ON THE AFTERNOON OF 19 MAY 2009, at around 1:20 pm, a ration shop accountant named Sivarajan ran to the front of the winding lunch queue in the Anandakumaraswami Zone 3 refugee camp to serve rice and sodhi, a watery concoction of chillies and coconut milk. Swarna, a former militant, sat in her tent nearby, yelling at her mother for having told an army man from the morning shift that their family belonged to Mullaitivu, on the northeastern coast, where the war between the Sri Lankan Army and the separatists—“Tigers,” she called them—was still raging.
At that moment, they got a text message on their mobile phones from the government’s information department. Addressed to all Sri Lankans, it proclaimed, in Sinhala—a language neither Sivarajan nor Swarna could read—that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the man who led a 26-year-long separatist battle for a Tamil Eelam (state), had been killed by the army in a lagoon just a two hours drive north of where they were. So when the news was announced in Tamil over a loudspeaker that evening, they did not believe it. When it finally sank in, they realised—neither with remorse nor relief, but mere wonder at its very possibility—that in an instant the war they had been born into had left their lives.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
IT HAD TO BE INAPPROPRIATE to want a bath when shells were raining from the sky. But for the fifth day in a row, it was all Siva could think of. Crouching with his wife, daughter and six others in a hastily dug five-foot deep hole in the ground that was dissolving in the nonstop downpour, he was going crazy with the thick layer of mud on his skin. It itched, and he was sure he could smell blood and shit on it.
Above Siva’s head, across the coconut orchard of Kombavil village in Puthukkudiyiruppu region of Mullaitivu district, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Army were exchanging gunfire. Aircraft ejected shells into the area, which had once been home to about 50 families; since April 2009, it had been transformed into a dizzying two sq km maze of felled trees and underground bunkers dug and redug by the army, LTTE and fleeing, hiding villagers. Below the rain rivulets and the rattle of machine guns, about 3,000 people cowered underground, packed like iron rods in a truck, judging danger and safety by the ebb and rise of the sounds of battle. They were petrified, but more unbearably, they were hungry.