Man walking in front of red and white walls

From the window of the airplane I can see treetops for miles and miles, with terracotta-tiled roofs flickering in patches. Then, on the one-hour bus ride from the airport, I catch glimpses of yellowthroated birds and wildflowers in the bushes. Small white herons with jet-black legs and beaks dot the paddy fields. Trees rise up out of lagoons. Everything is lush and green on the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka, with little islands trickling into the Indian Ocean. It’s December 2003, the middle of the rainy season, and I’ve returned to my homeland for the second time in 29 years. In the neighbourhoods of Jaffna town, the coconut, neem, tamarind and banana trees shade the front yards of elegant old homes. Back in 1973, when I was three years old, I used to stand on my aunt’s porch filling up on mango slices. Black crows would swoop down and snatch them out of my hand.

Thirty years later, the country and its citizens are full of heartbreak from the barbarity of torture, assassinations, aerial bombardment and violent reprisal after violent reprisal — all because of a twisted, crippling civil war. Many of the old homes have been demolished by aerial bombs, some with just the foundation left, the jungle growing over the ruins. The conflict is being fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, a guerilla organization that has claimed sole representation of the Tamil people, and the government of Sri Lanka, which has discriminated against Tamils like me for decades. The Sinhalese majority, mostly Buddhist, dominates the culture and politics of the island. The Tamil minority is largely Hindu. Since the civil war began 23 years ago, more than 65,000 Sri Lankans have died, and many have fled to Canada.

Unfortunately, the brutality of the island’s ethnic strife has come here with them.

It is Valentine’s Day 1993, and Tamil journalist D. B. S. Jeyaraj, who has both supported the Tigers and criticized them, and his new bride exit a local movie theatre. They stroll through the parking lot after seeing a Sinhala film. Three friends walk ahead to give the newlyweds some privacy; no one has any reason to be afraid. Then two young Tamil men approach Jeyaraj. They ask if he is the editor of the newspaperSenthamarai, and if he had written a story against the Tamil Tigers.

“Yes, I got the information and wrote it,” replies Jeyaraj.

“That’s against our leadership,” says one man.

“This is not the place to talk about it,” says Jeyaraj. “Why don’t you call me tomorrow?”

“No, no, give us an answer here,” insists the other.

In the shadows Jeyaraj can see two other men, brandishing baseball bats and metal rods. The sight paralyzes him. His mind spins. His first instinct is to protect his wife, but he can’t decide how best to do it: fight or run? He puts his arm around her, then pushes her away as he walks, shouting to his friends, “Where is the car?”

One friend yells in Tamil for the men to back off. They don’t. They walk intently toward Jeyaraj and begin to batter him with their bats and rods, breaking his leg and inflicting significant head injuries.

Undaunted, Jeyaraj continues to write for and edit Senthamarai, a Toronto weekly, which he had been doing since 1990. Four months after the attack, a still not intimidated Jeyaraj starts his own publication, Muncharie. Two years later, more violence: Tamil gangs go after shopkeepers who sell his paper — one is beaten; another’s van is burned. Advertisers, distributors and newspaper carriers are threatened, leading to the closure of Muncharie in 1996. The abusive phone calls and death threats from Tiger sympathizers, however, keep coming. As a result, Jeyaraj seldom answers his phone.

But he did agree to talk to me. I wanted to investigate the little-known world of what some call the ethnic press. I wanted to discover more about how journalists in a country as diverse as Canada cover the tensions and fears that are exported with newcomers from such places as Sri Lanka, which, appallingly, has devolved from paradise to hell in my lifetime. And I wanted to meet some of the journalists in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora who, by deciding to stand up to the Tigers in order to decrease their influence in my community, are doing what journalists everywhere are supposed to do: investigate, dissent, be a catalyst for change and support democratic free speech.

To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
 It can be purchased online here

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About the author

Meena Nallainathan was the Head of Research for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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