Losing Santhia, part three: exodus from Jaffna, war in the Vanni

Santhia, a former high-ranking member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, died in a Jakarta hospital in October last year. She was only 42. Almost a decade earlier, she fled Sri Lanka, via Tamil Nadu, India, with her young son. She tried to reach Australia, but was stranded in Indonesia.

Sponsored by the Tamil Refugee Council, Red Flag editor Ben Hillier travelled to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to piece together her story, which is bound to the decades-long national liberation struggle of the Tamils.

This is part three in a continuing series. Read part one and part two

The early monsoon came heavy, leaving parts of Jaffna peninsula waterlogged. The place is a sultry, taxing fog. West of the Point Pedro-Maruthankerny Road, an inland sea overwhelms the flatlands and paddies from which islands of palmyra reach for the clouds. To the east it’s sand dunes and scrub. Corrugated and potholed, the road is a 10km-an-hour disaster over which the Vadamarachchi lagoon seems ready to splay to the Bay of Bengal.

There is a school here. The Nagar Kovil Maha Vidyalayam hosts a shrine to dead children, victims of an air force attack along this coastal strip on 22 September 1995. “There had been bombings the previous day around nearby villages.” Annaludsmy Kandasamy, a former teacher, sits with the principal in a small office recounting the day. “After lunch, bombs started falling around the village, people started running. Some of the children were hiding under trees outside the school”, she says.

Today children in blue and white uniforms stand to attention. A new generation giggles and grins. But there is no escaping old scars. Ruined homes dot the landscape approaching the village – more markers of the conflict’s shifting front. And a tamarind trunk – twisted, ghostly – lies near St Joseph Road around the corner from the school.

Kanan, a brilliant student according to Kandasamy, was only 13 when shrapnel severed his lanky frame. His younger brother Aran took shelter with others to avoid the raid. “I don’t know what really happened, it all happened in a flash”, he says, speaking in Melbourne. “I was hiding under tamarind trees. Many other children were there – I can’t remember how many, but there were four trees with a huge canopy.”

Across from the trees stands the Mylvaganam family home. At the front of the yard is a Besser block wall with an iron gate. “My mum was standing there. She had just returned from the temple. She was crying and calling our names”, Aran says. “I ran to the house. That’s when a bomb fell. You can hear the bomb coming, the whistling sound. You hear the whistling but you don’t know where it’s going to hit. But it hits. Smoke and dust everywhere.”

The planes left. The dust settled. Now screaming rang out as reality set in. “Kanan had managed to get into the yard. He was inside the gate. But both of his legs were gone – everything below the waist. He was just bleeding, crying for water. At the tamarind tree there were bodies everywhere. One of my friend’s insides were hanging from the branches. It was an awful scene.”

A week after the Nagar Kovil massacre, the Sri Lankan army invaded the peninsula. By the end of October, with infantry approaching, the LTTE evacuated Jaffna town. A colossal exodus of half a million people, a human flood amid monsoon rains, moved through choke points across the Uppu Aru lagoon and, later, across the Jaffna lagoon – by boat, across a bridge, by any means – to get to the shelter of the Vanni, where the Tigers were dug in like ticks before the approaching fury.

“It is frightening to walk on the empty streets”, S. Edwin Savundra’s War Diary from Jaffna records. “The cattle and dogs, abandoned by their masters, are in control.” Edwin, a philosopher at Saint Francis Xavier’s Major Seminary, was one of the few to stay in the city, tending to the infirm and elderly unable to flee. By early December, tens of thousands of mortars had pummelled the city; the military vanquished Tiger rule in the cultural capital of Tamil Eelam. “There is a sense of triumph and victory in [the troops’] faces. ‘Your time has gone, now our time has come’ is the message that they are giving to the people whom they meet in the captured town of Jaffna”, he wrote. “There are many victory banners hung all over the street with various titles … ‘Daring, Determined and Done!! This is allways a Sinhalies Country’ (Note the spelling).”

Exhausted, hungry and demoralised, many returned to their homes under military occupation. Others continued to Kilinochchi and its surrounds. The LTTE, vulnerable to a northern offensive, overran an eastern army compound in July 1996. Mullaitivu was a garrison town, one of the largest military bases in the country, from which almost the entire Tamil population had fled half a decade before. The force of the Tiger assault stunned the government in Colombo. “Over 1,200 soldiers were killed in action”, Sri Lankan Major General Kamal Gunaratne wrote in his 2016 memoir Road to Nandikadal. “The debacle at Mullaitivu went down in the annals of military history as one of the most painful and humiliating defeats ever.”

The army launched a counteroffensive in October, taking Kilinochchi and forcing another eastern exodus. The LTTE retook Kilinochchi two years later, but Mullaitivu became the Tigers’ nerve centre for the next 13 years. “We always said publicly that Kilinochchi was the administrative centre of the LTTE. But that was mainly a diversion to keep all the visiting foreign journalists there”, a former Tiger cadre says with a wry smile. “The leadership and command structures were in Mullaitivu. Movement in and out of the north-east was tightly controlled and monitored.”

The remains of a Sea Tiger dockyard, along with the experimental vessels tested there, are still accessible north of Mullivaikal. So too a diver training facility – the notice board calls it a “terrorist pool” – now a tourist attraction at the heart of the military’s sprawling 68th Divisional headquarters in thick jungle near Iranaippalai. Not far away are the remains of Prabhakaran’s 12-metre-deep bunker-compound. The government destroyed it in 2013.

Santhia ran a training camp for women fighters in this area. She got about on a motorbike, always smiling. Thulasi, a former comrade who documented the Black Tigers for the LTTE propaganda unit, relates over Skype from Europe: “Before she came to the Black Tigers, she was wounded in battle – one hand was damaged badly. She wasn’t a military trainer, she oversaw the whole camp, documenting its performance and activity and making sure its needs were met”.

Government forces retook the southern Vanni by October 1999 after a two-year campaign to clear a land route to Jaffna from the south. It was the largest military operation to that point. Maran (not his real name), a former comrade of Santhia, says an army offensive to the south killed many women Tiger soldiers. The Sri Lankans mutilated their bodies as a reminder to the Tamil population not to support the LTTE. Soon after, Tiger commando units in Mullaitivu were instructed to move into enemy territory. 

“The general mood was that we were on the losing side. We thought we were just on a revenge mission”, he says. “There were four or five army artilleries in the central-eastern Vanni. Seven four-person Black Tiger units, each with a supply team, moved in advance and stationed themselves close to the compounds. Their job was to ‘interfere’ with Sri Lankan operations.”

Commando units from Santhia’s camp played a critical role neutralising the military’s Vanni headquarters. Discipline collapsed. It took only five days to reclaim the territory lost over the previous two years. The Sri Lankan soldiers, without artillery support, could do little but retreat in the face of an LTTE offensive. Santhia, Maran and Thulasi travelled south with another commando team toward another base in the eastern province. But disaster struck. “In the morning of 5 November, part of the Black Tigers unit was operating in government controlled territory. Along the way there was a place called Nedunkeni, which had been captured by the LTTE the previous day”, Thulasi says. “The Black Tigers unit was resting. We were caught up in a Sri Lankan Air Force raid on the town. Two were killed, including the unit commander … Everyone was panicked and shocked.”

“It was early morning and I was making tea”, Maran, who provided explosives support to the commandos, remembers. “I left to find water. I might have been about 300 metres away, I saw the plane coming down and I took cover. A bomb had hit our position. Santhia was left to take charge. We retreated several kilometres and stayed overnight under tamarind trees. We spent all night talking about the other victories we were hearing about over the radio. We didn’t know that there was a broad-ranging offensive. We only knew about our own mission. No one could believe it happened so quickly, taking back the ground. And we lost only 37 cadres. 

“Usually in the LTTE there is not shock with loss of life. Especially Black Tigers, we expect to die. But this now felt like a lost opportunity. We speculated that our failure must have hurt other battle plans in the south, which may have been relying on our victory. And the way death came – we are supposed to die in battle, but this just felt like an accident, a waste. 

“In the morning, we received news that the brother of one of our team had been killed in another battle. Santhia had to break the news and console her. She had to do it all: food, logistics, communication and consoling. She was an outstanding leader.”

The southern Vanni campaign was an early shot in the LTTE’s Operation Unceasing Waves III, which aimed to take the vital Elephant Pass in the north. The Tigers claimed victory in April 2000, the pass wrenched from the grip of the occupying army – another disaster for the government in Colombo and the military high command.

Again, Black Tiger commandos operated like darts penetrating under the enemy’s skin before a barrage of arrows struck at their hearts. But this time, Santhia’s poise wavered. “There was an incident which almost broke her”, Thulasi says. “A team of Black Tigers were deployed very deep into the army-controlled Jaffna district. Santhia and I received a call telling us they had been ambushed. Two leading commanders were killed and the team collapsed. Her good friend was dead. She seemed broken, crying. I was shocked to see her like that. She had always been so strong and responsible.”

Santhia, like the others, recovered her composure. And after two years of negotiations, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE signed a permanent ceasefire in February 2002. But the clouds of war remained on the horizon. A great storm was approaching.