We met her a week ago today. It was striking really, how scared she looked. Thin and frail she sat across from us in a foldable chair trying to make herself as small as possible. Wearing a blue MAS Intimates shirt and a long brown skirt, her hair swept up in a bun with a trademark red bindhi on her forehead, she was classic Sri Lankan. But I couldn’t help looking at her and feeling like a cat somehow encroaching on a mouse, a big person sitting down with a very, very tiny one.
She trembled at first as she answered our questions, not sure at first why exactly we were there, worried that the three of us might just make more trouble for her. But with our smiles and reassurance, gentle prodding and simple questions, she slowly grew a little more comfortable, understanding with time that we were merely there to listen to her, to learn her story. How strange that must of felt. Still, I can’t say that she walked away trusting us in the end. Then again, I can’t say that a woman like her who had seen so very much could really ever trust again.
Her name was Anjali and she was a Sri Lankan war widow. Ishani, another one of our classmates, and I went to a Killinochchi MAS factory to interview her and learn of her challenges. Anjali had one son and her mother and father to support; she had lost her husband, an LTTE fighter, to the war. Why and how exactly, she did’t readily disclose; then again, we didn’t exactly want to push the point either. More tangible really than any of her answers was the fear she spoke with. She never lost that look of terror, of fear when she talked to us. Her’s was a story that reminded us of how very lucky we are to live in a place and a society where trust is inherently given with a ‘hello’ and is something we offer automatically at the table, only to retract if necessary later. But for Anjali, trust was not inherent, her interactions waged from a place of paralyzing, mind-numbing fear instead.
The stories of these war widows are not ones we hear of often. Although that in itself is not really a bad thing; these women prefer privacy and modesty over all else. They do not need to air their troubles out in public. But these women… they need help. There are more than 90,000 of these widows in northern Sri Lanka, women who have lived in bunkers and who have heard the ringing of gunshots far too often. Unlike most other wars, these women were not just on the ‘homefront,’ but too were recruited to serve. The LTTE created a breed of strong female soldiers that was rare throughout most of the South Asian world.If not recruited, many of these women were forced into hiding or early marriage to escape military service. Their stories are far more complex than we might ever imagine. They have seen their brothers and fathers and sons ripped away, they have seen the destruction of the only land they know and the end of a war they knew too well. I am by no means qualified to tell their stories, but if you are to leave this post remembering anything at all, let it be this: regardless of sector or experience or position in the war, people here in Sri Lanka universally tell us that no one deserves our help or needs it more than these women.