The story of Anbu Illam (Dwelling Place of Love) is among the most remarkable tales of humanity amidst the gloom of war. Suntharalingam was a middle - ranking official in Nilaveli in 1985, by which time the tumult had resulted in much loss of life in the district. It fell to him to determine the future disposition of 27 young orphans. After being processed by the normal state machinery, he was asked to send them to the Nuwara- Eliya Children's Farm. The village children feeling apprehensive about leaving known people and known places asked if they could not stay thereabouts. Suntharalingam who had hitherto treated the matter as one of his routine duties was taken aback by what struck him as a slap on the face. He in his fifties had been through much that was good and evil in this world and was approaching old age - a time everyone hopes would be one of ease and reflection. He saw the younger generation, coming into a more uncertain world, knocking on his door and entreating him. There was little he could do for them and felt condemned if he did not do what he could. He and his wife Rasalatchumi, a teacher (now retired), took what may appear a rash decision. They decided to take them all into their home to be raised with their own two sons. The number quickly increased to 45. Suntharalingam said, "As a young man I had come from the backwoods of Mutur with Rs 17/= in my pocket and had over the years acquired rice fields and had done pretty well for myself. We had some means". To increase his income with a view to providing for the orphans, he spent rupees four and a half lakhs and started 3 shops in Trincomalee.
When the IPKF came in 1987, Colonel Raman was at first well-disposed to Anbu Illam. He sometimes came with provisions and Suntharalingam used to tell him, "Give it to the children, and not to me". As the war between the IPKF and the LTTE wore on, the fact that the LTTE had once been influential in Nilaveli made him an object of suspicion. He was once detained, presumably at Colonel Raman's bidding, and was tied naked for 7 days before being released on the intervention of friends.
Suntharalingam was deeply upset by the killings of Vijayanathan and later of Gnanasekaran in September 1989. Suntharalingam composed a poem for Gnanasekeran and he and the children sang the poem in front of every militant camp in Trincomalee. The poem described Gnanasekeran's qualities, the void left by his loss and called upon Lord Konesar to tell them why. Suntharalingam started getting threats from the killer unit known as the 'Mandayan Group' widely associated with the EPRLF. One day, in Nilaveli, he was warned by a mechanic that he was being followed. He loudly said that he was going to Seven Star shop, proceeded as if to go there, and escaped to Trincomalee.
He then decided to go to Varatharajaperumal, Chief Minister, NEP, and have it out with him face to face. He explained his position to Varatharajaperumal who listened patiently. The chief Minister impressed him as a man of ability and understanding, not lacking in humanity, who was moved by his story. He offered Suntharalingam rupees one and a half lakhs towards his children. Suntharalingam thanked him for his kind thought and replied, "In this transitory world where men wielding power come and go, if I accept this money from you what would be my position when the dispensation of power changes?" He then asked Varatharajaperumal a direct question, "Why did your party kill Gnanasekeran?" Taken aback Varatharajaperumal replied in embarrassment, "Why, he was one of us". This was the time the provincial government was dissolving under the onslaught of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan forces, accompanied by a sharp rise in revenge killing. Varatharajaperumal told him finally with a note of concern, "This is a time when men are turning into beasts. It is not good for you to be here. Get yourself to a safe place."
It is also notable that during some of the last sessions of the North-East Provincial Council about the end of 1989, one member Ratnam had expressed concern about the spate of revenge killings. He said in effect, "People like us come and go and everytime things are turned topsy-turvy. But who is going to look after the ordinary people?". He made a plea to protect those in the community not directly associated with any side and have a social concern, who alone can guide the people through the coming vicissitudes.
The Suntharalingams and the children then moved to Kattaiparichchan in the Mutur area, where his friend Thangathurai, former MP, gave them 5 acres of land. As the war progressed Suntharalingam lost most of his wealth, and the three shops had crashed.
Shortly before the June 199O war, the LTTE set up a platform near his place and had a meeting in the morning which was addressed by Mahattya, then Deputy Leader, LTTE. Following the meeting Mahattya walked into Anbu Illam and made inquiries. On learning their story he was visibly moved. He hugged some of the children and asked to have breakfast with them - an event which was photographed.
A tractor which had been taken by another group fell into the hands of the LTTE. On discovering that it belonged to Suntheralingam they offered to return it to him about 3 days before the war of June 199O. He reflected, "True, I was once a wealthy man. But, by this time my desire for wealth had worn off. I lost several lakhs when my house and vehicle in Mutur were destroyed. I felt somewhat deterred from applying for compensation. I told the LTTE men, you keep it for the time being, and return it to me at some convenient time. I think it was God (Konesar) who guided me to take that position. If after the war had broken out word had got around that I retrieved my tractor through the LTTE, it would have meant a lot of trouble."
About July 199O as the Sri Lankan army moved into the Mutur area, Suntharalingams and the children betook themselves to the jungles with the village folk. For 47 days they led a tenuous existence sleeping among snakes and wild animals. In late August 199O one girl was bitten by a snake and there was no way of reaching medical assistance. Suntheralingam took a gamble. He went in the morning with all the children and surrendered themselves at the Pachchanoor army camp. Confronted with the unusual event the sentries were hostile and suspicious. When the officer in charge was called, following a few questions, he grasped the reality of the situation. He promptly ordered hot tea and biscuits for the children. Meanwhile, he contacted other camps, stopped the bus to Mutur, and arranged for all to be sent to Trincomalee on the Mutur - Trinco ferry. Suntharelingam said, "That officer was a good human being. But I forgot to ask his name. All I know now is that he was in charge of the Pachchanoor camp in August 199O".
In Trincomalee the large family moved into the house of the late Appathurai Chettiar at 167 Central Road, which had upon his last will passed onto the Ramakrishna Mission. It had been a grand house in its time about the turn of the century, with pillars of solid Burma teak, which was now in some state of disrepair. An old slightly damaged picture of the late Chettiar himself, sparely attired as an ascetic distancing himself from ties of the flesh and mourning over the mortal remains of an elder daughter, now hangs near the entrance. Suntharelingam rescued it from the rubbish and had it framed as a mark of respect.
But that was not the end of the troubles of Anbu Illam. Through some quirk of fate, a photograph taken by the LTTE in Kattaiparichchan during Mahattaya's visit to the Illam had fallen into the hands of the Sri Lankan forces. The Illam was surrounded twice in 199O and investigation units tried to take Suntharilingam for questioning. Both times the forces were turned back through demonstrations of protest from the children. The third time Suntheralingam decided to have it out direct. He talked to the officer in charge, believed to hold the rank of a major. The officer said in effect that Suntharalingam was breeding recruits for the Tigers. Suntaralingam explained the alienation of the young and said with some indignation pointing to the children, " On the contrary, these children have been given a home with love and affection, taught the tenets of religion, and are steeped in abiding human values. These hundred children have been saved from a life of destruction and a life with the gun". He was troubled no more.
To make his point Suntharalingam pointed to two 18 year old boys who were at his home, and said, " These two boys came from Mutur for a technical college interview. They came with all their documents including identification and interview letters. The army took them and kept them for a week at Plantain Point during which time they were beaten. What message is the government giving our young?"
For seven months after the war of June 199O, no one went to Koneswaram Temple at Fort Frederick to worship. On the first day of the month of Thai (14th January 1991), the Suntharalingams and children went to the entrance of the fort and sang Thevarams (devotional hymns). The sentries were stupefied. After some questions the officers were informed. Colonel Saliya Kulatunge, Deputy Commandant, Trincomalee, came and spoke to the them. He was so moved by their story that he could not suppress his tears. Thereafter Koneswaram was open to worshippers.
Several people in Trincomalee ascribe to Suntheralingam an image tending towards sainthood in the eastern sense. Talking to Suntheralingam , one gets the impression that he is a shrewd man of the world. He learnt about good and evil not through meditation or books, but from the rough and tumble of day to day living. Having been pretty successful, when a crucial challenge was posed, he had responded with his heart. He was sustained by his experience and knowledge of the affairs of men.
Although his particular situation obliged him to care for Tamil children from the area who were victims of the war, his personal development has made his humanity very broad and humbling to the listener.His sentiments about the Sinhalese, which would surprise outsiders, are being increasingly echoed by Trincomalee Tamils. Asked what he would regard as a solution to the current crisis he said, " I have seen good and evil in all places, in all peoples and in all forces, whether the IPKF, the Tamil groups or the Sinhalese forces. Anyone with a gun has potential for evil. I would like to see an end to guns.If we could all talk without guns we could do pretty well. The ordinary Sinhalese are not aggressors. Both communities in town have suffered in recent times. A few days ago i was in the market, a place of bitter acrimony in the past. Some Sinhalese market vendors waved at me with a smile and said, " Now that the politicians and big mudalalis (traders) have gone, we can live together as friends." You go up along the coast. At Kallara you will find migrant Sinhalese fisherfolk. They are poor innocent people. The mudalalis for whom they earn money do not sight the place. It is these innocent people who get hurt in the war.
" We Tamils who have lost much should not blame the Sinhalese for everything. It is often more true that we lost something rather than the Sinhalese took. Did the Sinhalese take one inch of temple land by force ? It is rather our lawyers who wrote away temple lands for the money. True, the festive ground at Koneswaram was turned into a parade ground for the army. But sometimes our people going there have behaved shamefully. If it is for their palate, people would go into the market which was unsafe in previous times. But if you ask them to come to Koneswaram they would say it is unsafe. Sometimes the behaviour of our young folk in the precints of Koneswaram was such that even the soldiers were embarrassed. On the other hand, soldiers are often very respectful towards the temple and put much cash into the till. So are the Sinhalese employees of Prima. If we want to use Theerthakari on a festive occasion, the Sinhalese who have temporary huts there would dismantle everything and give us the place spick and span."
As to how he manages he said, " It costs Rs 2 25O/= a day to feed the children. This comes from the government in the form of rations for refugees. Other expenses have been met on an ad hoc basis by well wishers. Some of the older girls would be entering university. For the one who will enter this year, money has been pledged by a well -wisher. If I register this home as an orphanage, the government would give each child Rs 15O/- a month. But there would also be interference. I am going on the basis that these are my children in my home. I have so far not turned down any request to bring up a child, where the child had lost both parents or where a similar alternative was not feasible."
The Illam has just over 12O children at present. The last 7 taken were bereaved by the Mutur ferry boat disaster of January this year. The majority of the children are girls. The eldest Shanbakadevi (22) is about to start a degree course in comerce at the Eastern University. The youngest is a boy, Dinesh(3), whose father was killed in 199O and whose mother lives in Mulleriya. Suntheralingam's own two sons are completing their school education. Four of the children are studying A Level Arts.
About the future, Suntharalingam said, " I could ask others to come and help. But too often people come into such things to feather their own nests. I am training some of the older girls to manage the administration and the finances. Hopefully they would take over. But they would then take over a working institution without having gone through the struggle of building it up, and so its character may change. I will keep going in the present manner as long as it is possible".
The Inmates of Anbu Illam.
The stories of the children at Anbu Illam give in a nutshell the course of the war in the Trincomalee District.
Shanbakadevi (22), Kattaiparichchan, Mutur: Joined the Illam in 1985. Father Velukutti shot dead by the army in 1985 while working in the fields in Eravur ( near Batticaloa ) as a migrant labourer. Mother died of illness in 1987. Sister went to India as a refugee with relatives and lives there. Grandmother in Kattaiparichchan.
Jeevamalar ( 19) Puthukudiyiruppu, Thampalakamam: Joined Illam in 1985. Studying A Levels. The army woke up the family onenight in 1985, took the father Vijayasingam out and hacked him to death. She with mother Thevarani and others fled and took refuge in the neighbouring Muslim village. The army then shelled the Muslim village and her mother was killed by shrapnel.
Vijayakumar ( 14) , Thamplakamam : Father hacked to death by the army in 1985.
Nathikumar (14), Kilivetti, Kottiyarpurpaattu : Father Sivasubramaniam among 3 shot dead by the army on 26/9/ 86. Mother killed later in shelling.
Mohanadevi (16) Thampalakamam : Father Maheswaran killed by Sinhalese homeguards on 17/12/85. Mother died of illness earlier.
Kumudhini (about 16) , Thiriyai : Father Thuraisamy dragged away by Tamil militants in 1985 while having a meal with his family and shot dead. He was alleged to be responsible for a gallon of diesel that was missing (See Thiriyai, 4.1). Her mother Valliamma works as a domestic help. Of the 4 children 2 are in the Illam and 2 with her.
Thanalakshmi (17), 3rd Ward, Muthur. Father Letchumikantham farmer, shot dead by the army on 26/ 9 / 86 over an incident connected with Sinhalese in the nearby village. Her mother lives in a refugee camp in Muthur.[Top]
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