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‘A modern tragedy of truly epic proportions. Haunting and unforgettable’ —Jon Lee Anderson


Praise for The Seasons of Trouble ‘She presents lives that have been almost swallowed whole by an everyday, disturbingly low-key sort of brutality that rarely registers on the Western consciousness. Instead of detailing the conflict’s political and historical minutiae, The Seasons of Trouble focuses on the humanity of those caught up in the horrors. As a result, despite the violence its characters endure, it retains a poetic tone that helps Ms Mohan produce a thoroughly absorbing book’ Economist ‘Using three lives—an abducted son, a searching mother, and a child soldier—Mohan gets close enough to show the unraveling of not only a people but individuals and families … Mohan combines years of superb journalism with a novelist’s touch to give a vividly brutal and beautiful look at humans surviving the still-violent aftermath of a civil war’ Guernica ‘A gripping and profoundly moving account of that war’s aftermath. First-time author Rohini Mohan has produced an astonishing feat of reportage here, one that is richly detailed and gracefully written. Prior to reading, I knew next to nothing about this lush, remote corner of the world. Now I find myself breathlessly tracking the progress of a UN war crimes investigation into the events of that dark period’ NPR, Great Books of 2014 ‘It isn’t a traditional political study, but Mohan doesn’t intend it to be. Instead, by focusing intimately on the lives of three individuals—their daily struggles, the shared hurt and trauma— she has produced an ambitious, thoroughly engrossing work that informs the mind while simultaneously unsettling the heart’ American Interest ‘Devastatingly good. Rohini Mohan’s intimately rendered account of the brutal end-game and unfinished aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war is breathtakingly well told. By focusing on the lives of three Tamils and telling their stories in novelistic detail, Mohini has revealed a modern tragedy of truly epic proportions. Haunting and unforgettable’ Jon Lee Anderson

‘These strikingly detailed and graphic accounts are memorable for laying out the horrific conditions these and other Tamil families endured … A Significant, though, heartrending, account’ Booklist ‘A penetrating account of the stories of Tamil survivors of the conflict’ LA Review of Books

THE SEASONS OF TROUBLE Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War


London r New York

This paperback edition first published by Verso 2015 First published by Verso 2014, 2015 © Rohini Mohan 2014, 2015 All rights reserved The moral rights of the author have been asserted 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 Verso UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201 versobooks.com Verso is the imprint of New Left Books ISBN-13: 978-1-78168-883-0 eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-678-2 (UK) eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-601-0 (US) British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Has Cataloged the Hardcover Edition as Follows: Mohan, Rohini. The seasons of trouble : life amid the ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War / Rohini Mohan. pages cm ISBN 978-1-78168-600-3 (hardback : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-78168-601-0 (eISBN : US) — ISBN 978-1-78168-678-2 (eISBN) 1. Sri Lanka—History—Civil War, 1983–2009—Influence. 2. Sri Lanka— History—Civil War, 1983–2009—Biography. I. Title. DS489.85.M64 2014 954.9303’2—dc23 2014026813 Typeset in Electra by MJ & N Gavan, Truro, Cornwall Printed in the US by Maple Press

To Thatha, for birthing an obsession And to Sanjaya, for nurturing another


Preface Acknowledgements

ix xi

Part I. Unseen, June 2008–April 2009


Part II. Claustrophobia, April 2009–June 2010


Part III. Refuge, August 2010–April 2013


A Brief History of the Sri Lankan Civil War




Point Pedro


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Elephant Pass Government designated safe zone Putumatalan Kilinochchi


Puthukudiyirippu Udayarkattu Mullaitivu

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Nandikadal Lagoon




SRI LANKA Negombo Colombo 0 0

5 5

10 10


15 20

20 miles

25 kilometres

Nuwara Eliya


in late 2009, I met the first of the three people whose stories are told in this book. After a hurried five-minute interview under a soldier’s watch in a dank refugee camp, the gaunt young Tamil woman challenged me. ‘I’m sure you’ll never return to see us,’ she said. In the next five years, I went back to her repeatedly. In these pages, she is Mugil. That same year, a middle-aged woman in a middle-class neighbourhood in Colombo told me of her bewildering search for a disappeared son. I call her Indra here. Her son, who finally reached England after several tumultuous years, is able to tell his story in his own name: Sarva. Over five years, the three let me into their lives and innermost thoughts. During this time, I lived in Sri Lanka for a total of ten months, and in England for another three. The rest of the time, I kept in touch with them through weekly phone calls from India. It was a journey that took us from mutual mistrust to confidence, as we negotiated the pitfalls of memory, bias, history and trauma. We talked in Tamil, without an interpreter, which somewhat helped overcome our differences of country, gender and class. The reportorial rigour of scrutinising documents, photographs and maps, listening to silences, repeating questions and revisiting locations provides the foundation for the events described in this book. I conducted dozens of other interviews at length, some with people who had met more tragic fates or lucky ends than Indra,



Sarva and Mugil. But the words, decisions and silences of these three articulated better than most how the effects of a conflict can persist for a year, five or decades after. Their compelling stories also spoke to the Tamil community’s struggle with its past. They showed me the indelible nature of the violence and nationalism that reached deep into language and relationships, and crept into their futures. These stories challenged my notions of victimhood, patriotism and community. My goal here is to tell their narrative as honestly and engagingly as they did, to show the changes they experienced among the wreckage of civil war and the mundane omnipresence of conflict. Being present through these people’s setbacks and challenges in the aftermath of this war, I was privy to incidents and emotions they subsequently and frequently blocked out, reframed or remembered differently—in order to cope, because of oppressive fears, or simply to satisfy the human need for closure. As they attempted to define their lives on their own terms, they went from narrating their experiences as a series of events, to a series of responses, to a spiral of melancholy and aspiration. Apart from the inaccuracy or absence of official data, crackdowns on media, and restrictions on mobility, this is what makes war so hard to report on, and for those in Sri Lanka to live through and move on from: loose ends rarely tie up. Incompleteness and dread are as tangible as the deaths and destruction. The protracted civil war changed the nature of being Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim in Sri Lanka, and political sides have often tried to solidify these identities into exclusive, warring blocs. None of the people in this book are entirely representative of Sri Lanka or the communities they belong to, but they inherit the same conflict and its after-effects. Their points of view, prejudices and contradictions push and pull at the ethnic stereotypes the conflict has created. As the world grapples with new democracies and old hate, these three lives are a grim caution. Mugil says her experience is a warning for the next marginalised group that refuses to assimilate. Sarva sees the war as a permanent obstacle to love and happiness. Indra, his mother, calls it destiny. July 2014


during my research and writing, a number of people advised, scolded, cheered, sheltered, fed, and read me. My earliest and steadiest guides in Sri Lanka were Ruki Fernando and Ahilan Kadirgamar. V. V. Ganeshananthan fine-tuned my ideas and words from the very beginning to the last draft. Their generosity and honesty kept me from giving up when roads closed or concepts knotted up. After every field trip, seeking an even perspective, I turned by habit to Sithie Tiruchelvam. For long conversations about then and now, I’m grateful to Jayadeva Uyangoda, Seelan Kadirgamar, Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, Nirmala Rajasingham, Valentine Daniel and Radhika Coomaraswamy. Colombo became home thanks to the warmth of Zainab Ibrahim, Aminna (Turin Abeysekera) and the kitchen magic of Rasamma. At another time, Tahseen Alam gave me shelter. In Trincomalee, my hosts Mr and Mrs Laxmanan never flinched when I dropped in without notice. In Jaffna and the Vanni, P., S., A., and T. shared their humble single rooms with me. In Mannar, Father Jeyabalan Croos always had enough room for a tired traveller. They offered not only survival tips but also glimpses of daily life in Sri Lanka. I am thankful to Mirak Raheem, Bhavani Fonseka and the



Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo, for their stellar record of changes in the north and east; to everyone at the INFORM human rights documentation centre; to Sanjana Hattotuwa for the journalistic force that is Groundviews; to Ponnudurai Thambirajah for the silence and well-stocked brilliance of his library at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies; and to Deanne Uyangoda, Dinidu de Alwis, Ananda Galapatti, Sumathy Sivamohan, Guruparan Kumaravadivel, Meera Srinivsan, Namini Wijedasa, Murali Reddy, Father Ravi, N. Singham, Elangovan Chandrahasan, Vel Thanjan, Sanjeev Laxmanan, Sinha Ratnatunga, Manik de Silva, Nishan de Mel, Shireen Saroor and V. K. Shashikumar for their ideas. It’s unfortunate that many Sri Lankans crucial to my research cannot be named, so that they can live without another reason to fear for their life or freedom. I also couldn’t have done without the friends in Colombo who helped by just being there, talking of everything but work, inviting me to cricket matches, karaoke nights and family dinners. I am indebted to my writing partner, Mathangi Subramanian, for her reactions to my early drafts. Also to Dave Swann in Chichester, whose trick for finishing a first draft I’ll never forget; Dragan Todorovic, Alex Padamsee, Nandini Nair and Anuj Bhuwania for their encouragement and sharp feedback; Nicholas Lemann, for his precise advice as editor in my first attempt at writing about Sri Lanka at Columbia University, New York; Jonathan Shainin and Vinod K. Jose from the Caravan, New Delhi, for enabling my first published piece on it; Basharat Peer for being excited about the project from the start. To Shoma Chaudhury and Harinder Baweja in New Delhi, Alexander Stille and Thomas Edsall in New York: teachers in the kind of journalism that still energises me. This work would not have been possible without the generous fellowships from the Authors’ Foundation, the Society of Authors, London; Panos South Asia, New Delhi; the Sanskriti Foundation, New Delhi; and the South Asian Journalists’ Association, New York. I thank the Charles Wallace India Trust and the University of Kent for the three-month residency at Canterbury, UK, where I began to write; and Sangam House for the month at the idyllic Nrityagram, Hessarghatta, India, where I finished. In between, Bhagyam Aunty



and Rajendran Uncle, Valparai; Mount Pleasant Artists’ Retreat, Reigate; and Joy Guesthouse, Auroville, gave me perfect writing spots. Behind the writing was Leo Hollis from Verso Books, the kind of encouraging and attentive publisher I did not expect to find as a first-time author. While editing, Mark Martin closely read and polished the drafts; tough, but always on my side. Without Peter Straus, my agent, this book might not have seen the light of day. Through it all, my parents and friends were the support team that kept me sane. The not-so-sane moments then fell to my husband, Shailesh Rai, whose admirable ability to read, listen and hold the fort, I know, needed love and more. Most of all, I am beholden to the protagonists of this book for their patience and trust. Their courage resonates in my life still.

part one


‘A remarkable feat of empathy. Mohan paints her characters with such emotional richness that it’s hard to believe the work is not a product of her imagination but of five years of painstaking reporting’ — Slate, BeSt BookS of 2014

For three decades, Sri Lanka’s civil war tore the country apart. In 2009, it culminated in the Sri Lankan army’s defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in a final battle that killed more than 40,000 and displaced more than a million vulnerable people. The Seasons of Trouble is a searing account of three lives caught up in the middle of the devastation: Sarva, dragged off the streets by state forces; Indra, his mother who searches for him through the labyrinthine Sri Lankan bureaucracy; and Mugil, a former child soldier, who deserts the Tigers to protect her family.

‘A chronicle of war and its aftermath, Mohan’s impressive study is also a Kafkaesque story of survival in a society riven by ethnic tensions and mutual distrust’ —Times LiTerary suppLemenT ‘Mohan captures a country of dueling narratives as irreconcilable as those of the Palestinians and the Israelis, of suspicions and betrayals instigated by an allpowerful security apparatus’ —new york review of Books ‘Though non-fiction, it does what novels do best: it allows us into the hearts and minds of people who might be very different from us’ —shyam seLvadurai, L Lvadurai, author of funny unny Boy and The hungry ghosTs

ISBN: 978-1-78168-883-0 HISTORY/POLITICS versobooks.com $16.95/£9.99/$19.95CAN



Cover design: David A. Gee

688830 ISBN-978 1 78168 883 0

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