Marking the ninth anniversary of the Sencholai massacre when 53 school girls were killed by a Sri Lankan military air strike on a children's home, Together Against Genocide (TAG) published an account of the incident based on interviews.
The following account written by Shash Trevett is based on interviews to Together Against Genocide (TAG). Personal details of Meena (not her real name), place names and dates have been changed to protect her identity.
It was early in the morning of 14th August 2006. Meena was at home getting ready to attend a computer course at her school. She had completed her A Level examinations a couple of months before, and was shoring up her qualifications further. At 7.30am that morning, Meena was outside her family home when she saw Kfir planes belonging to the Sri Lankan Air Force fly over her house. A few seconds later she heard a loud explosion, accompanied by a bright light. Terrified, she dropped to the ground, covering her ears, trying to protect herself from the sounds of the aerial bombardment.
Her mother, frightened for her daughter, had run out of the house when she heard the first bomb blast. As the Kfirs circled overhead, Meena’s mother flung herself on top of her daughter, covering her child with her own body. The noise and the terror were overwhelming. The two lay on the ground until the Kfirs had dropped their last bomb and flown away. Then they began digging a bunker in case the planes returned.
As Meena and her mother awaited the return of the bombers, news began to filter through that the Sencholai compound had been hit. Meena knew that some of her friends from school had been attending a 10 day residential course in first aid and disaster management at the compound. Knowing that all the hospitals in the area had taken in the wounded, Meena went to the hospital at Puthukudiyiruppu to check for survivors. There she found 15-20 injured girls, two of whom were her closest friends. One had been wounded in her stomach and arm, the other in her leg. She stayed with her friends, talking and comforting them, listening as they recounted how they had been watching the news on the televisions when the attack had begun. There was a sense of disbelief amongst the girls, a deep incomprehension as to how attending a first aid course could end in them lying fighting for their lives in a hospital. Before long, Meena’s friend with the stomach wounds died of her injuries.
Overcome by grief, Meena stayed away from the hospital for a few days feeling that she did not have the strength to face the suffering of other girls of her own age. But Meena was part of the Scouts, and when a Scout leader approached her asking for her help at the hospital, Meena was unable to refuse. So every day she went to Puthukudiyiruppu hospital to look after the injured. She was given a different patient to look after each day, providing support to both the injured girls themselves, and to the traumatised family members of the victims. She did not talk to them about the bombings; her job was to promote a sense of calm and normality in the lives of those whose peace had been destroyed.
Meena also volunteered at Ponnambulam hospital, where another 15-20, more seriously injured girls were being treated. Here she cared for those who had lost limbs, and were recovering from life threatening injuries. What Meena found hardest to cope with was not the physical injuries to the school girls, but their deep mental anguish. And in turn, their trauma became hers - the trauma of being a witness to an atrocity.
The Sencholai massacre remains an open scar in the psyche of the Tamil people. Four Sri Lankan Air Force planes bombed the Sencholai children’s home in Vallipuram for girls orphaned in the war, even as the institution hosted a workshop on first aid and disaster management for students from neighbouring schools. 53 school girls aged between 16-18 were killed that morning, along with three members of staff. Over a hundred children were injured. This is how an 18 year old survivor described the attack: “In the aerial strikes, many died on the spot, and many were wounded, most had multiple injuries, some lost their limbs, some had severe burns. All the girls were pleading for help, pleading to be taken to a hospital”. On the ninth anniversary of the attack, we remember them.