The Abduction: Everyday violence after the civil war in Sri Lanka

Rohini Mohan

Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war tore communities apart, instilling deep fear and hate. In 2009, the Sri Lankan army finally defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers guerrillas in a fierce battle that swept up about 300,000 civilians and killed more than 40,000. Resident, displaced millions still dared to hope. But the next five years changed everything. Rohini Mohan’s searing account of three lives caught up in the devastation looks beyond the end of a war, to reveal the creeping everyday violence that comes after. In the tumultuous world they inhabit, desire, plans and people can be snatched away in a moment. An excerpt from The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.

Someone must have talked plenty, because on an afternoon in June 2008, Sarvanantha Pereira was detained by men who didn’t say who they were. They would call it an arrest. It felt more like an abduction.

Sarva was in a trishaw, his medical report in hand, returning from the doctor’s office near the red Cargill building in Colombo. He had just been certified a man of perfect health — no illnesses, no physical weaknesses. It could be no other way; he had spent most of his adult life making sure that the asthma attacks that had plagued his childhood would never return.

Growing up, few things had worried him more than his mismatched body and health. With his broad chest, log-like arms and his relative height, he towered over most Sri Lankans — a matter of great pride to him. But his size also signalled an intimidating strength, which, at a boys’ school and in the sandbag-punching areas where he lived, was quickly interpreted as a challenge.

He learnt to live up to the hype of his tree-trunk body. He ran, did push-ups and ate so competitively that he seemed to have shamed his asthma into submission. All to build a physical confidence to match his appearance.

Two years ago, Sarva had completed a nautical engineering course. His diploma — the first in his family of high school just-pass graduates — was much celebrated. But like all the other young men in his class, Sarva had enrolled for the free travel. With his diploma, he got jobs sailing all over the world on merchant ships.

The drab workshops on welding and refuelling had prepared him for an unglamorous job, but once he was actually at sea, it was worse than anything he could have imagined. He spent most of his time inside a damp cabin, greasy up to his elbows, busy with wrenching and oiling, a drudgery broken only for one brief meal a day. He worked almost eighteen hours a day for months on end, learning to swallow the nausea of seasickness, becoming someone smaller and quieter than he thought himself to be.

But when the ship docked in a port, there was always a promise of adventure, of unseen countries. He always made sure he scrubbed to the tips of his fingernails and wore his best shirt before stepping out. Who knew what exotic beauty the land would hold, and he didn’t want to mar it with his grubbiness.

Sarva’s journeys to the Maldives and to Thailand had been the best. They were the very landscapes advertised on billboards at home, with footprints in the sand and a pretty couple in shorts and white shirts. Those places convinced him that there was a world somewhere that was worth scrubbing decks for. Now with his health report, he was closer to getting the Greek visa he would need for his next voyage. The smoke from the trishaw driver’s cigarette flew into Sarva’s face as they turned past Colombo’s world trade centre. His phone rang; it was his father calling from Nuwara Eliya. ‘Your aunt tells me you aren’t home for lunch yet?’ he asked in Tamil.

Sarva looked at his watch. It was already past three o’clock. He was staying at his aunt’s house in Colombo and she would expect him for lunch. ‘Did Aunty call you?’

‘Yes, she has made fish,’ his father said, ‘your favourite.’ Sarva never tired of his aunt’s fish curry, which she made following a traditional Jaffna Tamil recipe: steamed in tamarind extract and seasoned with mustard seeds sputtered in sesame oil. It was the taste of his after-school evenings at her house, where he had stayed with his brother and cousins till the seventh grade.

‘Aunty will remember to save me the fish head,’ he told his father. He had to go to the recruitment office to hand in the
June 2008 medical report. He would be home by four, he said.

His parents, who lived in Nuwara Eliya, had stayed in Colombo till the previous day, for his mother’s hernia operation. This was her fifth, but was the first one he had been around for. She had been overjoyed that he had come, which amused Sarva.

He was accustomed to thinking of himself as the ignored middle son, always exiled to aunts’ houses. Maybe he had acquired this new central position in the family because his older brother, the former favourite, had married a woman his mother disapproved of.

The trishaw drove past the Pettah bus stops, honking and weaving through the hordes of people crossing the road. The recruitment office Sarva wanted was on Armour Street, and they were almost there. There was no reason to hurry; June in Sri Lanka brought on everyone’s worst mood. The oppressive humidity and heat seeped right through one’s clothes and into one’s nerves.

The stream of shops selling mobile phones and pirated CDs gave way to forklifts, iron scrap and hardware shops. This part of Colombo always looked plundered, the predominance of grey concrete and rusted metal signalling heavy demolitions just beyond view.

The trishaw driver asked Sarva in Sinhala if he was sick. He had seen the stamp of the doctor’s office on his papers.

‘Aiyo no, it’s just a check-up,’ Sarva replied in Sinhala from the back seat, scooting closer to the driver. ‘For a job on a ship.’

When he bent his head to meet the driver’s eye in the rear-view mirror, Sarva saw, from under the array of decorations hanging above the windshield, a white van standing near the recruitment office across the road. The trishaw driver didn’t seem to notice it. He was making a U-turn around some workers digging up the road. Sarva felt his heart race. This was not good. No white van was ever good.

‘Turn around!’ Sarva hissed.

The driver looked over his shoulder. ‘Huh? Did we miss the place?’

At that moment, four men got out of the van; two of them started to walk towards them.

‘Turn around! Turn around!’ Sarva was shouting now.

The driver hit his brakes and was just shifting to reverse when the two men from the van caught up and hopped in.

‘Who … who are you?’ Sarva stammered, trying to squeeze out of the now cramped back seat. One of the men then grabbed Sarva by the trousers, removed his belt, and pushed him out of the vehicle in one motion. They took everything off him — the medical report, his wallet, his mobile phone. They used the belt to tie Sarva’s hands at his back. At the wide car park nearby, with traffic still whizzing past, the bigger man threw Sarva on his knees.

Standing above him, the other man screamed questions at him.

‘Is your name Sarva?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you have three artificial front teeth?’

A pause.

‘Yes.’

‘Have you been to the Vanni?’

‘No. No.’

By now, the trishaw driver had begun to yell, ‘Kidnap! Kidnap! Help!’ A small crowd of labourers gathered around them. Some people were shouting, ‘Aye, aye! What is happening?’ One of the men from the van flashed them an ID — held it high above his head. He was a plainclothes policeman, he said. Pointing to Sarva, he snarled: ‘This is a Kottiya, a Tiger,’ a Tamil militant from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The driver fell silent, the crowd disappeared. Later, Sarva would wonder what happened to the driver after that. Did he drive away — in fear or out of indifference or hate? Did he wait to be paid for helping them set this trap? No one could be trusted.

The men dragged Sarva towards the white van. Its windows were tinted and rolled up. He was made to crouch in front of the passenger seat beside the driver. A man clambered onto the seat and pressed his feet to Sarva’s back. The door was slid shut. He counted six or seven men before he was blindfolded.

They drove for about half an hour, perhaps less. Sarva swayed with the sharp turns the van was making. The man above him gripped Sarva’s curly hair to keep his balance but did not remove his hand afterwards. Dirty boots dug into his back, and now this hand.

Sarva had seen goats taken like this to the slaughterhouse, bleating all the way. A Muslim butcher in Negombo once told him he always killed the noisiest goat first. The quiet ones were smarter, Sarva had decided. Sure, they were still going the same way as the rest, but they managed to stay alive a little longer.

He tried to quieten his thudding heart; he breathed more slowly, he wanted to heighten his other senses. In school, a rich boy who had been kidnapped for ransom had led the police to his kidnappers’ lair entirely by retracing the sounds he heard while they drove him blindfolded. Sarva tried that now: inside the van, no one spoke a word. The traffic noise and honking had begun to subside.

He couldn’t focus. Why is this happening to me, he wondered. A year ago, he had come close to this: he was with another shipping company and was inside the harbour’s customs immigration office to arrange some papers for his Turkish assignment.

An officer had seen Sarva’s national identity card, which had been issued in Tamil-dominated Jaffna and showed his name in both Tamil and Sinhala. With one look at it, the officer had identified Sarva as Tamil; he took him to a room to ask a lot of questions. Sarva still had the same ID card. As soon as this was over, he decided, he would apply for a new one from Colombo, where his name would be written only in Sinhala and he wouldn’t be as easy a target.

The van slowed down for what seemed to be a gate and then stopped. Sarva heard the door open and through his blindfold saw light flood in. He was pulled out of the van and taken up some steps. He heard a ship’s horn. That gave him his first piece of real information: he was somewhere near Colombo’s harbour.

~~~

At home, sarva’s mother, Indra, waited for him to call once he had reached his aunt’s house. It was six already. His father, John, had insisted they take the noon bus from Colombo back home to Nuwara Eliya; that’s where John’s mind always was, anyway.

Now the housemaid was cutting vegetables in the kitchen and John was nodding off while watching a Tamil film award ceremony on TV. As usual, the volume was too high. The obnoxious presenter’s voice boomed through the old plantation bungalow. At least they had no neighbours. Uncomplaining tea estates surrounded them.

Indra tried calling Sarva for the fourth or fifth time. An electronic voice said in Sinhala that the number was ‘in a no-coverage area’. Sarva never told her where he went all day — none of her three boys did — but it wasn’t like him to wander. He was usually home at the time he said he would be. He hadn’t had lunch, and he rarely ate out in Colombo. ‘I want my sweet aunt’s rice and curry,’ he always said. Indra suspected he was just buttering up his aunt to win some pampering in return. That fellow would do anything to get attention.

She called him again. This time she heard the phone ring, but there was no answer. ‘Good-for-nothing donkey,’ she spat, her worst Tamil curse. ‘This is what I get for having boys!’

By dinnertime, Indra had called Sarva’s phone about thirty times. She wished she had stayed in Colombo. She called her sisters, Rani and Mani, every few minutes. She felt a numbing fear. The newspapers were full of disappearances and shootings, sordid details of an escalating war in the north that was affecting every Tamil — and even some Sinhalese — these days.

These were familiar news items; she had been reading them since the nineties. A son missing, a husband stranded in another town because a highway had closed overnight, a sister caught in the crossfire, a neighbour found dead in a ditch, a schoolboy shot by a soldier, another boy joining the Tigers. It all began with these hours of not knowing.

Every wave of battle meant that Tamil families, no matter who they were, expected misfortune. Anything could happen, and few things could be stopped. Indra’s mother had once compared the Tamil experience to two million people dressed in white shirts being showered by purple berries falling from a shaken tree. Few would be left unstained. So every time misfortune missed them, Indra was wracked with guilt because she couldn’t help but count their escape as a rare blessing. She saw it as a breather until the next wave of consequences.

Finally, Indra phoned the nearby police station to file a missing person’s report.

‘Who’s missing?’ the bored voice at the other end asked in Sinhala.

‘My son,’ Indra said. ‘He is a seaman in Colombo,’ she added for some reason.

‘When did he go missing?’

She said he was supposed to come home for lunch, but she felt something had happened to him. The voice, now annoyed, told her to keep on waiting and hung up.

Indra sat on the threshold of her front door and stared at the darkening sky. Was she panicking unnecessarily? Maybe he’d just gone to a friend’s house. But why didn’t he answer his phone then? Only Sarva had this ability — to drive her berserk with his neediness and then drop her as if she meant nothing.

He had stayed with her through her hernia operation. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked him to help change her bedpan. Oh, that was too much for any boy. But no, Sarva had grown up. He was close to his family now. He wasn’t footloose any longer. She called her sisters again to check if he was there. He wasn’t.

She decided she must do something before she lost her mind. She called her usual travel agent and booked two seats on the night bus to Colombo, leaving in two hours. ‘Hurry up with that pittu!’ she shouted to John, who was eating dinner inside.
By the time she returned to Colombo the next morning, Indra’s sisters had roped in her elder son, Deva, to do a round of Sarva’s friends’ houses on his motorbike. Deva lived with his wife and children just a few streets away from them, and he dropped in for lunch looking crestfallen. ‘One day or another, this was going to happen to us, too, Amma,’ he said.

In the afternoon, Deva went to the neighbourhood police station to once again try to file a missing person’s report. They told him to come back in forty-eight hours. As he was leaving, one of the constables called him to the corner and asked him why he was trying to file a report when his Kottiya brother was actually fighting the Sri Lankan army in the Vanni. The constable then grinned broadly. The other constables laughed.

When Deva went home, he told his mother only the part about forty-eight hours.

Indra did not sleep that night. Instead, curled up next to the phone, she pressed redial every few minutes. Her son should never have left her side, she kept telling herself unreasonably.
At around nine the next morning, still in bed, she groped around for her phone and reflexively pressed redial. A man who was not Sarva answered the phone. ‘Hello?’

Indra sat bolt upright. ‘Where is Sarva? I’m his mother speaking!’

The voice said, in Sinhala, that her son was being questioned. ‘Podi vibayak thiyanawa.’ A short interview.

‘Kohadu? Where? Where!’ Indra asked in Sinhala.

‘We have him. Stop calling.’ He hung up.

Indra had not eaten for twenty-four hours, but this, the tiniest clue about her son’s whereabouts, energised her. She quickly washed her tear-streaked face, tied a knot in her wispy white hair, drank half a bottle of water at one go, and called again. And again. The third time, the same man picked up. ‘Hello!’ he said gruffly. ‘Stop calling!’

‘Where is he? I want to see him!’ Her sister came running from the kitchen, gesturing to Indra to ask who the man speaking was.

‘And who are you?’

‘We cannot tell you. Stop calling.’

‘Please, son, I’m — ’

He hung up again.

When she called back immediately, the number had been disabled.

The Seasons of Trouble
Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War
Rohini Mohan