Muhilan* had tied his lungi high up on his waist. During the strip search, he lifted the lungi and bunched it over his bullet wounds – the bullet had entered his body just above the right hip and left the body through the other side. He removed his banian and threw it to the ground.
The searchers had time for just one look, for they had to quickly screen thousands and thousands of men in the blistering May heat. Muhilan seemed to have no obvious injuries and they let him go. He wasn’t a Tiger, the Sri Lankan Armymen concluded. They didn’t know Muhilan was part of the Charles Anthony Special Force.
At the camp later, Muhilan came close to being identified several times. Captured LTTE fighters were cooperating with the Army and turning traitors. A fighter who was in his unit was being taken around the camp to identify suspects, but Muhilan covered his face with a towel and lay down on the ground along with some people who were ill.
Being identified as an LTTE man meant death or long years in jail. “My time to go hadn’t come. I have had a claymore injury in which my leg was shattered. In April 2009, a bullet wound ripped apart my hip but I survived,” he said.
Thirty-two-year-old Muhilan’s goal is to move to Canada. It’s been nine years since the end of the war and he is nowhere close to the land of the maple tree. But he hasn’t given up on his dream of joining his brother and his family there.
Arivan* says he probably didn’t look like a Tiger on May 18, 2009, across the Vettuvan Bridge in Mullaitivu. Slightly built, he could pass off as a mason or a carpenter, he says. He looked old and meek with a large bald patch on his head. His beard had prominent streaks of gray hair. He told the Armyman who was noting down the names of LTTE men that he had been drafted into the support staff of the LTTE at the later stages of the war. He passed the strip search, too.
In truth, Arivan had a long stint in the LTTE including in the intelligence wing. But he looked harmless enough, and he had a wife and three children with him. They had separated at Mullivaikal but had managed to reunite just a few days before the end. He didn’t seem like a Tiger and the Armymen didn’t isolate Arivan from the civilian population.
In the years succeeding the end of the war, Arivan tried to jot down his Mullivaikal experiences but now has trouble recalling them. Today, he leads a regular family life with three grown-up children.
Though some men like Arivan and Muhilan escaped getting identified during surrender, the women LTTE cadres had little chance of staying undetected. Their closely cropped hair was a giveaway. “Kottiya? (Tiger in Sinhalese)” the Armymen would tease them as they trudged down from the bridge connecting Mullivaikal and Mullaitivu.
“Kottiya? (Tiger in Sinhalese)” the Armymen would tease them as they trudged down from the bridge connecting Mullivaikal and Mullaitivu.
Surviving out of the box
Anandapuram box – in Muhilan’s Sri Lankan accent , the word sounded like books – was the turning point, says Porsilai. A box meant being cornered on all sides. The Army had encircled the top Tiger leadership in Anandapuram, not far from Pudhukudiyiruppu, in March-April of 2009. Lowering his voice, Arivan said respectfully, “Thalaivar (leader, meaning Prabhakaran) was also there.” Many LTTE commanders were killed in the box although Prabhakaran escaped.
In the past, the Sri Lankan Army used to run like crazy if the fighters pursued them, gloated Muhilan. “We would shout at the top of our voice in the jungle. Due to echo effect, it would seem as if many of our people were there and the Armymen would flee in fear, leaving behind their supplies. It would turn out to be a good hunt,” says Muhilan, adding that the tide had turned after Anandapuram Box. “Karuna had told them about our techniques. It was their turn then. They pursued us and we ran, along with all our people,” he says.
The motto of the Charles Anthony Special Force was, “Nothing is impossible.” But what seemed like impossible – Tigers being vanquished – was happening. Muhilan was shot and wounded at Pudhukudiyiruppu just after the box ended. “For a full 10 minutes after getting hit, you don’t really feel the pain but then it gets to you,” he says.
The Lankan Armyman who shot him was watching him as he fell down. Muhilan’s backups had fled. He knew he had to run some 50m behind to reach his padaiyani from where he could possibly be moved to a hospital.
The Armyman who shot him was watching him, along with 50 of his comrades. They could have easily rained bullets on Muhilan and killed him, but they didn’t. “It just wasn’t my time to go,” says Muhilan.
It wasn’t until night that a vehicle arrived and took him to a hospital run by the LTTE in Ambalavan-Pokkanai. Until then, he was lying on a stretcher, groaning and yelling. There were no pain killers. He saw that his intestine had come out and the faeces was oozing.
The hospital was barely a medical facility. The operation theatre was a small room and surgeries were being done on a priority basis, and Muhilan’s injuries weren’t serious enough. The surgery was conducted at 2am. Just before that he was given anesthesia and Muhilan passed out. It was a blissful, dreamless sleep. When he got up next day at 11am, he was told it had been a long surgery.
Muhilan stayed at the so-called hospital for 20 days. Shells rained on their facility and people were being brought in non-stop. He was on drip and no food or water was given to him. Even if he could eat, there was not much to feed him since there was no one to cook. “Sometimes they would give us idiyappam and it was just dough. We used to yell in anger,” he says.
The chain of command had broken and the commanders were not working together, says Muhilan. And the LTTE retreated into Mullivaikal along with the population.
Muhilan could barely walk but he managed to move with them. People survived eating whatever they could find, and often it was just tender coconut they plucked from the trees. “If only our organisation had let the people go, we could have regrouped,” he says, but flares up if he is asked whether the LTTE had used the population as a human shield to provoke civilian casualties and international concern.
“Our women used to wear so much jewellery but walk safe in the night in areas under our movement’s control,” he says. “How could we be accused of not protecting our people,” he adds.
On a solar-powered television, Muhilan recalls seeing then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi fasting. There was shelling around and they were being told the shelling had stopped, he recalls.
On a solar-powered television, Muhilan recalls seeing then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi fasting. There was shelling around and they were being told the shelling had stopped.
Muhilan saw his aunt and her daughter on May 16 at a Pillaiyar temple in Mullivaikal. “We still don’t know what happened to them,” he adds.
Trying not to trip over bodies
For Arivan and his family, the retreat started a day after his third child, Yuvan, was born in Kilinocchi in September of 2008. As Arivan served on the frontlines, he took comfort that his wife and three children were around, somewhere not too far. Kilinocchi was the LTTE’s de-facto capital and its fall was ominous. But the Tigers had faced many such setbacks and recovered in the past.
Their seven-month journey to Mullivaikal was laced with one setback after another. By the time they reached Ambalavan-Pokkanai, there were 5 lakh people on the move, although official accounts put the number far lower. Some 1 lakh people separated from the fighter-civilian population in Devipuram and were taken to a camp in Vavuniya, says Arivan. “Only those who had money could stay in Army-controlled areas. The poor people of Vanni stayed with the movement all through,” he says.
People were dying all around them due to shelling. In April, they entered Vellamullivaikal. Arivan’s wife Anbuchelvi* says they would dig a ditch and get inside if there was shelling. Sand bags made of sari and lungi were their idea of fortification. They called it bunker although it likely offered little protection. “Inside the bunker, once, I had given my baby to a man who was holding him. I saw him bend down and let go of the baby. He was dead and his internal organs had come out,” she says.
Anbuchelvi recalls a Red Cross boat coming ashore with supplies for children and some medicines. Many women had gone to the boat and lined up there to get milk powder for their children. Shelling killed more than 60 women waiting there, she says.
The people were hunched inside houses constructed for tsunami relief. These were just 10 feet by 10 feet spaces for one family. “We were lucky to get 100 gm sugar sometimes and 2,000 people would line up,” says Anbuchelvi. But if people got together, they could expect to be shelled. “We were eating granules and rice bran…anything we could lay our hands on,” she says.
On May 9, they had to leave the tsunami houses and move towards the Vettuvan Bridge. “We were trying not to trip over bodies as we walked,” says Anbuchelvi.
Arivan doesn’t recall exactly when he rejoined his family, but says he realized the end game had come when the people were given access to the supplies of the fighters.
The summer heat wasn’t helping. They would dig into the mud, hoping to find water that they could bail out with their hands and drink. “Older people were dying of thirst even as they screamed for water,” he says, adding, “Some of us may have had small water bottles but we would keep them with us so we could survive.”
(* names changed)