( July 11, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Do not look back, your job is to look forward, that was the advice given to us by the movement, said Kanapathi Pulle Selvam, his voice heavy with sadness, yet determined to speak.
Selvam joined the LTTE at the age of 14, but today, he has taken on the role of a Christian priest and teaches the path of the holy bible to 600 families in the village of Illippedi Munmari.
As we investigated into the difficulties the people in the East faced due to the current dry spell in the region, we met Father Selvam, around 100 km from the road to Toppigala, past the Kiran Bridge, in the village of Thikiliwedi-Illippedi Munmari village.
The village is a tourist paradise, but to the people of Illippedi Munmari, their lives remain devoid of hope as little enterprise takes place and villagers point out that the lack of activity is due to the Kiran Bridge—the main access point to the village—not being built properly.
The area suffers long periods of drought and when it rains, even a little can completely inundate the bridge, making it impossible for people to leave or enter the village.
The villagers explained that since the surrounding areas around the bridge was vacant, the extension of the bridge by a kilometre or so would solve the issue and make it easier for the people to travel.
Promises to improve the bridge, however, were plenty at the last election and since then, neither their area politicians; Ameer Ali, Yogeshwaran nor Sathasivam, have visited the place or fulfilled their promises.
As we embarked on a path towards the village of Toppigala, we saw houses the sizes of tents and the majority of them were unoccupied, and thus, we stopped in the shade of the tree in front of Father Selvam’s church.
Father Selvam welcomed us with open arms and sat down to relate to us the hardships of his people,
“Sir, the people here struggle a great deal to make a living every day. Most depend on fishing, but even for that, they have to walk at least two to three kilometres to Eluwankulam, Korawelikulam, Theevelikulam or to the Upparu lagoon.
This land does not yield any water and we have to walk at least two and a half kilometres every day to fetch drinking water from the Theevelikulam well,” said Pastor Selvam.
The villagers of Ilippedi Munmari also engage in small-scale dairy farming apart from fishing, but this adds a greater burden on them as forage for the cows and goats they rear become scarce with dwindling water resources.
This explained why most of the villagers were not to be seen at home. As most basic necessities were located miles from home, many were out fetching their daily needs. Schools too, were located at least seven to eight kilometres from the village, which meant that the children spent most of their time walking.
The boy from Toppigala
Toppigala, located at the border of the Batticaloa and Ampara Districts, is situated 534 metres above sea level and the Toppigala mountain range encompasses the mountains of Toppigala, Lindagala, Hengala, Wessibendagala, Kalawagala, Kokgala, Walmandiyagala, Athagala, Narakamullagala and Hatharawakkulama.
This forms a land mass of 800 kilometres and extends to the border between the Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa districts, near the Madurioya National Park. Close to 125,000 people live scattered in this area.
Toppigala was the turning point in the humanitarian operation to liberate the people from the clutches of the LTTE on April 25, 2007. The battle for Toppigala, which commenced under the leadership of Major General Parakrama Pannipitiyage, was complete by July 12, 2007 and Toppigala which had been under LTTE control for over a decade was finally free and came under government control.
Pastor Selvam, who is facing many challenges today, began his story as a prisoner of a tragic history. “The year was 1996, and I was just 14 then. I was living happily with my mother, father and four sisters when the battle between the LTTE and the government forces worsened.
At the time, there was a lot of pressure for every family to give up at least one member to the movement and I wanted to save my sisters. And though I was not in favour of it, I volunteered to join,” he said.
Selvam was sent to the LTTE camp in Tharavikulam, received training in arms for three months and was stationed under Jayanthan who was known as Colonel Ram.
“On the last day of our training, Colonel Ram made a stirring speech. He said, do not look back, your only task is to look forward. That speech motivated me immensely at the time, but today, when I look back, I am full of regret as we had to resort to arms to achieve a political want. As a result of that speech, countless people, property and the hopes of many people in our country, were destroyed. At the same time, all material and physical needs of our people were buried under a bullet,” said Selvam.
His group left the LTTE camp in Tharavikulam and fought their way through countless kilometres until the final battlefield of the war in 2009, “I have forgotten the miles we walked for battle. If I remember right, it was not only in the East, but on several occasions, we ended up walking to fight in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Pesale and Pudukudiruppu. But the end result was that every day we lost a member of our team. We did not feel the loss at the time, because for every member we lost, the movement was determined to recruit a new member,” he continued. Selvam recalled that they were able to score many a victory during the battles at the time.
“The one which really stands out, is the attack we launched on a bus in Buttala. The incident is too painful to relate here,” he said.
“As time passed, I was specially trained in multi-barrel attacks and thereafter, I was made the leader of a team of twelve. The East was under the control of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, alias Karuna Amman. It was under his second in command, Ramesh, that my superior, Colonel Ram, worked.
Colonel Ram was humane as well as tough. He was constantly motivating us and I feel that if he had used his talents for good, our area would have developed greatly,” he added.
While Selvam fought on the frontlines, his mother passed away, but he only found out about her death after the war ended and was released from the rehabilitation camp.
“When I was at the Settikulam Rehabilitation Camp, the army provided us with various skills to help earn a livelihood. As the training went on, one day, we received visit from a Father called Selvanayagamfrom Wellawatte. Many of the detainees at the camp were depressed due to their past and the incidents in our past made us live a horrible present; every day was like a new death. After the war, all we inherited was either escape, to simple exist or to suffer the pain of death,” said Selvam.
“As I awoke from the rubble of my past, I decided that if I was to do something for the betterment of the next generation, I could seek the assistance of religion and faith. In the end, I came to the decision to join the Father and become his disciple.
As a result, today I stand for the spiritual enrichment of the people here,” Selvam added.
“I would like to make a request from all. Do not simply accept whatever someone says. You need to think about what that person says and understand whether that person is speaking sense or not. Because the result of actions we take without much thinking causes great harm to our nation,” he said.
Asanka Athapaththu writes for the Daily News, Colombo, where this piece first appeared