Chencholai in image and words: A personal account

On August 14, 2006, the Sri Lankan Air Force bombers attacked an orphanage in the northern part of the island, killing dozens of children. 'It's a rebel training facility' said the government spokesman, a claim which was contradicted by the UNICEF as well as the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. A total of 61 children died in the attack, all of them girls. Six years later, R.M.Karthick revisit and reflect upon his own memories.

I never thought writing would become a passion before that fateful night. In fact, I was averse to writing like most of my classmates in my undergrad course. Surrealist writers have contested that words contain magical powers, that they can provide the reader who listens to the heartbeat of the script a plethora of sounds, images and sensations. I didn't attach much meaning to words then.

And like many who can talk but cannot speak, I was immune to the magic of the word, deaf to the music that it contains, blind to the colours it shows. Yet, it was through words that I heard of sufferings of Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka. Through stories, I had heard of past and present horrors committed on an ethnic group - one to which I belonged to but rarely identified with till then. Words spoken by those who fled the island country in the past projected to me a picture of what life under totalitarianism is.

But no words prepared me for the shock of the image that came along with a mail in my inbox the 14th night of August 2006.

Event: Chencholai orphanage bombing.
Place: Mullaitheevu.

The picture was aesthetic. It showed two neat rows of dead children. Sixty-one girls, aged between 16 and 18, who were killed as the orphanage they were staying in was bombed in the course of the Lankan armed forces’ glorious war on terror. There were logs of wood in a corner and people standing like wooden blocks around the dead children, who appeared to be sleeping like logs. I couldn’t figure out where the lifelessness in the picture was - in the wood, in the dead children, or in the standing corpses who knew that this would be their eventual fate - that made the image all the more worse for me. These were orphans.

I eventually would meet the person who captured this image, TamilNet’s wartime correspondent from Vanni, A. Lokeesan. As we conversed, our bonding was instantaneous. After all, it was his image that changed forever the way I see things. His image informed the world the intention of the Sri Lankan state that killed children and called them terrorists. His image spoke to establishments that the Sri Lankan military strategy had the Tamil population as such as its target for assault and not the Tigers alone. “The world knew,” he said “that Chencholai was a prelude to something more horrible. But it didn’t care. Because these were orphans. Like the rest of us.”

Orphans of history.

They cried for themselves. They buried their own dead, burying their innocence and hopes with them. Others rarely cared. After this image, I could no longer read news from mainstream newspapers like before. Words started being interpreted differently. When I encounter disparaging reports on ‘child soldiers’, I ask ‘what do children do when their characteristic trait, innocence, has been brutally snatched away from them?’ When I read ‘suicide bombers’, I wonder ‘what do people do when living is dying and only a self-imposed death gives an iota of meaning to an otherwise senseless existence?’ The worst, then, is not ‘terrorism’ or ‘secession’ as those above, those with power over meaning, want us to believe. “The worst is when people - knowingly or not - carry prison inside themselves” (Nazim Hikmet) A better description of the existential condition of Tamils in unitary Sri Lanka cannot be found.

After Chencholai, words and their meanings started changing.

Words like 'casualty' and 'collateral' gave me images of families killed in air raids. 'Unity', a word loved by the Sri Lankan government, became the image of an army barrack in Jaffna while 'reconciliation' became the image of the soldier who executed naked, bound and blindfolded Tamil prisoners of war.

The antonym of 'death', then, was not 'life', but 'freedom' and 'resistance' was the synonym of 'justice'. ‘Love’ was a flag held high in defiance of a world that seeks to shun it, while ‘faith’ was commitment to the ideals of those who gave their present so that we could inherit the future. And 'Tamil' became not the name of a language or a culture but the political identity of a people seeking their place in the world.

Words gave me ideas in new places, poetry in unexpected corners and prose flowing towards new avenues. Revelations of the higher kind happen, I believe, either with bliss or pain. I found mine in the latter. A revelation that my identity is a weapon and that it fires words.

Words that shall narrate the history of orphans.

Our history.

R.M.Karthick is a research scholar in Political Theory at University of Essex.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.