East Coast Expats in London

Tamil diaspora ‘feel’ the violence

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By Debabani Majumdar
BBC News, London

Thangaraja Thevaraja

Mr Thevaraja’s wife and children live in eastern Sri Lanka

Thangaraja Thevaraja is sitting in his east London home wondering when he will next hear from his wife and three children in Sri Lanka. A former policeman in Batticaloa district, he was forced to leave his job by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who ordered all Tamils, the country’s ethnic minority, to quit the police and armed forces.

The 44-year-old fled to the UK in 2001 after being arrested by police on suspicion of supporting the rebels.

They are fighting for a separate homeland for the country’s 3.1m-strong Tamil population following decades of alleged discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

But instead of things improving he had to watch from thousands of miles away as his home village Kallar, in Batticaloa, was wiped out by the tsunami in 2004, forcing his family to live in a temporary shelter ever since.

He has since learned that his nephew was abducted, and days later found dead, and that his 14-year-old son is now too scared to go to school.

Human rights groups have frequently criticised both rebels and government troops for carrying out abductions.

Map of Sri Lanka

Mr Thevaraja cried as he recalled his infrequent, hurried conversations with his family.

“My son was so shocked by my nephew’s death that he refuses to step out of the house. My wife is also scared that he may be abducted,” he said in Tamil, speaking through a translator.

“I feel guilty and sad about leaving them there but I don’t know what to do. I might be arrested if I go back.”

Six years on he is still waiting for asylum to be granted before he tries to get the rest of his family over.

His is one of about 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in London alone – with 5,000 settled in Newham, east London.

Many have similar stories to tell, but do not want to be named, fearing for their families’ safety in Sri Lanka.

An estimated 65,000 people have died in Sri Lanka’s civil war and the 2002 ceasefire between the government and the Tigers now seems to exist only on paper. More than 3,600 were killed last year and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced during the recent violence.

Paul Sathianesan
My father’s house was in ruins, the roof and windows were falling off and I couldn’t find any of my friends
Councillor Paul Sathianesan

Paul Sathianesan, a councillor in Newham since 1998, said he came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 1985 from the Jaffna peninsula to escape the violence.

He visited Jaffna in 2003 planning to help the local community, but was shattered to see the devastation caused by the conflict.

“My father’s house was in ruins, the roof and windows were falling off and I couldn’t find any of my friends.

“There was an air of emptiness and people looked grey, thin and scared.”

The expatriate community over the years has tried to invest in their former villages and cities but this has become very difficult.

Mr Vellupillai Bose, who owns an estate agency in East Ham, said he and 10 friends purchased land in the capital Colombo to build residential buildings but they had to abandon the project after the violence worsened soon after presidential elections in November 2005.

Poster showing the victim of gang violence in East Ham

Police display posters of victims of gang violence in the area

“All clauses were finalised but things got worse after the elections. Now we have decided to sell the land. We can’t do business in this situation.”

He has taken his family to Colombo for vacations but he has not been able to visit Jaffna, his hometown, since 1998.

He fears the younger generation who were born and bred here will not be as attached to their homeland.

Arjuna Subramaniam, 21, acknowledges this.

I am aware of all the problems there but I can’t relate to it
Arjuna Subramaniam

His parents follow news and politics closely as many of their relatives are still there, but he feels alienated.

Purchase pamelor 10 “I love the country and I loved the time I spent there on vacations.

“I am aware of all the problems there but I can’t relate to it. I have a different life here.”

The community, which has been dealing with the news of mounting violence in Sri Lanka, have been confronted with a new challenge closer home.

Tamil gangs

Since 2000 at least 10 people have been killed in gang-related incidents spurring the Metropolitan Police to set up a special task force, Enver, to tackle Tamil gangs and crime.

Mr Sathianesan recently held a public consultation – where police, youth and other local agencies were invited – to talk about an issue which was “damaging race relations and the image of the community”.

He hopes they will overcome the hurdle.

“The next generation shouldn’t be given hatred as heritage, we want to see them enjoy love, peace and safety.”


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