Poet Shash Trevett fled civil war in Sri Lanka in 1987. As a well-known surgeon, her father had been repeatedly kidnapped both by the military and the Tamil Tigers, and forced to operate on their wounded. As a result, the lives of his wife and daughter were in serious danger from both sides. After living in exile in India for four years, they returned to their homeland, only to become the victims of violence once again. Shash has no doubt that safety in Britain saved her life.
For you, claiming your birthplace is an act
of simple ownership. Whereas that country
will not own me.
I am outcast because several invaders
used me as their parade ground:
I was common land
and it was common knowledge.
I am now in exile
– Excerpt from In Exile
Without Britain’s protection, I would not be alive today.
In 1983, the “black July” program in Colombo turned one community against another. Thousands were burnt alive, stabbed and beaten to death, on buses, in their shops, on the streets; their homes and businesses burnt to the ground. Over 150,000 Tamils fled Colombo to the North of Sri Lanka. When the Sri Lankan Army followed them North, our safety became compromised.
As a child, I sought safety in India with my mother’s family. During our exile the Tamil Tigers took up our Sri Lankan home and used it for their own. We returned four years later in July 1987, when the Indian Army, acting as Peacekeepers, arrived in Jaffna. But before long the Tamil people, who had welcomed them as heroes, grew to fear them.
The brutal intervention of the Indian Peacekeeping Force has been well documented. Unfortunately, I witnessed their brutality on a very personal level. The Indian Army viewed our house as a rebel base, despite my mother meeting the local commander and explaining that we had reclaimed our property from the Tigers. Daily the attackers came. They could not see that our family of three – grandmother, mother and me – were nothing more than women, trying to live. By this point my father was in Britain, working as a surgeon.
On one occassion, we were surrounded by tanks and fired upon for an hour. Inside, my mother, grandmother and I, counted each mortar explosion as we crouched in a narrow space in the middle of the house. On other occasions, our neighbours were harassed, killed, arrested; we were searched and questioned repeatedly. One day, the soldiers hammered on our door. Side by side with my mother and grandmother, three generations were lined up to be shot. “3…2…1” – then – just before the gunshot – laughter erupted, and they returned to chatting among themselves. For twelve hours we waited for death.
But death never came.
At least, not for us.
When they round up thousands
onto a narrow spit of land
and subjugate them
until the white sands turn red with wasted blood.
When they bring bulldozers and trucks
and flatten the people into shallow troughs –
When they shoot blindfolded men in the back,
and take souvenirs of exposed nipples
and desecrated wombs.
When they rape grandmothers
and celebrate the hecatomb of their success –
– Excerpt from Things Happen.
After that day, we fled for our lives. A family friend brought bicycles and we cycled from our town, a journey that took a day from being stopped repeatedly at check points. I had learnt not to make eye contact with the soldiers, and every time we got back on our bikes, I expected to hear gunshots and feel the bullets burrow into my back. The very next day the army came back to our home looking for us. I suppose I still look at our flight through a child’s eyes, I was thirteen when we finally made it to the capital, Colombo. The journey seemed so far. Perhaps it’s because I felt we would never reach safety.
For months on end we visited the High Commission, and waited in endless queues to state our case for an exit visa. I was so badly traumatised, and being forced to see soldiers with their guns levelled at us every day, sent me deeper into shock.
Finally we flew to the UK, to join my father in Jersey. I remember feeling an immense sense of safety, of peace. I knew that no one could hurt me now. Those school days in Jersey were some of the happiest of my life.
But the trauma caught up with me later. I had always loved reading – in fact I had fallen in love with England through the literature of Charles Dickens at the age of 10 – so when the time came I went to York to read English. I went on to do an MA, then started my PhD, where, when writing about British travel narratives to Sri Lanka in the long eighteenth century, the old trauma returned. The next 5 years of my life were incredibly difficult.
But my husband, a history teacher at St Peter’s School in York, and the most kind, loving man, was there with me through the flashbacks, the nightmares, the years of agoraphobia. His support allowed me to flourish.
Today we have two wonderful children – both of whom are choristers at York Minster. These are the things I am most proud of in my life – my husband and my children. Two things I once believed could never happen for me.
When I arrived in Britain, I stopped speaking altogether for months. When eventually I did open my mouth again I had left my mother tongue behind. Now, through my writing, I am able to start engaging with my birth language, and with my past, anew. I hope that my words can cast a light on the suffering inflicted, and that continues to be inflicted, in Sri Lanka. I don’t think I could ever go back, though I feel cowardly for saying so. I hope that my words can bring the awareness my country so desperately needs.
When I see what is happening today in the Mediterranean and across Europe, the fear of those who have been forced to leave everything behind and take such dangerous journeys – I just wish people could understand the desperation that it takes to make that decision.
I have no photos of me as a child, I have no family heirlooms to pass on to my children. I have no motherland for them to discover for themselves. Making the decision to abandon everything that you know and love is a momentous one. It is not a life-style choice: it is a matter of choosing life over death.
Even though we had met with violence from soldiers on a daily basis, the tie to one’s homeland is not one that can be severed easily, and it was months before my mother decided it was time for us to escape. I would like people to understand this when they view images of refugees struggling into Europe. I find it devastating that we can sit with a cup of tea and pontificate while we close our hearts to the suffering of others.
I have such love for the culture and vibrancy of my adopted country. In many ways its landscapes, colours and smells have become embedded deep within me. And all the time, I am so thankful to be here, now. Without Britain’s protection, I am certain I would not be alive today. I hope Britain can see that asylum saves lives.