For over three agonizing decades, the island nation of Sri Lanka was mired in an ethnic conflict that led to a wanton spate of massacres, mayhem and melee. This conflict, that pitted the Sri Lankan military against the separatist forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (“LTTE) divided Sri Lanka along ethnic lines – pitting the majority Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government against the minority Tamil speaking population. When the dust finally settled over one of the longest sectarian strife in modern times, the damage wrought was unspeakable. Over 100,000 lives are estimated to have been lost, while the total economic cost of the war was estimated at US$200 billion. The Human Rights Watch also cast allegations of genocide against the Government of Sri Lanka under international law and published the relevant details in December 2009. Leading American expert in international law, Professor Francis A. Boyle held an emergency meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to urge to stop Tamil genocide by providing the evidence of crimes against humanity, genocide against Tamils and the international community’s failure to stop the slaughter of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka.
Millions of people were displaced either involuntarily, inevitably or forcibly throughout the tenure of the civil war. One such individual was Logathasan Tharmathurai. Now a resident of Canada, Mr. Tharmathurai was forced to flee his motherland when violence manifested itself at the doorstep of his house. In his evocative work, “The Sadness of Geography”, Mr. Tharmathurai recounts his harrowing experiences both within Sri Lanka and abroad as he attempted, both bravely and foolishly to secure a passage to freedom, both for himself and his family. The son of a respectable businessman plying his wares in the small village of Sangkathaanai in the Jaffna District of the Northern Province. Mr. Tharmathurai let a life of contentment. As he postulates, “when I was growing up our house was by far the largest and most modern in Sangkathaanai. My father was very proud of that and always made sure that he was the first to have any modern convenience. We were the first to have running water and the first to have electricity. My father bought the first automobile in the village.”
However, to say that his father led a queerly Bohemian existence would be putting it mildly – an understatement. In spite of having an extraordinarily devoted woman for a wife, Mr. Tharmathurai’s father commenced to have an affair with his sister-in-law before nonchalantly taking the latter as his second wife and proceeding to have kids with her. Growing up in a predominantly Tamil region, Mr. Tharmathurai was isolated and insulated from communication of any sort with the Sinhalese segment of the population. His blissful existence meant that he was totally in the dark regarding the simmering undercurrents which would soon lead to a full blown war of ideologies. Mr. Tharmathurai’s first taste of the ethnic conflict materialized on the morning of May 31st 1981 when the famous Jaffna Public Library, home to more than ninety-seven thousand books and precious ancient manuscripts containing irreplaceable artifacts of Tamil cultural and historical heritage was set ablaze. At that time, a boarder in the St John’s College in Jaffna, Mr. Tharmathurai and his classmates bravely tried to extinguish the fire but were prevented by an egregious bunch of security forces from carrying out their mission, thereby leaving the Library to burn to its unfortunate ruin.
The most searing and scarring impact of the conflict on Mr. Tharmathurai took place in one of the compartments of a train. On his way to visit his parents from boarding school, Mr. Tharmathurai was accosted by a bunch of Sinhalese soldiers and one of them proceeded to molest him, jeering and making fun of him all along. This nerve racking incident imbued a sense of hatred and anger in Mr. Tharmathurai towards the Sri Lankan military and before long he was recruited as a rebel in the ranks of the LTTE. The recruitment, however proved to a damp squib barring one spine chilling experience, as the new recruit’s job involved distributing pamphlets organizing collections and pasting propaganda posters.
Fed up with the entire scheme of things in his country, Mr. Tharmathurai then seeks to bolt the nation and head to Europe where his older brother Lathy was already stationed – in Paris.
The rest of the book recounts the traumatic experiences of Mr. Tharmathurai travelling on fake and genuine passports, being detained in a refugee camp in Nuremburg and the Rouen prison in France before finally arriving in Canada as an asylum seeker. The travails and tribulations undertaken by Mr. Tharmathurai make for some unsettling reading. From having been duped by an agent promising him a passport and divesting him of Rs. 20,000 (prior to miraculously recovering both his passport and money courtesy a chance encounter with a good Samaritan) that left the young man homeless, hungry and sleeping on a beach for four days in a row to a rough encounter with the guards in the Parisian prison, “The Sadness of Geography” reminisces about the plight of a young man who having his roots uprooted painstakingly tries to find a life.
Mr. Tharmathurai writes in a manner that is candid and unhesitatingly discloses even the most private of details. For instance, the episode of his getting molested in a railway coach is recounted in a simple, telling and matter-of-fact manner that both shocks and startles the reader. Recounting his traumatic time at the Rouen Prison, he writes, “Rouen Prison (also known as the Bonne-Nouvelle Prison) is located in the town of Rouen in the northwest Seine-Maritime district of France. Many years later, I learned that Rouen had been home to Nicolas Cocaign, the cannibal who killed a fellow prisoner and ate one of his lungs. Thankfully this happened years after I was there.”
In the end, Mr. Tharmathurai succeeded in sponsoring his family to Canada (with the exception of his father who died after being shot at by the military trying to make it to India via sea), by engaging in a frenzy of jobs. In his own words, “I would wake up at 7.00 a.m. and go to school. School ended at 3.30 p.m., and I would commute to work by 5.00 p.m. I did my homework during my commute. During the week, I would work eight-hour shifts and get home at about 2.00 a.m. On the weekends I would work fifteen hour shifts, starting at 10.00 a.m. and finishing at 1.00 a.m. the following morning. With overtime, I managed to meet the required income level – just barely – and sponsored my family…”
Unlike a multitude of unfortunates, Mr. Tharmathurai succeeded in all his endeavours, courtesy his intrepid and never-say-die attitude as well as a spate of good fortune.
Such tales draw our attention to people caught in the cross fire of ethnic hatred and violence.
Both an horrific and heroic tale. And unfortunately not unique.
In the early 2000’s I was involved in the production of booklet which featured the stories of many of the refugees’ and asylum seekers then temporarily lodged in our town. Not sweet tales these, and not from just one war-torn land. My heart goes out to everyone.
Really heart-wrenching these displacement of people.
Yea. And they arrive in what they hope is to be their new land, to the abuse thrown at them by folks who just don’t understand.
Our refugees and asylum seekers have now moved on, some granted leave to stay, others I assume shipped home. But to the day I die I shall not forget how abysmal was my fellow man’s reception of these people in need.