnant woman lay down on the side of the road to deliver her baby, unattended in open air. Despite the physical hardships suffered by the people there was a sense of determination and urgency to escape from the clutches of an unpredictable and dangerous enemy who was nearing the gates to Jaffna. 

The Sri Lankan government and its armed forces never anticipated such a mass evacuation of people from Valigamam. When they understood the scope and magnitude of the exodus and the direction of the moving multitude, they relaised, to their utter dismay and frustration, that they are going to conquer a ghost city. The advancing troops could do nothing to prevent the evacuation. At one stage Air Force jets - in desperation - struck at the fleeing population at Chemmani killing two civilians and injuring five others. This cowardly act failed to deter the population fleeing across the bridge. Within three or four days, a population of half a million people vacated Valigamam and crossed over to the LTTE controlled Thenmarachchi. 

A huge displaced population engulfed Chavakachcheri, a hisoric town famous for its open market and delicious fruit. Every house in the town provided shelter and refuge to relatives, friends and strangers. I know of one house where sixty people lived, stretching the water resources and toilet facilities. All over Chavakachcheri - in schools, colleges, temples, churches, coconut plantations and mango groves- people scrambled for some space where they and their families could stay. As I rode on my bicycle to the local vegetable market I was overwhelmed by the sense of urgency that filled the air. The town was packed with people and their belongings. Some people just stood, surrounded by their possessions with nowhere to go. Others squatted listlessly under trees they had claimed as their home. Small fires burned and smoke wafted eerily through the air as women struggled to cook for their hungry, tired and distressed families. Children cried and rubbed their eyes and looked around hopelessly. The elderly and sick lay on mats on the cold ground and snatched a short rest while the other family members watched over them. A deep sorrow engulfed me as I witnessed this historic tragedy. 

Most of these people had abandoned their elegant houses with flourishing gardens and fruit trees. Having deserted their property built up over generations of hard toil, they were now, overnight, reduced to conditions of wretchedness, faced with despair and misery. It was a sad and tragic scenario to see the proud and dignified people of Jaffna moving around aimlessly, impoverished and homeless. An entire community of people was compelled to abandon their sacred city, the cultural capital of the Eelam Tamils, where they have lived for innumerable centuries. 

The life in Chavakachcheri and its surrounding villages became intolerable for the displaced Jaffna population. Faced with an acute shortage of food and medicine, depried of proper accomodation, sanitary facilities etc, the displaced suffered extreme hardships. Adding to their misery was the artillery fire directed at random amongst them to create terror and cause casualties. The shelling also reminded the Tamil people of the imminent invasion of Thenmarachchi. Neither the Kumaratunga government nor the international governments showed any concern about the pathetic plight of the displaced.

The Colombo media observed a studied silence as if nothing had happened to the Jaffna population. The media only highlighted stories of 'spectacular' military advances of 'brave soldiers' whose objective was to 'liberate' the people of Jaffna from the 'terrorist' LTTE. There was one lone voice that expressed concern over the exodus of the Jaffna population. The former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Ghali called upon international governments to assist the uprooted Jaffna population. Fearing that this inhuman tragedy casued by the war would becoming internationalised, Mr Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister acted swiftly, denying the existence of any humanitarian tragedy. In a bid to cover - up the criminality of the Sinhala state, the 'Tamil' Minister cautioned the UN Secretary General not to exaggerate the 'minor problem' of a 'internally displaced' people that conerns the 'internal affairs' of a 'sovereign state'. Mr Kadirgamar thereby suppressed the only voice that expressed genuine concern for the plight of the displaced Jaffna Tamils.  


Adele Balasingham is a sociologist, political activist and writer who lived and worked in India and Sri Lanka with the LTTE. This extract is from ‘The Will to Freedom’, her internal study of the armed struggle of the Tamil Tiger movement, 2nd edition, Fairmax Publishing Ltd (UK), 2003.

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