A Community Leader’s Story:
How To Live On Ethnic Faultlines
A Sinhala father and activist who lived among Tamils talks about his life and how he found harmony among different ethnic groups.
Dias Jayasinghe lives in the Poonthottam camp for the internally displaced persons in Vavuniya with his wife and six children. It is presumably his last stint in an IDP camp, after a life on the run.
Jayasinghe is Sinhalese but when the military took over war affected areas in the north, he left his home in Matale and went into hiding in Killinochchi. Having been brought up in a mixed Sinhalese-Tamil society, Jayasinghe spoke Tamil.
There is no difference between Sinhala or Tamil people. You will find bad people as well as good people in every society.
As a young man, Jayasinghe was fascinated by the ideologies of Stalinist rebel leader, Rohana Wijeweera, and joined the communist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or JVP, party in the 1980s. The group was involved in two uprisings against the ruling governments. Jayasinghe became a grass roots level leader in the JVP and from 1987 to 1988, he was operating secretly. At the time, the JVP resisted the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which was deployed in Sri Lanka at the request of the government to curb activities of paramilitary groups on the northern peninsula. Insurgency was spreading to other areas of the country influenced by the JVP, and many members were killed by government-sponsored gangs.
One day in September in 1989, one of these gangs called the Green Tigers raided Jayasinghe’s house, set it on fire, destroyed the garden and killed the entire herd of cows that was the main source of income for Jayasinghe’s family.
For 15 days, Jayasinghe went into hiding in the Dambulla area along with his wife and three children. Both Sinhala and Tamil people helped them.
Jayasinghe, like all the other villagers, built a small thatched hut for his family to live in and led a difficult life. The area was controlled by paramilitary groups and the Indian Peace Keeping Force.
Although the Indian forces eventually left the island, the Sri Lankan military could not leave its barracks because of the Tamil Tigers. This powerful group surrounded the military camps and Jayasinghe and all the villagers were forced to live under their rule.
The army lost many of its supply routes: Food and many other essential items had to be air dropped. The Tamil Tigers targeted these aircrafts and helicopters, attacking them with missiles. The goods on board would fall out depriving the army of food and other essentials.
Jayasinghe witnessed first-hand how the Mankulam and Killinochchi camps of the Sri Lankan Army were defeated and remembered how the Tamil Tigers allowed the captured army personnel to harass the civilians, even letting the army men urinate on them.
The Tamil Tigers changed their areas according to the army camps they captured. As a result, civilians like Jayasinghe had to frequently move from one temporary location to another. When the Tamil Tigers built their camps, civilians had to build the bunkers and buildings. Villagers were provided only with food.
Throughout their displacement Jayasinghe’s wife Chandrawathi gave birth to three more children. With a total of six children, the couple had a hard life. One of their sons, Sanjeewa, was abducted by the Tamil Tigers.
Despite all the troubles they faced – from hunger and drought, attacks by wild animals and the collateral damages of the civil war – Jayasinghe says he always felt safe living among the Tamil villagers.
“The neighbours never allowed any harm to happen to my family,” he said. Chandrawathi shared the food she prepared with their neighbours and vice versa. In sickness, all were united. When the fearsome fighting erupted, they all protected one another. No one robbed Jayasinghe’s house in those times. No one harassed or fought with them.
Jayasinghe was viewed with suspicion by the Tamil Tigers and was arrested on several occasions. To gain his freedom he had to prove that he brought 16 families to Killinochchi and all are still living in the Paradipum area – he had to give the names and addresses of these people. After the Tamil Tigers’ intelligence checked on Jayasinghe, he was eventually released.
The Tamil Tigers forced him to join their postal service and assured him he would be paid an allowance and would not be punished. But Jayasinghe said he rejected the offer on the basis that he could not agree to serving a mission that focused only on the liberation of one ethnicity. His socialist views left the Tamil Tigers shocked. They warned him not to share his sentiments with other people. Later on, he was offered a job as a translator and, for the same reasons, he turned them down. Jayasinghe eventually began working at a liquor shop.
As life became harder in a worsened economic situation, Jayasinghe joined a few others and started trading daily commodities, travelling on bicycles and buying goods in bulk from shops in the southern parts of the country, then selling them in and around his areas.
The identity card issued to him when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces were there, which mentioned his name as Jayasingham, became very useful to escape at checkpoints.
As his family continued living in the village, they communicated in Tamil and slowly forgot Sinhalese language. “We learned Tamil simply by living with the community. We did not attend classes or expect anyone at the workplace to know Tamil.”
Chandrawathi spoke only Tamil at home, so it became the children’s mother tongue. As the children grew up and reached adulthood they chose their life partners from the same community.
Jayasinghe recalled how Chandrawathi hid their youngest daughter in her bosom when they escaped Killinochchi in 1998 at the height of the war. The child mostly grew up in the IDP camp in Poonthottam.
Their escape journey was daring. For three days they travelled through the jungle passing Tamil Tiger bunkers, heading toward Vavuniya. Contractors took money from civilians for making this escape. When they paid the fee, they were allowed to enter government-controlled areas.
They slept under trees, hugging each other closely. Jayasinghe and Chandrawathi brought their six children to Vavuniya but never thought of extending that trip to Matale. Even today the decision is the same.
Although their dwelling is within a displaced persons camp, it is filled happiness and love. The aged parents are happily engaged in looking after their grandchildren. Today Jayasinghe is a community leader. Once he was brave enough run in the general elections and he was the only candidate who addressed people exclusively in Tamil.
Jayasinghe said he and his family would return to Killinochchi, to the village they lived in when everyone at the camp, was allowed to resettle.
“There is no difference between Sinhala or Tamil people. You will find bad people as well as good people in every society,” Jayasinghe says today. “To me the most important thing is humanity. I saved lives of Tamil people during Black July and in return they saved me and my family when in trouble. What matters is justice irrespective of your ethnicity. Liberation should be for all humankind, not just for one ethnicity. Everyone needs to feel free – and when you live in harmony with one another, you can easily learn another language.”