One morning in 1995, five-year-old Selvanayagam Sasiraj was playing outside his house. His father, a mason, had gone to work, but Sasiraj’s mother, Pathmawathi, was home; so was Sasiraj’s elder brother, Chandrasekaran. Their home was adjacent to the Navaly Roman Catholic Church.
Military operations were in progress and armed aircraft were circling. Realising perhaps they were circling a zone almost over the house and growing anxious of what it portended, Pathmawathi had asked the boy to get into a bunker.
“Before I could I could run bombs began falling. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. That is all I remember till I woke up in hospital,” said Sasiraj, now 12 years old.He has lost his sight completely.
It was this bomb the ICRC reported had been dropped on civilians who were herded together in the church taking refuge from military operations. And in the wake of the negative fallout alleging the air force had engaged in an act that could be interpreted a war crime, Lakshman Kadirgamar, the then minister of foreign affairs, went on to chastise the ICRC, stating the bomb was not targeted on refugees in the church, but on an LTTE facility nearby. He said the bomb had inadvertently exploded in the church’s compound. Others, however, dismiss the argument as preposterous.
Pathmawathi died, but Chandrasekaran escaped virtually unscathed. Today Sasiraj’s father supports Chandrasekaran through his meagre earnings, while little Sasiraj is at Valvagham home for the visually handicapped.
The history of Valvagham, now situated at Maruthanamdam, Jaffna, and the trials the organisation and its administrators had to put up with are as heartrending in the tragedy, but also as encouraging in their persistence and fortitude, as the personal story of Sasiraj and the 30 other visually handicapped inmates of that institution.Valvagham has led a peripatetic existence. It has had to move out whenever military operations threatened the security of the institution and the lives of the children. The last of these relocations was in 1995 when the home was in Uduvil, but had to be vacated due the to shelling and fighting at close quarters.
“We were so handicapped we had to take these children who cannot see, walking to Tellipalai to safety,” said one who had been there and experienced it all.Interestingly, the permanent building the home occupied at Uduvil has now become part of the military complex of 513 Brigade, which took it over after Valvagham’s vacation. It has been acts such as these, done with scant regard to human suffering that has prompted the LTTE and the Tamil public to demand the army vacate private property it has acquired in high security zones and outside.
Around 1997 persons working with Valvagahm visited what had been their home at Uduvil, now turned into 513 Brigade’s military complex. There were only a few benches that belonged to the home remaining, which the visitors had requested be returned to them since they were in the process of building a new home at Maruthanamadam. But the army refused.
Despite such cussedness there were sections of the government that was prepared to help. Relief and Rehabilitation Authority of the North (RRAN) put up the new building for the home at Maruthanamadam; UNICEF constructed the water tank and Hindu Culture Affairs Minister T. Maheswaran donated a trishaw. ‘Official’ assistance for building up movable and immovable property is largely confined to these.
The bulk of the donations even today come from individuals. And this, mind you, in a Jaffna that had been wracked by war, displacement and terror till the ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2002. If funding from these sources were to dry up, the institution might have to close. “The people who were displaced with us and bore the brunt of our privation know our problems and continue to support and make contributions towards the home’s welfare,” said Annaluckshmy Sinnathamby, who runs the home and whose brainchild Valvagham is.
The sacrifice and personal commitment that has gone into setting up and running Valvagham borders on the fantastic. It began in 1971 as a school that taught children with visual impediments. By 1988 with the war for Eelam having undergone various phases and military engagements and economic deprivation causing tremendous distress, it was decided Valvagham be transformed into a home, where children did not study but were resident.
A private house was acquired at Tellipalai for the home. Valvagham was there till 1990. The first round of displacement came that year due to military engagements as the army began expanding the perimeter of its Palaly camp, which has now become the high security zone. Expecting the worst, the children were sent home.
The home was resurrected in 1993 at Uduvil, where a permanent building was constructed. When displaced in 1995 in the wake of Operation Riviresa the home was in transit in Manipay briefly, before being relocated at its present premises at Maruthanamadam.
Though Valvagham has evolved into a home from a school, education forms the core of the institution’s focus. The inmates do not attend special schools for the visually handicapped. They go to regular schools in the area such as the Maruthanamadum Ramanathan College for girls and Union College, Telipalai for boys.
The schools, besides allowing these children with special needs to use Braille offers them much the same facilities (or the lack of them) as it does other children; in other words they are shown no distinction, but encouraged to be part of the school as everyone else. However, education is one of the most important reasons why the children are encouraged to stay at Valvagham.
“We are displaced because of the war. I am at Valvagham because my parents want me to study and come up in life,” said Selvam Jeyaparathi (11), who was part of the exodus to the Vanni in 1995. Jeyaparathi who is an epileptic got an attack due to exposure and fatigue. There was no medical aid available and her optic nerve was affected. She is visually handicapped too.
The success of Valvagham in encouraging learning and instilling discipline that is required for academic excellence is seen by four youths, both boys and girls, from the institution following undergraduate courses at the University of Jaffna. But academic excellence is but a part of the enormous talent the resident’s at Valvagham display. Some of them are musically inclined, while others are gifted in the other arts.
Though superficially the lot of these children might appear better than the orphans who have no one to parents to turn to, the fact is it is not really so. Many of the inmates’ families have lost breadwinners that make them desperately poor so that a child at Valvagham means one mouth less to feed. In the case of others like Sujith, whose mother was killed, it leaves the home with an acute lack of the emotional support that is vital for viable family life.Similarly, atavistic and almost barbarous social beliefs in Jaffna, render the visually handicapped inauspicious and/or their families as objects of ridicule and exclusion. This forces parents to use the first available opportunity to palm off their children to a home or some other facility, which will relieve parents and families the anxieties of bringing up ‘special needs’ children.
The allocation of each child in Valvagham’s budget is Rs.300 per day, which goes for food, clothes, school requirements and extra-curricular activities such as music lessons. This works out approximately Rs.90, 000 per month for the 30 inmates. The single biggest block sum of money comes from the government that works out to Rs.300, per child, per month. In other words, the state looks after just three days of a child’s requirement in a month. The balance is from private generosity and goodwill.
The tragedy of the children’s lives will however need much more Rs.90, 000 a month. Some cases involve more than one in a family who is handicapped for life due to the war and its indescribable horrors.
Way back in 1994, Ravindrapalan, a fisherman from Gurnagar, brought home one day with his haul from the sea, a shiny rounded object. It was a present to his six children including Gnanaseelan, Lambert Ravindran and Marie Stella. Their mother who was reluctant to give the children what had lain so long in the sea, washed the object with soap and water to disinfect it before allowing the children play.The children rolled the spherically shaped article during their play. One afternoon coming home from school, they wanted to break the seashells they had collected. The shells had to be broken by dashing a heavy object on them. There was nothing else around, so Ravindran Lambert took the round heavy object they had played with in his little hand and brought it down with all his might on the shells. It exploded.
Lambert lost his hand and his sight partially, so did his elder brother Gnanaseelan due to the exploding mine. Marie Stella, hovering closest over the ‘plaything,’ lost sight of both her eyes completely. All had three had shrapnel and burn injuries all over their bodies. Incidentally, one of the other siblings, a one-year-old, was nearby too but escaped because she was crouching under a chair and the force of the blast moves upwards.
Marie Stella and Lambert were admitted into Valvagham in 1997, but Gnanaseelan came only in 2000. Though the two boys can still see, it is limited to recognising vague shapes and doctors say their sight continues to deteriorate. Marie Stella’s world is completely dark.“I do not mind my own condition, but I am worried about my sister – she has lost both her eyes,” said Gnanaseelan (15).
Marie Stella (12) is an active girl who when told about our photojournalist Buddhika Weerasinghe’s camera, held it to her eye and clicked. But all of a sudden she fell very, very silent.
“She is grieving about our eldest brother – he has gone to join the LTTE. She is very attached to him and took his departure badly,” confided Gnanaseelan.
The eldest boy had run away to join the LTTE in May 2002. Due to the entreaties of his parents he had returned to the family fold. But in September he went back – this time no entreaty could coax him away.
Marie Stella wants to become a teacher. She said, “Only the eldest of my brothers could see. He was studying; he could have helped us to study too. But now he is also not there for us…”