Apocalypse in Our Time: Ravikumar
Guest post by RAVIKUMAR
Waking is Another Dream: Poems on the Genocide in Eelam, a slim anthology edited by Ravikumar, will be launched by Navayana on Wednesday, 8 December 2010 at 6 p.m. at The Attic, 36 Regal Building, Connaught Place, New Delhi.
[At a time when the Eelam issue is the news again owing to Channel 4’s coverage leading to the cancellation of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s talk at Oxford, citing emerging evidence of his war crimes, Navayana presents a volume of powerful poetry translated for the first time from Tamil into English. Says poet Cheran, “The lack awareness in a city like Delhi on the fallout of the genocidal war in Sri Lanka is appalling. People here who seem concerned about Palestine or even Kashmir seem utterly indifferent to the problem in India’s own backyard.”
A modest effort to combat such indifference and ignorance is Waking is Another Dream. The book features the work of five leading Tamil poets—Cheran, Jayapalan, Yesurasa, Latha, Ravikumar—on the Eelam issue.
D. Ravikumar, the editor of the volume, happens to be an MLA with Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Dalit Panther), which is part of the DMK-UPA alliance in Tamil Nadu. Along with Toronto-based poet Cheran, Ravikumar will be present at the launch.
Cheran is a major Tamil poet and playwright who has published seven anthologies of poetry in Tamil. His poems have been translated into English, German, Swedish, Sinhala, Kannada and Malayalam. He is a professor at the University of Windsor, Canada. Other speakers at the event are litterateur K. Satchidanandan (former editor of Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature) and eminent Hindi writers Mangalesh Dabral and Anamika.
On the eve of the book’s launch, Kafila offers its readers an exclusive excerpt from the anthology Introduction, “Apocalypse in Our Times”.]
Martin Luther King said that war was a poor chisel to carve tomorrow. Wars taking place around the world prove that military aggression can indeed destroy the future. It is said that ‘truth’ is the first victim of a war. And yet, the last corpse that is removed from the battlefield is the corpse of truth. Perhaps because that corpse cannot be easily buried, no one comes forward to claim it. The corpse of truth lies in wait like a landmine. When it explodes, the citadels of falsehood built over it fall apart.
While the world seems to have almost forgotten the genocide that took place in Eelam, the Jaffna-based University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) has published a comprehensive 158-page report, “Let them Speak: The Truth About Sri Lanka’s Victims of War”, that details the events that took place from the latter half of 2008 to 18 May 2009, when it was officially announced that the war on Eelam Tamils had come to an end. Using eyewitness accounts from people who had lived in the war zone, this report also records the happenings in the crucial period from 8 to 18 May 2009. Whereas news reports in the mainstream media in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, about the genocide of Eelam Tamils, were based on speculation and fabrication, the UTHR report documents the atrocities in detail. UTHR is equally critical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government.
The Sri Lankan government’s brutal massacre of the Tamils and continued distortion of the truth in communications with India and other nations are exposed in this report. Among other things, the report exposes the tactics employed by the Sri Lankan government to give false figures of the number of people in the war zone, and points to how, even today, the government plays with numbers when accounting for the people in refugee camps. Some human rights organizations claim that about 3,000 Tamils were killed between January 2009 and the first week of March. Contesting these figures, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, which worked among those displaced or affected by the war, claimed that at least sixty to ninety people were killed each day; on that basis, they informed media organizations that the number of casualties in this period could add up to 6,500. The estimates provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are even higher. A female doctor who was working with the health department of the LTTE has said that a total of 37,000 people were killed in this time span.
Several ‘embedded intellectuals’ in India issued statements to the effect that people in the barbed-wire camps have been sent back to their own homes. The UTHR report gives some insight into the suffering that makes Tamil detainees eager to return home. As the Sri Lankan government makes clear, detainees in the camps are released only after ‘thorough investigation’. In the name of investigation, extreme human rights violations have been, and are being, orchestrated. The Sinhalese army tortures detainees at will, since any detainee may be accused of being an ex-LTTE cadre.
Young women with cropped hair, for instance, are subjected to questioning on the grounds that they appear, visually, to be members of the rebel forces. The UTHR report also brings to light the corrupt practices of the Sinhalese army, which takes bribes from the people living in these camps.
But for a few news reports that appear sporadically, there is no real information about the sexual exploitation of Tamil women in these camps. The Sinhalese soldiers come to the camps at night, take young Tamil women away in vans and drop them back early in the morning. Women who have been taken away in this manner find it difficult to come to terms with the trauma that they have faced, and lack the courage to disclose it to others.
Not only in the camps, but even in the hospitals, there is no dearth of atrocities committed by Sinhalese army personnel. In a testimony recorded in this report, a doctor who worked at the Vavuniya hospital speaks of how the Sinhalese army randomly took away young men being treated at the hospital. He says not a single person who was carried off in this fashion returned to the camps. The UTHR report points out how the absence of proper records of people undergoing treatment at hospitals has made it impossible to trace details of where an individual was brought from, and where s/he has been taken to by the army.
The report also records how the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka has misled the Indian government. When international NGOs tried to complain about the camps, not only did the Sri Lankan government threaten that their visas would be cancelled, but it also warned them that legal cases would be filed against them. As a result, many witnesses remained silent.
In late 2006, the government of Sri Lanka signed an agreement to set up a thermal power plant with help from India’s National Thermal Power Corporation Limited. It selected Sampur as a site for that proposed plant. In order to clear out the people who were living there, the government of Sri Lanka conducted aerial bombings. Hundreds of people were killed in the shelling and the rest of them abandoned their homes and fled to safer areas. The government banned their return to Sampur, declaring it a High Security Zone. These actions took place with the knowledge of the Indian government.
In March 2009, the Indian government opened a hospital in the war zone. Several hundred people received treatment there. The doctors who worked there had inside knowledge of the Sri Lankan government’s anti-Tamil attitude. On one occasion, Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother and advisor, brought a few journalists to the hospital. An Indian doctor confronted Basil Rajapaksa with a fragment of a bullet, and said: “I surgically removed this from near the heart of a six-year-old child. You say that you are only targeting terrorists. Is a six-year-old child a terrorist?” Basil Rajapaksa is said to have walked away without giving a reply. By keeping people treated at the Indian hospital hidden from the outside world, the Sri Lankan government was able to show reduced figures of wartime casualties.
Even now, India continues to help Sri Lanka with removing landmines. Fearing that the mass graves of thousands of people would come to light, the Sri Lankan government has refused the help of several countries and is taking only India’s help in clearing the landmines. Eelam Tamils look at this as an act of betrayal by the Indian government. The widespread view among the Tamil people is that if the graves of the massacred Tamils are exposed to the world, Sri Lanka will be investigated by the International Court of Justice; and that in order to shield Sri Lanka, India is now involved in demining.
When the Indian parliamentary elections took place in May 2009, media reports suggested that in response to requests from the Indian government, the intensity of attacks on Eelam had been reduced. On the contrary, having gathered all the facts about the war, the UTHR investigators state that the Sri Lankan government did not show any special consideration to India. The report blames Sri Lankan power-holders for trying to bring the war to a close before the end of the Indian general elections.
The present political situation in Sri Lanka is dangerous for democracy. The report argues that the onus of creating a democratic political climate lies not only with the Tamils but also with the Sinhalese. The poisonous situation can be altered only when democratic forces consisting of both Tamils and Sinhalese work together.
Eyewitness accounts of the war have been given in the UTHR report. When writers have fallen silent, only these testimonies portray the blood-drenched story of the genocide that took place in Eelam. Today, when death is the prize for speaking the truth, silence has become the language of the Tamils. They are unable to say anything, even to those who go in search of them, seeking the truth, because the Sinhalese army has ears everywhere. Overcoming this constant fear of death, a few Tamils have come forward to share their stories with UTHR. Here is one such testimony:
After the fall of Killinochchi, the people were on the run moving eastwards and lost contact with one another. During mid-January, I went on my motorcycle to Piramandal Aru (river), east of Visuamadu, looking for one of my friends. I inquired at a house in which the man was seated on a chair outside, while his wife, aged about 45, was cooking. There were two other young women there. When I inquired from the man he directed me to a place nearby where about 50 men and women had taken shelter. Since I used kerosene as fuel, it was taking me time to start my motorcycle. Being instinctively alert, no sooner upon faintly hearing the hum of an oncoming shell, I jumped into a nearby pit and immediately heard an explosion. When I raised myself and looked, I observed that the shell had struck the ground between the legs of the man who was sitting. No trace of him was visible. The two young women were also killed. The woman who was cooking was screaming in pain. She was aware that her legs had been blown off. Blood was mixed with the curry she had been preparing. She pleaded with me not to leave her in that condition and to take her to a hospital. The nearest field hospital was in Udayarkattu. Her life was ebbing away and she knew it. I was helpless. The least I could do was to be with her. Within a few minutes, she was gone.
I had moved to the church in Iranapalai. During February, the Kfirs [Israel-built all-weather combat aircraft] came on a bombing raid. I got into a bunker. A little later a one-tonne delay bomb fell about fifteen feet from my bunker and penetrated the ground. I found myself rocked roughly like a baby in a cradle. Fortunately, this bomb failed to explode. Later the LTTE came and dismantled it to extract about 600 kg of explosive.
A few days later I was with some friends in a house at Anandapuram. When Kfir bombers arrived, I wanted to join some others moving into an open field, where there was also a cemetery, between Iranapalai and Anandapuram. The reason for moving into the open field was a surmise that the pilots would see we are civilians and leave us alone. But a friend of mine restrained me. The bomber dropped ‘air bombs’ (bombs that explode above the surface) in the field, killing about fifteen of those who had gone there for safety. About the same time a delay bomb (one tonne) fell on a temple close by. I saw a goat, a man, a mat and some cooking utensils being thrown above the height of a coconut tree.
During my stay at Iranapalai, there were huge casualties due to aerial bombing and shelling. When a settlement was bombed on 16 February, some of us got hold of vehicles and went to rescue the survivors. Because the bombing of an area is frequently followed by artillery shelling or a return of the bombers themselves, the vehicle drivers refused to go near the settlement and parked about 150 yards away.
The victims were mainly women and children who had stayed at home when the men went out to earn their bread doing jobs like constructing bunkers. These bombs when exploding use the ambient oxygen for combustion creating a vacuum, resulting instantly in a powerful blast of wind. The blast wrenches at the clothes and renders them in tatters, leaving the injured women partially exposed. Several girls had stayed together in a bunker to avoid conscription gangs. The blast covered the bunker killing all of them. In a bid to avoid the disrespect of touching the bodies of the women, we had to place them on sacks or sheets, rush them into the van parked at a distance and get back.
One experience that left a heartrending impression on me was a young girl of sixteen or seventeen whose legs were blown off. As I was passing, she gripped my legs and pleaded with me to take her. She was supported by a rafter of coconut wood and had not realised that her legs were gone. I could see the bones sticking out. Before I could take in what happened, she asked me insistently, “If I were your sister, would you leave me here?” I have no sisters, although I wish I had. I was dumbstruck. She soon passed away.
Another girl came running towards us shouting that some terrible thing has happened. She neither showed any signs of injury nor awareness of such. To my astonishment, the girl who was running normally, collapsed ten metres away from me and died. When I went close and examined her, I noticed that a piece of shrapnel had struck the back of her head and she did not know it. I figure that about 25 persons, mainly women, were killed in the incident. I don’t know the exact number because I had gone as part of a rescue team and not to count. I saw others who had come independently of us also taking away the injured.
Subsequently, when I was in the NFZ [No-Fire Zone] by the sea, staying out in the open became risky with shells exploding and bullets flying, whose sound could be heard only upon their whizzing past. But for one reason or another, we had to travel along the main road running through the length of the NFZ, especially on rainy days. This road merges with the A-35 near Irattaivaykkal and its northern part where the people were staying is generally close to the lagoon.
Valaignarmadam was marginally more dangerous, because the ground was raised, giving the soldiers across the lagoon a clear view and they regularly took pot shots at road users. One was thus better advised to use the secondary road from Putumattalan to Valaignarmadam that is closer to the sea. But when it rains the secondary road becomes inundated, and if one must travel, there was no choice but to take one’s chance on the main road.
I was on my motorcycle going through this area behind a couple on a motorcycle. The woman was pregnant and they were out probably to do some shopping. The couple was coming fast. They signalled to me and I moved aside to let them overtake. I suddenly saw the couple fall down for no discernible reason and the man writhing in agony. He had been hit by a bullet from the army’s side. I stopped and the pregnant woman pleaded with me to take her husband to the hospital. Most people passed us by engrossed in their own problems and such things had become a daily occurrence. The man whose lower jaw had been blown off was vomiting blood and the situation looked hopeless. What had happened was that when we passed that area on motorbikes, it was our custom to dip our heads as low as possible to minimise our chances of being hit by an army sniper. Because the man had ridden fast and taken a curve in overtaking me, he lacked the balance to dip his head as a precaution.
The stricken man’s wife was helpless. To carry the man to the medical post at Valaignarmadam required a third person on the bike so that the injured man could be sandwiched between us. My bike being too small for that, I asked the wife to help the man onto the bike so that he could sit behind leaning his head on my back. In this manner I took the man to the hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, he was dead. It was then that I noticed my own state. A good part of my person was drenched in blood and covered in flies. The flies formed also a thick layer upon the dead man. This brought home to me the absolute squalor of the place.
I was once travelling on the main road when unexpectedly I saw an RPG [Rocket-Propelled Grenade] shell fired by a soldier across the lagoon landing in front of me. I considered and decided that there was no point in stopping and rode on and another RPG shell fell behind me. I warned people travelling in the opposite direction not to proceed as there was an ambush waiting. But no one seemed to take notice. How does one explain such behaviour? On the one hand there is constant danger from shelling and from small weapons fire, and ideally children should be inside bunkers. But on the other, you see children playing on the beach and even flying kites, indifferent to sudden death that strikes unawares.
Children could not be kept long inside bunkers and when they went out it was a time of grave anxiety with bullets flying about. Also in April, I saw a mother crying inconsolably over the body of her child. The child had been missing. When she found her child it was a corpse four days old.
On 8 April I was nearby at Pokkanai, when the Army fired a barrage of shells, causing over a dozen deaths and scores of injuries among people in a queue with children below three years, whose presence was needed to collect packets of milk powder being distributed. What struck me most was the sight of a mother who was herself injured, clutching her dead child and crying.
On 20 April, when the Army entered the NFZ, the Pokkanai area was severely shelled. I went there in the morning with a friend who was searching for his family. Earlier I had seen a prominent white phosphorous flame. As I got nearer, I saw people with burns dipping themselves in the sea. Hundreds had died in the shelling.
During the first week of May, I was in Mullivaikkal. There was no day we were free from shelling. I had a friend staying in a house close to the sea with his wife, whose leg had been fractured by a shell blast and also had an injury in his arm. He had a lap top computer which he used to pass time. I occasionally collected his computer and had its battery charged at a communication centre, which had a generator. On this day, I had his computer charged and went to his home to deliver it. It was past 7.00 p.m. A nurse from the hospital was there to dress my friend’s wounds. Because she was dealing with a man, her father had accompanied her. He was seated on a chair, while the others were on the ground. The father got up and offered me his chair. I declined. My friend’s wife asked me to stay and have a cup of plain tea. I excused myself saying it was time for my dinner.
As I was walking away, within a few seconds, I heard the noise of a single shell being fired. That was deceptive. The Army had a timing device which fired several shells simultaneously, although the noise suggested it was one shell. I was barely ten metres from the house and I heard an explosion. I received what seemed like a thundering slap. I was thrown down and also someone’s severed leg that was cast up in the air by the explosion fell upon me. I fell wondering whether my hands and legs were intact. I felt pain, but upon feeling about I realised that I had come to no harm. My thoughts immediately went to the folk in the house I had just left.
The shell had fallen between me and the house. Going back, I saw the nurse’s father still sitting on the chair sans his head, as though he had been decapitated. The others were unharmed. Upon seeing me, my friend, disregarding his injured leg, walked up to me and hugged me saying he was worried if I had been blown to bits by the shell blast. The strain caused a relapse in his injured leg. The severed leg had come from the man next door, who had squatted in front of the house trying to tune his wireless set. He was dead.
On 8 May I witnessed a queue of hungry young persons waiting for patties being shelled after being spotted by a ‘vandu’ (beetle or UAV, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), leaving more than a dozen, mostly children, dead. In the days that followed there was hardly any food. People were dying all over and were hardly in their bunkers. They stopped caring about living. They wanted to get out or die. The hospital at Mullivaikkal stopped functioning due to a lack of medicines and the staff too did not have the peace to work. At such hazardous times when sudden death is imminent, people generally choose to stay close to their family, so that if death strikes they all go together. They cannot bear separation.
The cadres had little choice. Even if they were injured, the choice was to fight on or die. The prospect of medical care and hospitalisation did not exist. I saw for the first time and have no wish to see again, dogs, themselves hungry, carrying parts of human flesh from the multitude of bodies strewn around and left unattended. The whole area exuded the stench of death and hell’s drum beat of falling shells.
On the night of 15 May, I, with some others, walked towards the lagoon to find a place to sleep. Property rights to bunkers had expired, and people were constantly edging south. They dared not go northwards as troops there had suffered heavy casualties and they feared how they would be treated. Some of us found an abandoned bunker. We got inside and dug about a little to expand the space. My hand encountered the hands and legs of a dead infant and the bloodied head of a dead woman. It seemed that a shell had fallen into the bunker and killed its occupants.
On the evening of 16 May, as people were moving out, I saw a sight that moved me with deep sadness and guilt. The hospital was no more. Injured cadres, many of them young girls, with no family at hand, were laid out on the sides of the road near Vattuvakal. The ICRC that was to fetch them was evidently not permitted. They screamed for someone to take them or to give them cyanide. These cadres were very young and they were not sufficiently developed to understand the world around them and the nature of their fate. Their organisation should never have allowed them to suffer in this manner.
In the night I desperately looked for a place to sleep as I had not slept for three days. I saw a man covered by a mat lying down under a tractor, whom I took to be the owner. Since there was space, I asked for permission to sleep there. I took his silence for consent and spent the night next to him. To my consternation I noticed in the morning that the man was covered with congealed blood and had been dead about two days.
It is well-known that the genocide of the Tamils in Eelam involved the violation of international war conventions and protocols. We are also aware of the talks that the Tigers conducted with the government of Sri Lanka, including their decision to give up arms. They were asked to carry white flags, but those who went ahead unarmed and bearing the flag of peace were shot dead mercilessly. Nowhere else in the world have we witnessed people taking shelter in bunkers being buried alive with bulldozers. Not one or two persons, several thousand people have been murdered in this manner. Even after the announcement on 17 May that the war was over, massacres continued to take place in Mullivaikkal. Those who had managed to escape were hunted down and ruthlessly killed by the government of Sri Lanka.
How do Tamils there deal with this scenario? Having suffered unimaginable violence, do they express their sorrow in writing? The ethnic riots of 1983 introduced us to extremely talented poets from Eelam and their poetry collections changed the course of political poetry in Tamil Nadu. M.A. Nuhman’s Mazhainaatkal Varum (The Rainy Days Shall Come), Sivasekhar’s Nadhikarai Moongil (Bamboo by the River Bank), A. Yesurasa’s Ariyapadathavargal Ninaivaga (In Memory of the Missing), Cheran’s Rendavadhu Suriyodhayam (The Second Sunrise), V.I.S. Jayapalan’s Suriyanodu Pesudhal (Speaking with the Sun), Vilvarathnam’s Akangalum Mugangalum (Hearts and Faces), the Eelam women poets’ Solladha Sedhigal (Untold Stories), Nuhman and Cheran’s anthology Maranthul Vaazhvom (We Will Live in Death) that featured eleven Eelam poets: these volumes were among the unforgettable outpourings of that time. There were magazines like Alai (Wave) and later, Serinigar. The support for the Eelam cause in Tamil Nadu grew out of such books. Intellectuals here, in India, like Thamizhavan, S.V. Rajadurai, Bothiyaverpan, Crea Ramakrishnan and many others helped with the publication of these books.
On the one hand, the supporters of the Tigers held tear-filled exhibitions, and on the other hand, these books created a silent revolution. Apart from this, members of the Marxist-Leninist movement had intense debates on the ethnic struggle. The Tamil problem was investigated along with the struggles of other oppressed nationalities in India. Not only Tamil writers, but even Sinhalese intellectuals like Kumari Jayawardene contributed to this discourse. Today, I look back with nostalgia at all that ferment of thought and feeling. The support for Eelam in Tamil Nadu was not only emotional but also intellectual. The reasons for its current absence need to be investigated.
As I write this, it is nearly a year since the Mullivaikkal tragedy. How is the Tamil intellectual circle going to pay homage to the victims? When I was thinking of this in September 2009, I chanced upon an early poem of Cheran. I was amazed at the far-sightedness of poets. I shared that poem with friends over email.
The apocalypse happened
in our own time.
Earth shaking in smokescreens
Body splitting in satanic rain
Fire raging within and without
Night’s howling flood
Dragging children, people
Burning them in an inferno
In those days, we ate death
Throwing a lifeless sidelong glance
At the helplessness of spectators
Fuming, fuming, like a cloud
We began to rise up
Kafka did not get the chance
to feed his writings to fire
But Sivaramani burnt hers
A poem is destroyed in an uneasy space
And the compositions of others
Refuse to come alive
All of us have gone away
There is no one to tell stories
Now there is
A wounded landmass
No bird is able to fly over it
Until we return
A few lines of this poem moved me deeply. Sivaramani committed suicide on 19 May 1991. She was a powerful voice that emerged from among the Eelam women poets of her time. Before she died, she burnt all the copies that she had of her poems She wrote: “My days/ You cannot snatch away./ Like a small star/ that descends/ between your fingers/ that cover your eyes/ my existence is certain.” Sivaramani showed her opposition to the denial of freedom by taking her own life. But the fighters did not have the patience to learn any lessons from this. Therefore, those who tried to express their opinion there ‘ate death in those days’, ‘when the spectators were helpless’, ‘when the poem was destroyed, the compositions of others refused to come alive.’ There is a long list of those who have been silenced in Eelam.
Where there are people with sensitivity, there freedom gains further respect. When all of them have been silenced, we can deduce who will rule. How can poetry come from such a space? I realize that Cheran’s poem contains the answer to why there no longer are intense poetic voices from Eelam. ‘All of us have gone away/ There is no one to tell stories’ so that, ‘Now there remains/ A wounded landmass/ No bird is able to fly over it/ Until we return.’ Here, ‘we’ is not a limited reference to expatriate poets like Cheran. It is a pronoun that denotes every creative voice that does not submit to power, but aspires to freedom.
This small anthology is just an effort to create faith in such voices.