BBC with Priyath Liyanage 24 December 2011
As Sri Lanka’s civil war came to a bloody end in May 2009, the BBC’s Priyath Liyanage was struck by video footage of a boy walking through the war zone holding a violin. Two years on, can this boy be traced and why did he make such a perilous journey with only a musical instrument?
In the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians – driven out of their homes with the retreating Tamil rebels – were trapped in a small strip of coastal land in the north of the country. While some people were released, others escaped. There was no choice but to walk through the raging battle towards the advancing government forces. It is still unclear how many people were killed in the shelling and crossfire. This stage of the country’s prolonged war was fought without independent witnesses. The story of these civilians who reportedly became a human shield for the Tamil Tigers is largely untold. The only news of their plight was through the reports filed by embedded reporters of state media. Independent and foreign media, along with most international aid agencies, were removed from the battle zone.
One night, as I was going through reels of footage, I caught a glimpse of a young boy picking his way across the battlefield with a violin case slung over his shoulder. His choice intrigued me: at a time when people were in fear of their lives and took the one thing they could carry, why was his instrument so precious? I wanted to know his story. So, armed only with a blurry photo of this boy, I went back to Sri Lanka determined to find him.
I began in Vavuniya, a border town 160m (258km) north of the capital, Colombo. A major checkpoint there once divided the former rebel-controlled area from the rest of the country. More than two years after the war’s end, the checkpoint is still active – the identity of every visitor is diligently checked.
From there I travel up to Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost city and the centre of its Tamil community. The best lead I have is a tip from a former music director who lost all his instruments during the war, and now works at a school. He doesn’t recognise the boy in the photograph, but identifies the well-groomed man walking with him as a musician called Sri Khugan. But all attempts to contact Sri Khugan fail. He doesn’t want to speak and has switched off his mobile phone.
With its heavy military presence, some describe Jaffna as an “open prison”. The Tamil rebels didn’t tolerate any dissent and although the power balance has changed, people are still afraid of the consequences of careless talk.
Well-known film director, R Keseverajan is open about the intimidation in the north. “Only politicians say there is normalcy,” he says. “We still have wounds in our hearts, those are not healed. “A man who lost a leg at war will think of the war every time he tries to walk.”
With his extensive contacts in the arts industry, Keseverajan suggested that the man in the picture could be Veera — a presenter on rebel TV. Disappointingly, this was another dead end — Veera was also reluctant to talk and after many attempts to get in touch, we heard he had left the north.
Keseverajan wasn’t surprised. He told me about a recent attack on a university student. A young man was assaulted by masked motorcyclists in broad daylight – right in front of a military checkpoint. “People are scared. There is total impunity here,” he says.
I try my luck with another artist, Parvathi Sivapatham, a concert singer with a huge fan base and once engaged to sing propaganda songs for the Tamil Tigers. I imagined a musician of her stature to be living in a mansion but her home was a tiny house with a tin roof. She lost everything during the war — including her books and instruments.
“We are artists. What could we do but sing songs? In those days I sang songs for the Tamil Tigers,” she says. “Now I sing traditional songs. I don’t even think about those other songs. Life has to go on.” Like so many others, she too was wounded on her journey from the front and was able to save only one instrument. “I managed to bring this shruthi box [a kind of harmonium]. I carried it in a little bag,” she recalls. “Bullets were flying everywhere, but I was determined to bring it. It was the closest thing to my heart. I don’t think I had any choice.”
The boy with the violin remains elusive, but it is possible he could be one of the 7,000 people still held in the Menik Farm refugee camp. However, the defence authorities do not allow us in. People there are still waiting to be allowed to return home.
I meet Siva Ruben, a musician who had been a refugee in Menik Farm, but he doesn’t recognise the boy or the man next to him. Siva now lives in a tiny tin-roofed shack with his wife and one-year-old daughter; he lost many of his family members during the war. His journey through the battlefield was traumatic.
“My sister got left behind in the crowd. I never saw her again,” he tells me. “We had to leave many of the wounded to die. We walked over so many dead bodies. You can’t choose who to help.
“I got shot in my arm, and was carrying my friend on my back – he had lost his leg. With all that, I still took my nadeswaram [oboe]. I left all other instruments behind. I only brought this. I can make a living playing this.”
Our last attempt to identify the boy in the photo was to try an orphanage, home to hundreds of children who had lost parents during the fighting. There we found a boy with a violin, but not the one we were looking for. He remains a glimpse on a newsreel. The search for him took me across the north of the country. Along the way I met many musicians who came through death and mayhem.
More than two years since the end of war, the wounds in Sri Lanka are still fresh. When the music ends, what is left are laments they have inherited from the pain they have suffered.