It’s a cloudy day in Chennai as the late monsoon winds blow through the South Indian city. Param, a 49-year-old Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, carries on with work as usual – he’s sifting through a stack of newspapers to find news related to Sri Lanka. He cuts out the relevant bits meticulously and files them under the right date.
Param, a former Tamil journalist and member of an armed group called Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF), works as a volunteer today at Chennai’s Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) and heads their documentation department.
Home away from home
Originally from Batticaloa in the eastern province of Sri Lanka, Param says a lot has changed since he left his homeland, but he is content. “At least I don’t have to fear for my life. There is no one holding a gun to my head. There is no aerial bombing. I am safe here,” he says.
Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees like Param live in Tamil Nadu. Estimates suggest that over 67,000 live in various districts across the state in 112 refugee camps. The last wave of refugees, comprising nearly 15,000 families, crossed the Palk Strait to India during the war of 2008.
Caught in the middle
Param came to India in 1990. He said he had no choice but to flee. “I had seen a lot of my colleagues from the ENDLF being slain,” he says as he recalls the bloody moments. He explains the context: “See, the ENDLF was a small revolutionary front. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) disliked us because they didn’t want to share any power. The Sinhalese government was against us because we wanted a Tamil state. So we were facing fire from both ends.”
During the second Eelam War which lasted through the 1980s and the 1990s, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Indian government sent its peace-keeping force, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), to assist the Sri Lankan government in its fight against the Tamil rebels. However, a change of government in India in 1989, led to a reverse in foreign policy and the withdrawal of Indian troops from Sri Lankan soil.
A long, arduous journey
“The Indian government offered to take the small rebel groups on board back to India considering our situation. They knew that if we stayed on, we’d be killed either by the LTTE or the Sri Lankan government. I had no choice. I left with the last Indian ship that left the Sri Lankan coast,” Param says.
But leaving the war didn’t bring respite. Uncertainty followed Param for months afterwards. “When our boat first arrived on the Tamil Nadu coastline, they didn’t let us dock. The ruling state government were Tamil sympathisers and they saw us as traitors. We moved further up north,” he says.
Next stop was Vishakhapatnam port in Andhra Pradesh. “They let us dock there but the state government was worried that we were terrorists and would create unrest in the state. They didn’t want us to stay on. They gave us more food and water and asked us to leave,” Param recalls.
Finally, Param and his colleagues were given shelter in a tribal village called Malkenkiri in India’s Orissa state after four days in the rough sea. “We were dropped in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t speak the language. We were made to stay with half-naked tribal people. It was a culture shock. I don’t know how I survived there for six months,” he says.
Param soon moved to Tamil Nadu, where he has been living for the past 21 years. “For us Tamils, language is our life. If we can speak our language we are happy. In Tamil Nadu we can do that,” he says. “I have lived here more than many people who are from here. This is like home now... but it’s not, you know?”
Param aspires to return to Sri Lanka and give up his ‘stateless’ existence, but he acknowledges that it’s difficult. “If I were a civilian not involved in politics I could have returned. But I was part of the provincial government in the Tamil provinces. I am sure my life would be under threat if I went back,” he says.
After a pause, he adds, “But you never know, things are changing. Maybe there will be complete peace soon and we can all return home.”