Thursday 19th October 2017
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Through the wind and the rain…Tamil hunger strikers show their solidarity

As the vote takes place at the Human Rights Council today, regarding Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, many people around the world have been on hunger strikes to call on India to vote against the report. 

British-Tamil visual artist Gaya met three Tamil students who have been on hunger strike outside the Indian High Commission in London, and here she shares their story and her thoughts…

I met 3 Tamil students that are on a hunger strike outside the Indian High Commission…They were on a hunger strike in solidarity with the Tamil Nadu students of India, calling on India to vote against the LLRC* report on Thursday 21st at the Human Rights Council, and to call for an independent, international investigation into all crimes committed during the final stages of the war in 2009.

I didn’t know what to expect as I walked along the busy road with my iPhone in hand, with Google Maps for direction. As it was by the river, there was a chilly wind that turned my fingers numb at the slightest exposure. As I sped up, I couldn’t help but wonder how they survived these last 2 days in the rain and freezing cold with not even a hot drink to keep them warm. I found them lying under some scaffolding erected around the Indian High Commission (HC). Initially I thought they were asleep but as I approached to say hi, 2 of them sat up to greet me. They apologized for their friend saying "he’s too weak to move, it has hit our friend (Thiravudan) harder than us". I didn’t know what to say. Then I shook both Thinesh’s and Denes’ hand. Thinesh was ice cold to the touch. Apparently they only just recently moved under the scaffolding to stay dry. Previous nights they had to move away and sit on the pavements next to the HC, exposed. If they did move under the scaffolding for shelter, they were asked to move as they couldn’t lean against the walls or any of the poles for support for they are private property. They couldn’t even put a tent up even though they applied for and received permission from the council to occupy the space, before starting their hunger strike. I couldn’t and can’t imagine being stuck in the freezing cold and rain, without shelter, for a day let alone 3!

All three of them are young, younger than me. Thiravudan is 28 and Denes is 23 and both of their families are still back home in Sri Lanka. Thinesh is only 22; he lives with his family in UK. I wondered what gave them the strength to cope with the cold let alone sleeping rough on the streets, being ignored by passers by and potentially subjecting themselves to inhumane treatment that some homeless people get. All three of them were affected by the war and have lost loved ones and have family in Sri Lanka whose future and plight are in their and the international communities’ hands.

Thinesh seemed a little too tired to talk now so I asked Denes about his life and his family. Denes started with "I’m sorry acca* in advance if my breath smells, I have no way of telling…" I automatically responded, without thinking, "Oh no, you’re fine. But,do you want me to get you some gum for the future?" As soon as those words came out of my mouth I realised my error. We both looked at each other and laughed. I guess can be a ditz sometimes. I thought to myself, “Awww… what a sweet and well-mannered boy… his mum must be proud.”

He is the youngest in his family. The baby. He once had a father, a mother, 2 elder brothers and 2 elder sisters. In 1991 his father was killed and his family moved into a tent in Vanni as refugees. He must have been just 1 years old. In 1999, when he was just 9 years old, he lost both of his elder brothers and one of his elder sisters in a government shelling. As the shelling intensified and the army started to move north, in 2006, his mum and sister started to move with the rest of the refugees escaping the army. They travelled from 2006 till 2009, for 3 years constantly, sleeping rough, trying to stay one step ahead of the advancing army. His mum is 65 years old with high blood pressure and has limited mobility. His brother-in-law was injured in the war and his sister, at 32 years old, had to take care of both of them. My thoughts ran to my mum, who is also roughly that age; she too has issues walking long distances like most people of her age. I wondered how his mum managed to be on the move, living in tents and sleeping rough for 3 years, whilst constantly being shelled and with the fear of her children dying in front of her looming over her. I realised then- this must have been the fate of so many mothers back then… My heart sank a little deeper.

In 2008, he lost touch with his family. He had no idea what had happened to them. He didn’t even know if his family was in the Mullivaikkal massacre or not. He had no idea! And, no way of knowing. On May 15th 2009 his family surrendered and left Mullivaikkal for a government camp. As soon as his mum got out, and was able to, she called her son! What a joyous moment that must have been! I don’t know, and most of us cannot know, the pain he must have endured in that one year of not knowing… I only know that with my mother who calls me daily, to the point of annoyance sometimes, if she didn’t calling me for a day or two- I’d panic. I am sure it was no different for him, before 2008. When a week went by, which has only happened twice in my life and one was when she was travelling in Sri Lanka during the relatively calm period, I nearly lost my mind with worry. I was planning a search party and trying to contact/find people in the area, where she should be, for news, any news. And this, was during light shelling. I can not fathom all the horrid scenarios that must have run through his head during that one year of heavy shelling. One, long year! of not knowing. Not hearing your mum’s voice… Not knowing if you’ll ever hear it again… This struck me hard… I just wanted to give him a hug.

Later he found out from his mum that his uncle and his whole family of 8 all died in Mullivaikkal,along with 13-18 of his school friends. Whilst in the camp, set up by the government to detain all the refugees till they could be ‘cleared’ to return home, his family were affected by the floods that occupied the monsoon season as they were situated in flood plains. In 2010, they were finally allowed to leave the camp and return home to their land/old house, which they left behind before 1991. They have yet to receive any resettlement help, the government has "promised" the international community it will provide. And their suffering continues…

What are their demands?
1. An international investigation to find out what happened and for accountability.
2. To allow NGOs back into Tamil Eelam to provide humanitarian assistance.
3. Immediate halt to forced Sinhala colonization of Tamil areas and the destruction of religious shrines and places of worship.
4. Details of missing ex-fighters and members of the public be released to the public.
5. All the Tamils imprisoned without charge be brought to trial.
6. Referendum for Tamil Eelam for the Tamil people to decide how they want to be governed.

Is it too much to ask? You decide…

They are on a hunger strike with the students of Tamil Nadu,asking for India’s help and support as well as the international community at large. Let’s see what the 21st holds…

*LLRC, Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, is an investigation into the conduct ofthe Sri Lankan military by the military and which clears the military and the government of anycrimes which is in direct contrast to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s initialfindings/reports.

*acca is a term of respect used to address anyone older

Photo credits: Gaya – http://www.gaya3in1.kroute.com/