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A bloodied childhood in war-torn Sri Lanka

Last updated on: May 22, 2013 14:00 IST

Sri Lankan Tamil poet and journalist Theepachelvan Pratheepan shares the experiences of his petrified childhood days spent in the war-torn island nation with Rediff.com’s Shobha Warrier.

He was born when the ethnic conflict and the war broke out in 1983 in Sri Lanka. He grew up listening to fighter planes hovering over his head and watching men, women and children walking hundreds of kilometres in search of safety.

There had to be an outpouring of the troubled mind that saw blood, gore, hatred and killings all around him. He became a poet, a journalist and an essayist. What he went through in life may not be understood by many who live in a peaceful environment. Today, he is the author of 11 books, including five collections of poems, three of articles, a short story collection, and one anthology of poems by Eelam poets.

He is Sri Lankan poet and journalist Theepachelvan Pratheepan.

Pratheepan was in Chennai doing a masters degree in journalism at the Madras University and this interview with Rediff.com’s Shobha Warrier was done days before he went back home earlier this month.

Pratheepan’s words illuminate the life and times of a young man growing up in a war-torn country.

 War starts in Sri Lanka

I was born in 1983 in Kilinochchi, the year the war started in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the Sinhalese people. In the first struggle, 3,000 Tamils got killed.

My memory of the struggle begins from the time I was four or five. Those were the times of Indian Peace Keeping Force. I have seen the Indian army catching people and almost everyday, I saw army vehicles going along the roads, past my house. I have also seen attacks from helicopters against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Members of the LTTE were hiding all the time in the jungles, and I have seen many young men from my village being recruited by the outfit.

I had my grandmother, mother and Anna (brother) at home; my father left my mother and went to Colombo when she was eight months pregnant with me. I first saw my father when I was 10.

I never used to sleep well in those days as I was scared of army men coming and strafing all around us. The moment I got up, I used to go out on the roads in search of the footprints of the army men. On some mornings, I used to stand behind with my mother watching the army marching along with many young men, all of them said to be members of the LTTE or in allegiance with the LTTE.

At that time, I didn't know what the LTTE was; I had only heard many youngsters, including my brother, talking about a movement. For the young Tamils of that region, the LTTE was the major source of inspiration and hope that it would bring justice to them and the revolution they were fighting for.

An elder cousin of mine, who was a member of the LTTE, used to come home and talk about their activities. As I was a young child, they never used to take me seriously. I would be sleeping in one corner when they discussed what was going on in the jungles.

Going to school

My mother was the sole breadwinner for the family, and she worked as a coolie when I was small so that my brother and I were fed and sent to school. Whenever we saw the IPKF soldiers on our way to school, we stayed close to the walls. We were scared to walk along with them but they used to wave at us.

My initial growing up years have been associated with the IPKF. By 1990-91, the IPKF had left our soil, and very soon, Kilinochchi came under the control of the LTTE.

War intensifies

After the IPKF left, the war intensified. No one knew when bombs fell and when people would get killed. We had bunkers in our area and when bombs started falling, we rushed to the bunkers and hid there. This continued till 2009. It was mostly small fighter planes that hovered over our heads in the beginning, later on they became huge ones.

The kind of life I lead as a child was totally different from that of children growing up in other countries. Not only my generation, but even the next one grew up amidst the sound of fighter planes, bombs falling and under the scrutiny of army men all the time.

The days were full of fear, trepidation and anxiety. I didn't know where to pour out my fears. When I was around 12 or so, I started writing about my innermost feelings. That is why even today, I write a lot about what children feel growing up in troubled times.

Awareness about the war

Even when I was young, I knew the war was against us by the Sinhalese army. But proper awareness and the justification behind the fight came to me only after the death of my brother.

My brother Prasanna changed his name to Vallayan once he joined the LTTE as a soldier in 1996. He died in some action in 2001. That was a turning point in my life.

He used to meet the LTTE soldiers on his way to school and perhaps got influenced by what they were fighting for. The first time he went to join the LTTE was when he was just 10. He went of his own volition to be a fighter but he was sent back by the LTTE as he was too young. This happened five times before he was recruited as a young soldier at 15.

I was small, and used to fight with him for taking such a decision; but he had his own justifications even at that age. At that time, I didn't want my Anna to join the LTTE, and I had no idea how he got influenced by the LTTE.

Becoming a refugee

In 1996, the war intensified, and Kilinochchi came under the control of the Sri Lankan army. The army marched into our town, and we all ran away in the other direction. Even as we were running away, bombs fell near us and many people died in front of our eyes.

Lakhs of people became homeless and thus refugees. We were also displaced from our homes. As we ran for our lives, I wondered whether this was the kind of life we were born to live, and whether there would be an end to all this.

When we left our home, we didn't know what to carry and what to leave behind. I wanted to take all my books with me, but as a 12-year-old, how much can you carry when you are running for your life? As we became refugees, I walked in one direction with my mother, and my brother went to join the LTTE. After that, I saw him only one more time.

Under the hot sun, without any slippers, we walked and when people fell dead, my mother would close my eyes so that I didn't see death and get scared. We must have walked 10-12 kms and finally found refuge in a temple. There were no proper refugee camps; and all the refugees lived under huge trees, in schools or in temples.

There were refugees from Jaffna also along with the displaced from Killinochi. I will never be able to describe the journey we took and the place where we all congregated.

LTTE helps with camps and schools

Soon, the LTTE started constructing small huts for the refugees, and we also got a small place to live. I couldn't go to school for one year, but by next year LTTE arranged education for all the refugee children. I also started going to school. If not for the LTTE, I would not have continued my education.

Brother dies

By 1998-99, the LTTE recaptured Kilinochchi, and that was when I saw my brother again. It was only in 2002 we could come back home. By then, my brother was no more. He fought bravely for his people and laid down his life for them. The news of his death was a big blow for me. Till his death, I didn't understand what he stood for and fought for, but after his death, I started sympathising with his ideals. Instead of living for himself and his family, he lived for a cause and his people. I started admiring his decision.

Studying in Jaffna

By 2001, there was peace around us. I decided to move to Jaffna to continue my education in Tamil literature at the Kilinochchi Central College of the University of Jaffna. It was a new experience for me as I had lived only in the LTTE controlled areas till then. In Jaffna, for the first time, I lived in the army controlled area. I became a student leader and also an activist under the scrutiny of the Sri Lankan army.

Theepachelvan is born

In 2006, once again, war broke out. This time, I had to express my feelings strongly, and I had only one weapon with me, and that was my writing.

But it was not safe to write under my name Pratheepan, and I wrote as Theepachelvan. My heart ached and I wrote many poems, and all my writings were about the sufferings of the people, how the LTTE helped, how all of us fought for our freedom, etc.

When war intensified in 2006, I published less in my country as there was danger if I wrote what I felt. Whatever I wrote appeared in the Tamil magazines in Tamil Nadu, and also on web journals.

Pray for my land’

I have written 11 books so far, the latest is Pray for my country. It has 11 poems about my land. If you look at my land, Kilinochchi, it is robbed off its true nature by war. I wrote it when my land was under siege, as a request to all others in the world to pray for my land.

Everyone should understand that we are not the Tamils of Tamil Nadu. We have our own identity, our own history and ancestors from our own land. That is why we are from Sri Lanka and not from India or Tamil Nadu.

The poems are about how important the land is to us because it has been passed on to us by our ancestors; we have our roots there, and we have no existence without our land. Our land is our life, our breath, our very own existence. That is why almost all my poems are about my land.

My dream is to live in a land that is our own, and where there is peace.

Image: Theepachelvan Pratheepan

Photograph: Sriram Selvaraj

Shobha Warrier in Chennai