Real Heroes III

Mural on the side of a Battiocaloa building, translated for me as: "United we prosper, but division destroys everything."
Mural on the side of a Battiocaloa building, translated for me as: "United we prosper, but division destroys everything."

Anthony is a Tamil living in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka, an elderly gentleman whose passive demeanor belies a lifetime of service to his community.

During the Black July riots of 1983, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Tamils were killed by mobs in Colombo. The LTTE had become active in northern Sri Lanka, but the east was still peaceful. Many Tamils fled to Batti for refuge. They had no homes and no resources. That’s when Anthony first got involved: he helped found an organization to resettle them.

In 1989, things changed in Batti; the LTTE began a successful campaign in the east. Before leaving the city, the security forces rioted. Says Anthony, “Law and order broke down. People were shot by the security forces at random. Bodies were heaped at corners and burned. People didn’t know where to turn.” Anthony and others recognized the need for a citizens committee, but they were unable to interest anyone of standing because the leaders of the previous citizens committee had been shot. So Anthony, with the support of an American priest, formed the Batticaloa Peace Committeee (BPC). They tried to negotiate with the local leaders of the security forces, but with little success.

The entry of the LTTE was no better: LTTE immediately conducted a public execution of over 200 Tamils who supported rival Tamil groups. Says a UTHR(J) report, “A senior member of the Batticaloa Peace Committee said that they did not raise issues when the LTTE was in charge, nor did they do any documentation on human rights violations by the group, because it pretended to be everything and was not interested in talking to or tolerating anyone else.”

By 1990, the government had regained control of the city, but not the countryside. Both sides continued to suspect everyone of collaboration with the other. Says Anthony, “The LTTE thought we were spying on them to give information to the Army. The Army thought that under the guise of helping people, we were channeling aid to the LTTE.” Disappearances continued. BPC approached the President, as well as representatives of other nations. Eventually the random killings stopped.

However, the LTTE continued to kidnap businessmen and hold them for ransom. In 1992, Anthony himself was kidnapped. “They didn’t mistreat me,” he says, “but it was hard sleeping under a tree.” His family had no money, so the American priest came and negotiated his release.

In the ongoing conflict, the Army uses landmines and the LTTE uses explosive booby traps. As a result, many children have lost limbs and eyes. In a cooperative venture with the (majority Sinhalese) Kandy Rotary Club, Anthony’s aid organization began treating these children and providing artificial limbs. They have provided dozens of below-the-knee amputees with legs, and treated several arm amputees as well.

When I interviewed him, Anthony introduced me to a boy of eleven who had lost both arms after picking up a booby-trapped flashlight. The boy had been fitted with two primitive protheses– if he stretched them the right way, the thumbs would retract, allowing him to grasp objects. Through a translator, the boy told me he was now in training to become a tailor.

Over the years, Anthony negotiated for the release of child soldiers abducted by both the LTTE and government-allied paramilitary groups. He worked closely with local authorities to set up communications with the government and LTTE, whichever was in charge at the time. And he continues to help monitor and track reports of disappearances. But his passion is the plight of the children. He says he’s been warned that he shouldn’t get involved. “But when someone asks,” he says, “it is our duty to try to help.”