Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sopika's Story

Sopika was born on the island of Kayts, off the northern tip of Jaffna. Until eight months ago, she and her older brother and younger sister lived with their parents in a village overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Then they left to visit the town of Madhu on the mainland. As the government unleashed its military offensive against the Tigers, their route home was shut off. Desperate to escape the shelling, they were driven ahead of the advancing government forces, further into LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) territory, moving from place to place, dodging air strikes and artillery.

Human rights groups and international officials have accused the government of heavily shelling areas densely populated with civilians in the last weeks of the war. The government has denied using heavy weapons. But by the time the family reached Mullaitivu, Sopika said she found the noise of the jets and artillery overwhelming. Her parents decided they had to make a break for it. It was 2am when they set off with several other families.

"As we were walking, the Tigers started to fire and the young boy walking in front of me got shot," she said. "My face and clothes were splattered with the blood of this boy. He died.

"We turned back because we were afraid of more death," she said.

Sopika said she remembered the moment when a sniper's bullet killed a relative sitting close by.

"I saw the bullets hit her head... half her face fell off," she said.

The family decided to try again to escape. This time they headed for the shore, again setting out at 2am, hoping that the darkness would provide them with cover from the guns of the Tamil Tigers and the government forces.

"We were walking in between the shooting from both sides, and we realised that we could be seen in the moonlight," she said.

In front of her, a 12-year-old boy and his mother were caught in the crossfire, collapsing dead on the ground. "We missed death by a few feet," she said. They turned back again.

The next day, there was no food, so the children went to bed hungry. They awoke again at 2am, and joined another family walking towards the shore.

"We started to walk a long way... no, really we started to run, we were scared we would get caught by the LTTE, we would get beaten," she said.

Dodging the bullets, they pushed on through shrubs and thorn bushes. "There was no road or path, there was a lot of mud and ditches," she said. "Once I fell over a dead body."

Nearing the shore of the lagoon, they started to crawl on their bellies across the sand, terrified of being caught by the Tigers. Entering the water, Sopaki found the waves crashing down on her head. She could not swim; she had never learnt.

"I was terrified because the water was up to my neck," she said. "I could barely stand as the current kept pulling me down. The navy's searchlights kept beaming into the water. I cried out 'Appa Appa' [father, father] when I fell into a trough. I nearly drowned. During the entire journey, we just wanted to run, but we couldn't."

Finally emerging from the water, they could see the army ahead of them. "We were told to lie down. They wanted to search us," she said. The soldiers gave them biscuits, dates and water and put them on a bus. "People were shouting and crying because many of them had lost their relative during the search operation," she said. Sopaki was also crying because her father and brother were missing, but the next day they were reunited.

The family arrived at Menik Farm eight days ago, just as the fighting reached a climax. Two days later, the government announced that the war was over. But their ordeal is not.

Conditions inside the camps are squalid: food and water are in desperately short supply and even the government admits the toilets are inadequate.

Others imprisoned behind the wire have their own tales of hardship and horror. According to private UN documents, at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of fighting in the war. The Red Cross says it evacuated 13,769 sick and wounded people and their relatives from the war zone.

"It is a great relief that the war is over, but peace has come at a very high price, with thousands of civilians killed, including large numbers of children," said James Elder, the Unicef spokesman in Sri Lanka. "There is no end to the gut-wrenching stories of death and destruction that scar these children."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Snip

"Civil War" is always an oxymoron. There is nothing civil about war ever and it is even less so when the combatants are all internal. It always the weakest and most vulnerable that pay the price for these domestic conflicts.
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