always thought that I have known my country through the back of my hand—missing
out on reunions with childhood friends and high school dances in exchange to
travel and help the war-affected orphans was certainly not what I expected it to
be. Voices that spoke in my native tongue during the weekends, pushed aside by
my weekly interactions with my English mates. But it was a culture separated
from a certain situation and that would only be possible if it was a separate
nation. Reading morning headlines that described the bloodshed dripping from my
country was not what I expected it to be.
A colleague of mine had asked me
to join with her during summer vacation, by volunteering at Sri Lanka where, we
will potentially help war-affected orphans that experienced traumatic events in
their life. I wasn’t too sure of how to help these children because I was
certainly not a psychologist but, I was promised of an exciting adventure that
was too hard to resist so, I agreed to join with her on this road to
self-discovery. As we were in a bus full of participants from different
nationalities, we came together to erase these horrific memories that were forever
etched in those innocent souls.
We drove through the middle of
the country, what was once destroyed by war. Once we got off the bus, a girl
named Anika asked me, wouldn’t it be
easier to send money to these orphanages instead of, traveling all the way here
to improve the lives of these innocent minds. I didn’t think through her
perspective because who would miss a good adventure in a tropical island.
Anjuli was one of the
participants in our adventure to help those who are in need. She was 14 when I
first met her, one of seventy-eight girls who lived on an acre of land located
near the ocean. At the orphanage she, like many others, didn’t fit into the
definition of an Orphan, as she told me, “I am here because my amma (mother)
wanted me to live in a safe place.” From whom is she hiding from, but that wasn’t
my business. I only came to jump easily on the task at hand, but I was
preoccupied by their traumatic stories. At least a dozen times a day, my mind
was disturbed, and I would question myself—why am I here?
Marilla, looked a lot like me—a familiar
stranger in her eyes. Marilla’s father had left her, to join the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), freedom fighters on a movement to fight for a separate
Tamil nation against the government. Her father was caught by the Sri Lankan
Army and was brutally tortured by them. When he returned from the war, he acted
strangely around his family. Their home was destroyed by conflict which, only made
them poorer. The violent outbursts that he was experiencing, made Marilla
scared. I had to banish from there, she says, uneasily, silently. For
a complicated problem, could there be a fast, straightforward solution? A child’s
haven should be their home but, the warmth of their haven was destroyed by war.
The nonexistence of innocent glee from these children was insufficient too, but whom do we blame?
My papa (father) called the church one Sunday evening and asked how
was I doing there. How is it there? he asked, nervously. I paused to reflect
how I was feeling being surrounded by these children and their untold stories. I
feel…uncomfortable but, peaceful at the same time. Throughout the evening,
there was storytelling by many kids. Scraps and pieces of their stories would
forever be etched as a memory in my mind. In all the children, pain was evident
in their eyes, even as they laughed, communicating what you needed (and yet you
didn’t want) to know.
Anjuli carefully stirred the pot
of stew and said, “If the war arises
again, I will join the free fighters.” In the orphanage, such odd
comments have no value. It was a moment in history where I have seen the pure
emotion of shock—from everyone at the orphanage but me. As I was constantly
responding to my parents, a part of me was stuck, watching the first death
tolls flashing across the television screen.
Anjuli and Marilla were very
quiet. Back inside the walls of the orphanage, Anjuli sits next to me,
sketching a dove as she told me that, “My sister is part of the LTTE, she says she feels comfortable
there. In my village the army comes to look for families connected to the
movement. They won’t come here.”
In a place where strict orthodox traditions determined the appropriate size
of earrings and lengths of skirts, Anjuli’s sister was stomping through the forest
in military boots with a group of freedom fighters. She was among the roughly
one-third of LTTE fighters that were female, filling ranks from foot soldiers
to high-standing guerillas.
In our final days we took a bus ride
to the beach, a first for many of the children in the orphanage. It
wasn’t until I had made the familiar trek across the island, a lady was crying.
On the sand next to a collapsed church, she cried out loud and said, “My arms still ache. I cannot hold anything
since I lost my child.” I don’t remember the women’s name, there were
too many people crowded on the beach that day, but I remember the way she
looked through my soul. The collapsed church is where her child was. She didn’t
ask for food, medical attention, and she didn’t bother to call for help. She
only needed a stranger like me, to understand that her child was dead.
As I was pulled back from the women’s constant
cries, I have realized that the things left unsaid and unexplored on the
original trip forced me into figuring out everything on my own. I wanted to
know more about what was occurring around me but, no one wanted to share about
it because they were told that they were being watched by someone.
All too soon there were tearful goodbyes, names of
those I met, and addresses scribbled in my notebook—hopeless to remain in contact between two countries.
As we drove away my friend turned to me and admitted that, “Ok, by coming to
Sri Lanka we had been impacted by many, then we would have by only sending
money.” Even though the intent of sending money was honourable in the first
place, the impact was quite problematic for me to understand. What has happened
in the past between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army that impacted these
war-affected orphans so much, that they wouldn’t tell the higher officials?
I had only
discovered what was occurring to them when, I was lost in texts on ethnic
conflict in Sri Lanka that deepened my knowledge on unequal power regarding
federalism and resistance in that country. My summers were spent on the island,
where my conversations with girls from the orphanage has grown more thoughtful every
year. I still remember what Marilla told me 5 years ago, using her sarcastic
voice on how most Western countries view Sri Lanka as. She said, “Let them
finish off the messy part of eliminating terrorism, and go in later with
It was difficult
to locate their narratives and to verify the stories that have been told by
them but, to collect evidence of a woman’s pain came with its own politics. For
instance, a medical report is reliable, a grandmother who cannot erase what she
has witnessed and the cruel intentions of those around her was not credible. Here
you’d have to reveal the number of burials for anyone to give a tiny shit, but
when people are living in shit…that won’t turn any heads. Using the pen that I
had on my hand, I wrote down my thoughts on my diary.
might be something liberating about letting go of what you dreamed about and
while you’re at it, tell them a good make-believe story at the end.