From dealing with the trauma of disappeared family members to clearing landmines off the fields, the post-war struggle in the country is still on.
MULLAITIVA, Sri Lanka — On the night of the May 15 in 2009, 26-year-old Shanthi put her son on her shoulders and, along with a few thousand other Tamils, waded chest-high across the Nandikadal lagoon that separated the dwindling and scattered groups of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) fighters from the Sri Lankan army that was closing in from inland.
Trapped between the two firing parties were nearly 300,000 civilians like her, who decided to move far away from the sea that night, leaving behind their few possessions in and around the bunkers they had dug for themselves in Mullaithivu, the low-lying coastal strip of land in northeast Sri Lanka.
It was Shanthi’s son’s third birthday on the day she crossed the lagoon. Three days later on May 18, the government declared the official victory over the LTTE. The UN estimates that close to 40,000 people were killed in the exchange during the last days, while an estimate of 20,000 are still reported as missing.
In 2006, Shanthi’s husband had been picked up and detained on suspicion of being an LTTE militant, while Shanthi was heavily pregnant. Not long after, she gave birth to her son in a camp for the internally displaced. After escaping the last days of shelling and firing between the army and the LTTE in 2009, she eventually got a clerical job in town while raising her son with the hope that one day his father will return. On the walls of her home, there are crayon drawings of their three names, and a stick-drawing of a family of three enclosed within a heart.
She says: “I refuse to believe he’s dead. And if that’s not true and he was indeed killed after being detained, why are we all being strung along without any concrete answers - aren’t we owed clarity and closure?”
She holds on to the belief that her husband is being held somewhere in a rehabilitation camp in the east after being picked up off the coast of Mannar.
Late last year, a mass grave of hundreds of skeletons was unearthed at a building site in Mannar, the same week Shanthi went to attend a gathering of women there, whose family members have been reported as missing in action. In 2017, she joined the women’s group which had been formed to independently campaign for information around missing persons in the north and east of the island. Thousands of women mobilised around the cause, after losing faith in the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) - a panel established by the government to investigate the disappearance of nearly 20,000 people during the period of the war.
Ten years from the end of the war, Shanti suffers from ‘ambiguous loss’, a term associated with people who deal with the disappearances of family members - a constant state of oscillation between hope and despair, unable to find closure and re-establish normalcy in life. While she managed to set up a home outside Jaffna town, further afield new homes for the newly resettled internally-displaced people still remain unfinished.
Caught up in delays due to the house-building deals dithering between China and India, many still await resettlement by the government in permanent homes. In Jaffna’s Palaly and inland from Kankesanthurai, de-mining work is still being carried in pockets.
A group of de-miners trained and employed by an international trust has been scanning and clearing the north and east, even 10 years on from the war’s end. While most of the land is now clear, thousands of kilometres are still off-limits.
One worker said: “Yes it’s a job and it’s good to have one after everything that’s happened here but we work long hours and take this really seriously… our people have already been damaged by years of war and displacement and we hope that by clearing the land soon life can be back to what it was before.”
It is not just uncleared mines, the naval and military take-over of land also keeps thousands of civilians in the region off-limits.
While much of the land has been returned by the government, a large chunk remains held by the military and remains a point of contention in these regions.
“Our land is our life. We’ve lost family members to this war, we’ve lost land that we’ve lived on for generations as well. There are very real reminders all around us, all the time,” said one older man.
Like thousands of others in Sri Lanka, the post-war struggle to bring life back to normal is ongoing - even 10 years on from May 18, 2009.