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The scars of Sri Lanka’s civil war

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Seven years after the conflict ended, many of the physical, emotional and psychological wounds of war remain unhealed.

Colombo (Sri-Lanka), June 8, 2016: On May 18, 2009, Colombo declared the end of the 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers.

It was presented as the beginning of a new era of peace, national reconciliation and development.

But for many of those in the north and east of the country, where the worst of the war was experienced, that harmony cannot materialise when so many scars of war remain.

Thaya Malar’s son disappeared without a trace after the war. “During the last battle, the LTTE was desperate and forced all the men in the village to fight with them,” she recalls. “Our 16-year-old son had to leave with them but managed to escape.”

When the war ended, the teenager returned home. But his mother says he disappeared one night. She is convinced that the Sri Lankan army had something to do with his disappearance. “That night, we saw military patrols, and two people told us that they saw him at a soldiers’ camp,” she says.

In January 2013, she wrote a letter to the then president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, pleading for information, but says she received no response.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged abuses, including enforced disappearances, committed by both sides during the war.

Elango* is a Tamil activist who believes that members of the Tigers were “heroes who died for the freedom of the Tamils”, but that the group also made many mistakes. “During the final battle, the LTTE required each Tamil family to provide at least one man to fight,” he says. “In the last days of the war, they even used civilians as human shields, something that many will never forget. If we are to succeed, we need to enact a system that is fair and humane.”

*Not his real name. 

A sign warns of hidden landmines in Mullivaikal on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka.
A sign warns of hidden landmines in Mullivaikal on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka.

 

Anthony Fernando, a Tamil civilian, stands at the entrance of his house in the Mullaitivu district, which was badly damaged during the fighting. His wife and daughter were killed during the war.
Anthony Fernando, a Tamil civilian, stands at the entrance of his house in the Mullaitivu district, which was badly damaged during the fighting. His wife and daughter were killed during the war.

 

Children play outside their bullet-riddled home in Mullivaikal, which is where the final battle of Sri Lanka's civil war took place.
Children play outside their bullet-riddled home in Mullivaikal, which is where the final battle of Sri Lanka’s civil war took place.

 

Scenes of death and destruction remain as though frozen in time in parts of the north: Masses of twisted metal, hit by bullets and shells, line the sides of roads.
Scenes of death and destruction remain as though frozen in time in parts of the north: Masses of twisted metal, hit by bullets and shells, line the sides of roads.

 

A Tamil devotee prays at a Hindu temple in Mannar district, in Sri Lanka's northwest.
A Tamil devotee prays at a Hindu temple in Mannar district, in Sri Lanka’s northwest.

 

Two intoxicated Tamil passengers ride on a battered local bus.
Two intoxicated Tamil passengers ride on a battered local bus.

 

A patient suffering from mental and physical ailments in a Christian rehabilitation centre. Decades of conflict have taken an emotional and psychological toll on many Sri Lankans. According to Basic Needs Sri Lanka, an NGO working to improve the lives of the mentally ill, the north and east of the country are the worst for those with mental health issues.
A patient suffering from mental and physical ailments in a Christian rehabilitation centre. Decades of conflict have taken an emotional and psychological toll on many Sri Lankans. According to Basic Needs Sri Lanka, an NGO working to improve the lives of the mentally ill, the north and east of the country are the worst for those with mental health issues.
A boy still suffers from physical injuries he received during the civil war.
A boy still suffers from physical injuries he received during the civil war.

 

'In the last weeks of the war, my family had been dispersed, but on May 14, 2009, we all managed to get together in the 'safe zone' the army had established in Mullivaikal. They said civilians wouldn't be harmed there, so we found shelter in a small house ... We were happy to be together at last. But that same night, the building was shelled ... My husband was lying on the ground and, when I turned him around, I saw his chest open. He was dead. Next to him was my oldest daughter. She was holding her intestines in her hands, sure that she was going to die,' remembers Balasubramaniam Annaludchumy, who lost five members of her family that night.
‘In the last weeks of the war, my family had been dispersed, but on May 14, 2009, we all managed to get together in the ‘safe zone’ the army had established in Mullivaikal. They said civilians wouldn’t be harmed there, so we found shelter in a small house … We were happy to be together at last. But that same night, the building was shelled … My husband was lying on the ground and, when I turned him around, I saw his chest open. He was dead. Next to him was my oldest daughter. She was holding her intestines in her hands, sure that she was going to die,’ remembers Balasubramaniam Annaludchumy, who lost five members of her family that night.

 

Kunarathiram Soba has suffered from heart problems since her husband was killed during the war. Like many widows, she still wears a bindi, a red dot on her forehead to indicate that she is married, because she fears being raped or attacked otherwise. 'Rapists fear revenge [from a husband],' she explains.
Kunarathiram Soba has suffered from heart problems since her husband was killed during the war. Like many widows, she still wears a bindi, a red dot on her forehead to indicate that she is married, because she fears being raped or attacked otherwise. ‘Rapists fear revenge [from a husband],’ she explains.

By Miguel Candela and Zigor Aldama