Previously: Born in 1978 in Jaffna, Suthan grew up in a loving family. In 1983, the Sri Lankan civil war began and changed everything. Suthan’s father died prematurely in 1989. Embittered, Suthan’s older brother, Umasuthan, became a strong supporter of the Tamil Tigers.
Umasuthan disappeared in 1995, the year a new wave of violence swept through Jaffna. Grief stricken, Suthan’s mother sent him away with an uncle. She did this even though she knew that Suthan would not join the Tamil Tigers, that he was a frightened seventeen-year-old boy, that he didn’t want to leave, that he felt like shit. She sent him away from Jaffna because it was the only way she knew to try to keep him safe.
As all roads out of Jaffna were closed, Suthan and his uncle escaped by boat and went into hiding. Days segued into nights. Episodes of horror punctured long periods of nothingness: scanning the faces of displaced people for his mother but failing to find her, building a hut in a mosquito infested jungle, shivering with malarial chills, being found by Tamil Tigers, digging bunkers for them, losing his ID card, setting out for Colombo to get a replacement, paying Tamil Tigers for a travel pass, being arrested by government soldiers anyway, interrogated for the location of enemy camps and tortured.
Suthan thought he would surely die within the confines of the blood-splattered walls, but his uncle bought his release. Suthan had to return to the station every day to sign in for one month, after which he and his uncle travelled by train to Colombo.
At the Colombo airport, Suthan’s uncle handed him over to a people smuggler, along with a very large sum of money. His mother had secured the money from an uncle in Germany. It was not only to pay for passage to safety, but also for lawyers in the future.
The people smuggler instructed Suthan to walk ahead, alone. Simply being a young man who didn’t speak Singhalese made Suthan a Tamil Tiger suspect. After endless questions and repeated scrutiny of his documents, Suthan boarded the plane. The people smuggler boarded the same flight and they both arrived in Singapore early in the morning.
‘Wait here,’ said the people smuggler, ‘I will come and get you.’ Paralysed by fear, Suthan remained in that spot for the entire twelve-hour transit. It was a pattern of what lay ahead. Suthan would be directed to a place and told to stay there. He would remain in situ until he received instructions to move again, his invisible leash of fear growing ever shorter with the passing of time.
In Indonesia, Suthan was given a one-month visa. He watched the Sydney 2000 Olympics in a five-star hotel. The comfort of Suthan’s surroundings deteriorated rapidly with the expiry of his visa. Like contraband, he was transported from island to island, sometimes by boat, sometimes by plane. In dingy hotels, he heard drunken men carousing with women. How different this world was to the world of his childhood, when he had never even talked to a girl he was not related to.
Once, when police raided the place, Suthan was handcuffed and taken to the police station for questioning. Pretending to be a rich young tourist, he talked his way out. The people smuggler promised to retrieve his belongings and instructed him to take a taxi to another house. When the people smuggler didn’t keep his promise, Suthan lost all his favourite clothes, and was reduced to wearing a patched sarong, which he hated.
Too scared to venture out into the streets, Suthan watched the other boys in the new house, trying to identify one who was trustworthy. Finally, he gave one of them the last of his money, asking the boy to buy him some clothes. After three weeks, when the clothes failed to materialise, Suthan learnt that his money had been spent on prostitutes.
The Sri Lankan girls tried to befriend him but he was so shy that he hid at the sight of them. He had no way of contacting with his family. Destitute and isolated, Suthan woke up early to pray every morning and spent the rest of the day waiting and hoping it would be time to move.
After two years in Indonesia, the people smugglers arranged for Suthan to fly to Malaysia. Because the Malaysians had given Suthan a five-day visa, he regained legal status. He could go out. He could explore. He was free. He visited the Petronas Twin Towers and bought a few T-shirts. Then the people smuggler put Suthan on a plane bound for Perth.
He did not have an Australian visa.
This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. To be published next Friday 12 July: Refuge #20 Factories for Peace of Mind. Subscribe for free to receive links to new episodes in your inbox every Friday.