The music is loud, the colours are vibrant, and the girls who have just stepped off the stage are in a fit of giggles outside the main hall. Inside, a ceremony is taking place, and the announcer is informing the audience of the next event on the agenda: a fashion show. Watching the chattering girls outside, one can guess at what they may be laughing over: who forgot their dance moves on stage, who accidentally bumped into whom, and who was afraid their hair style may come undone. Look around a little, and you would notice a slight twist to the picture. Standing around and chatting with the girls are female military officers, their camouflage uniforms in stark contrast to the frilly pink dresses, the shiny sarees and gold bangles.
Three years ago, they were all living different lives. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have envisioned them the way they are today, shy glances and nervous laughter, yet seemingly happy. Had things turned out differently, there would have been no pink dresses, no shiny sarees and no gold bangles. Chances are, the girls too would have been in uniform – albeit a different one – and both groups of women would have only known each other as The Enemy.
Last Thursday evening, March 29, three hundred and eighty four former LTTE combatants were reintegrated into society, following a year long rehabilitation programme.
Among them, were sixty seven women, who had received vocational training in a variety of fields, including cookery, aesthetics, dress making, bridal dressing and beauty culture. As a result, the reintegration ceremony of these ex-combatants showcased some of their talents in the form of dance performances and fashion shows. Also on the agenda were musical performances by Friends of Peace, the band of musicians formed by some of the rehabilitation beneficiaries.
These were the very people the media has been in frenzy about, ever since the war ended. These are the people whose stories have been flaunted by different parties to make different points. But that day, they were not interested in any of that. They were individuals, with different stories. Their own stories, which I wanted to hear.
Some of them were willing to speak, others were more hesitant. Some approached me with a curious smile and with questions of their own; others preferred to watch from a distance.
The young women I first approached told me stories that were similar in nature: that they had been ‘taken away’ by the LTTE and later, after the war ended, were sent into rehabilitation (somehow, what happened in between, the most sensitive topic, was carefully skirted around).
Kamala* said she had been made to join the LTTE when she was eighteen. Now twenty-three, she wants to retake her A/Levels this year and continue with her studies. Nandini* spent one year with the LTTE. “They took me in 2007, and gave me training and sent me to the lines. I was with them for one year, and then I ran away, and stayed among the displaced. Then I was sent to Boosa, and after that the Courts ordered that I go into rehabilitation, at Poonthottam,” she said. “I did not want to join the fighting. I just like to live with my mother and father,” she added with a smile.It took some time for an absolute stranger like me, with a limited knowledge of Tamil, to find out more about their past, present and plans for the future. The past, naturally, was the hardest to talk about. Kumar* said he joined the LTTE in 1997. “They wanted one person from every house, and I also wanted to join,” he said. His account, particularly about the training he received, and what he did, was hazy and delivered reluctantly at first. He told me he was a driver, and that he had been with the LTTE for only one and a half years. He said he had left after he was injured in a claymore blast. He had watched others die, too. “My cousin, he was also a driver. I saw him get blown up by a landmine in Kilinochchi, in February 1998.”
After being taken into military custody in 2009, Kumar was sent to a camp in Omanthai for rehabilitation. “In 2010, they came and took me to Boosa. I think somebody must have given them some information about me, because they wanted me for questioning,” he said. He had spent eight months at the camp in Boosa, which has been surrounded by its fair share of controversy. Kumar, however, denied that he had been harassed or abused while held in detention.
Jegan* was one of the people who approached me voluntarily, wanting to know what I was doing. I told him I wanted his story, and he seemed a little more willing than others to speak about it, although he too gave me what was obviously an edited account. “I joined when I was fourteen years old. I did not tell my parents when I joined. They [the LTTE] gave us training for six months, and we were given different jobs. Later, because I disobeyed them, they sent me to the lines as a punishment,” he said. The punishment was because he had left to visit his parents without informing anyone. When asked if any of his friends had undergone rehabilitation, he said, “My friends are all dead. One of them, my best friend, died on my lap.” How did he feel, then, working with people here, whom they had once viewed as the enemy, the same people who could be responsible for his friend’s death? “We do not know who would have shot at us. It was coming from both sides, and we were caught in the middle,” he said.
Selvam* was one of the singers in the band, Friends of Peace. He, too, had been taken into custody and detained at Boosa before being sent into rehabilitation last year. He broke off in the middle of a sentence to introduce me to Lieutenant Sisira Perera, who he explained had trained Friends of Peace. “Sir can also sing very well. He even knows quite a few Tamil songs,” said Selvam, speaking in Sinhalese, and laughing at his young son who ran up to the army officer and began playing with his watch. Lt. Perera, in turn, had words of praise for the performers. “I think they did very well today. Not everyone can take up music easily,” he said.
The day ended with Friends of Peace singing the national anthem on stage. A glance outside the hall showed military officials and former LTTE cadres standing at attention, side by side, along the previously chaotic corridor.
What I got that day were half-told stories. I know that one or two hours of quickly snatched conversation is not enough to come to any conclusion about what really happened, what is really happening, and how people really feel.
More than what was said, it was what was observed that made a greater impact. On one hand, there were the nervous glances, the quiet, hard looks. On the other hand, there was also the laughter, the jokes and the friendly gestures, the broken Tamil and faulty Sinhalese – results of attempts to speak in each other’s language.
Maybe some other time, months or maybe years from now, someone among these people would trust me with their past, with their whole story. But for now, it was all about the present. This was their day. This was the day they returned to eagerly waiting families, this was the day they looked forward to the future.
* Names have been change to protect identities.