Climate change could retrigger trauma in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended 15 years ago, but for many, the trauma of decades of fighting hasn’t been adequately addressed. And now, climate change poses new risks, and some observers say people who acquired a disability during the conflict are most vulnerable.   

Vetrichelvi Chandrakala said that throughout her life, she’s fought for Sri Lanka’s Tamil people.

In her youth, that included serving as a soldier for the Tamil Tigers, known officially as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgency that took on the government from 1983 until it was defeated in 2009.  

But, Chandrakala’s service on the battlefield ended in 1993 when she sustained multiple injuries while training to handle explosives. She lost some of her hearing as well as some vision during the accident, and her right arm was amputated from just below her elbow.     

Vetrichelvi Chandrakala says many Tamil women who acquired a disability during Sri Lanka’s civil war face a social stigma that makes it difficult to put the past behind them. Waruni Anuruddhka Chandrasena

“The war was not a success for us,” the 50-year-old said. “If we had won, then maybe our wounds, pain and suffering might have been worth it.”

At least 20,000 civilians and LTTE fighters from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province acquired a disability during the decadeslong conflict, some local aid groups estimate. Another study indicates that “war-related disability has been stigmatized,” especially for women survivors.

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended 15 years ago, but for many, the trauma of decades of fighting hasn’t been adequately addressed. And now, climate change poses new risks, and some observers say people who acquired a disability during the conflict are most vulnerable.      

Chandrakala said that many Tamil people have tried to put the past behind them, but sometimes, just a stranger’s stare or inappropriate question can evoke painful memories. 

“We just have this feeling that we are marginalized victims now,” said Chandrakala, who works as a writer and advocate for Tamil people with a disability in Mannar, a district on the island nation’s northwest coast.

She added that many of these war survivors have experienced depression.  

The psychological toll of nearly 30 years of fighting has received little attention, some analysts say.

Delsan Tharmaseeli worries that she could not save both of her children during an emergency Sameera Weerasekara

Niluka Gunawardena, who lectures in the disability studies department at the University  of Kelaniya, explained that there are many unresolved issues from the war, including civilian casualties and disappearances that have resulted in a “ high degree of trauma and of post-traumatic stress disorder.”  

But, she said that even less is understood about how new emergencies, in particular those caused by climate change in Sri Lanka, can retrigger those earlier traumas.      

 ”If we talk about humanitarian disasters, with the history of the civil war in this country, the collective trauma that we have been through, all these things need to be considered,” she said. 

As the Indian Ocean warms, observers warn that countries in the region will experience intensified weather. 

A 2020 World Bank risk assessment of Sri Lanka notes that climate change will increase the chances and severity of flash floods, landslides and heat waves. 

While global warming affects everyone, it impacts different groups of people in particular ways, explained Dr. Oshani Silva, who advises the Sri Lankan government and hospitals on how to prepare for mass casualty events. 

For example, she said, women are more likely to be exposed to physical or sexual violence during evacuations and sheltering. And for people with a disability in Sri Lanka, the risks are “amplified” because of the lack of accessible emergency infrastructure, warning systems and information, Silva said. 

“In our country’s context, I feel like if you have a disability, you are more vulnerable,” she said. 

Silva explained that all of these risks are compounded by worsening weather and could be felt even more severely by those who’ve previously experienced traumatic events. 

Delsan Tharmaseeli said that providing safety for her family during a storm concerns her the most.

Delsan Tharmaseeli lives in a low lying area in Mannar where a rain storm can quickly produce a flood Waruni Anuruddhka Chandrasena

The 38-year-old, who was conscripted by the Tamil Tigers, said that she tries not to think much about the injury she sustained during the war in 2008 that necessitated the amputation of much of her left arm.   

But when this area floods, some of those memories start coming back. 

While walking alongside a pond behind her home in Mannar, where she grows bananas and other produce, she said that during a storm, water can rise up to her knees.

She said that she questions how she’d be able to save her two young daughters if her husband wasn’t around during such an emergency.   

“During a flood, if I had both hands, I could carry one of my kids on each side,” Tharmaseeli said. 

Just the thought of this scenario makes her feel sad and worried, she said. 

“I’d have to leave one child behind while I carry away the other,” she said.

This report was supported by a Fulbright South and Central Asia Regional Research Award.  

Waruni Anuruddhka Chandrasena and Shageetha Balachandran contributed to this story.  

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