The Deep Imprint of Prabhakaran’s Thamililam: Kilinochchi in May 2009

Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda, being an article published in The Island on 17 May 2009 and thereafter in 2010 by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies –with the title “Letters on a Blackboard – A Lost Generation” … being a review is based on the author’s personal impressions and experience of the last Eelam War. Much of the material was gathered during the course of the author’s visits to the war zone between 19 March and 27 April 2009,

52-chicago_maaveerar_naal_usa1_21081_435    The entrance to Kilinochchi Maha Vidyalayam (Kilinochchi High School) is dominated by a large map. Although it is actually a map of Sri Lanka, most of it is blank. One section however, is clear and sharply defined in bright red. Stretching all the way down from the top, it occupies the entire north of the island, snaking down on either side. On the west coast it touches the outskirts of the capital Colombo; on the east, it reaches right down to the deep south. All in all, the red areas encompass more than one third of the entire landmass and almost two thirds of the coastline.

The rest of the country however, does not exist. An empty space in washed out blue, it is barely distinct from the surrounding ocean. The map is entitled “Our Country. Tamil Eelam.” Every day, every student entering and leaving the school would have to file past this map. This was all they knew of Sri Lanka. Recently however, the map has been slighted amended. At the very heart of the blank space, daubed in big letters, are the words “SL ARMY.”

Upstairs the class rooms are bright and airy, painted in pretty pastel colours. In one particular room the letters on the blackboard tell us that on the 26th September 2008, six boys and 12 girls, 18 in all, sat down for their final class. The wall beside was marked “Grade 12 A”-everyone in this class would have been between 17-18 years old. As they sat down for their studies, their eyes would have been drawn to the pictures above the board. However there are no maps, diagrams, or even cricketers to be seen. Only a line of posters.

The first is a picture of a portly figure in a business suit, Anton Balasingham, the foreign spokesman of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The face and voice of Tamil Eelam abroad; internationally Balasingham was perhaps the most well known of the Tamil hierarchy. Next to the timetable, is a portrait of a man in uniform. It is a rare picture of the leader of the LTTE’s Political Wing, the ever smiling Tamilchelvam. Everything is in Tamil, the only link with the outside world is a yellow Bank of Ceylon calendar. The calendar’s photographs highlight some of Sri Lanka’s most famous archaeological sites, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Yapahuva. Printed in all three national languages, first English, then Tamil and finally Sinhala, it is the only reminder that Kilinochchi is a part of Sri Lanka.

For more than a decade Kilinochchi was the capital of Tamil Eelam, a separate Tamil state in the heart of Sri Lanka. Its creators and self styled guardians were the Tamil Tigers, the world’s most ruthless and most formidable terrorists. Here the Tigers held absolute sway, controlling every aspect of the administration and ruling the lives of the people. In early 2009 however, Kilinochchi was finally recaptured by the Sri Lanka army. For both the LTTE and the people of Tamil Eelam, Kilinochchi had been the lynchpin of a way of life; the fall of the capital sounded its deathknell.

Although the town was only finally taken towards the end of January 2009, the letters on the blackboard tell us for that the students of Grade 12 A, their lives had stopped nearly four months earlier.

Murugananda Maha Vidyalayam lies several miles outside Kilinochchi, amidst rolling paddy fields and thorny lines of palmyrah trees. As the afternoon sun starts to set, its burning glow begins to soften, bathing the building in golden light. The same map is prominently displayed here and it is clearly visible from the roadside. Positioned above it is a large blue sign. It advertises The Bank of Tamil Eelam School Savings Unit. Everybody entering through this way has to pass under this sign.

Built in the shape of the letter “L” around a large green park, the main section is rather beautiful. On one side the corridors are framed by a line of blooming temple trees. As you walk down the narrow spaces, white flowers blow across your face. Set into the wall is a plaque erected during the ceasefire period, dated 9th July 2003.

“Funded by the Government of Sri Lanka

Asian Development Bank

Germany (GTZ)

Government of Netherlands

Opec Fund”

The first room on the left is a clutter of jumbled chairs and tables. This was where the teachers would gather, to gossip, complain and pass the time of day. The blackboard here is mostly blank, with scrubbed out scrawlings here and there. Large English letters in the middle of the board proclaim its function, “STAFROOM”. Tucked away in a corner of the blackboard is another, smaller inscription in Tamil, “Defeat Leads to Victory.”

On the walls above are posters of men in striped uniforms. One commemorates Captain Lara Rangan, “who died in 1984 at the hands of the Sinhala army.” Another remembers the “Admired Servants of Tamil Eelam, Who Died for the Cause in 13 Years of War.” Most striking of all is a darkened, shadowy image honouring the Black Tigers. An élite unit dedicated to suicide bombing and martyrdom the Black Tigers were the LTTE’s most potent weapon and they are honoured as its most revered heroes. Known as “Maaveerar” or “Great Heroes, ” they are amongst the very few to have access to the Leader of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran. They are so highly regarded that the Leader himself hosts a final meal with each and every Black Tiger, before they are sent out on their final mission. July 5th is Black Tiger Day and this poster celebrates Black Tiger Day 2007,

“See the Light from your Face,

Listen to the Sound of Your Deeds.

Remember the Black Tigers”

The posters range right across the wall, remembering other renowned figures-Colonel Devan, the local area commander and Sivakumaran, who became the first cadre to take cyanide when he was captured during a bank robbery.

Upstairs is an examination hall, where students sat for O Level Exams conducted by the government of Sri Lanka. Index numbers on the board – 82928916-82929351 announce the candidates sitting for subjects in the Tamil Medium, Papers I and II in Music and Papers I, II and III in the Arts. This classroom would have been occupied by Grade 10 students, children between the ages of 15-16. All these exams would have been conducted by Tamil teachers, working and teaching in Tamil; all of them government servants, drawing government salaries. It is one of the most extraordinary ironies of this long drawn out conflict.

“During the Ceasefire time the LTTE visited our school. They were at every cultural occasion, sports event and every prize giving.” The speaker was a young cadre who had just defected. His eyes were haunted. Taut and nervous, he leaned forward as he spoke. Holding himself together, he looked intensely into our eyes, lost and now confused. Like all his fellows he had grown up under the LTTE, he believed in them and in their success.

The warm afternoon breeze sweeps through the building. As it gathers strength, nearby trees sway gently to and fro. Leaves dance in the wind, their shadows creeping up the walls. Pieces of paper fly slowly across the room. At our feet, the wind rustles the pages of a book. The book has a shiny blue cover. It is the school souvenir for 2002, the KN. Murugananda Maha Vidyalayam Prize Giving Issue, printed at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Press in Jaffna. Almost entirely in Tamil, it opens with a message in English from a Tamil government officer, K.M. Pathmanathan, the Deputy Director of Education-Planning, from the Zonal Education Office

“This school has a long tradition and it has set an example in developing a child friendly environment. This has been achieved by the dedicated service of the Principals and teachers who have served this school.”

On page 28 are three colour photographs, congratulating the Best All Round Students of 2003. On the opposite page is a series of verses. At the very bottom of the page is a saying.

“More dangerous than the Enemy

Is the Traitor”

National Leader of Tamil Eelam

***   ***

 A Pongu Thamil pageant performance in early 2000s

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Filed under authoritarian regimes, cultural transmission, education, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, rehabilitation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, zealotry

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