KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) - Ranjini wakes up screaming. Her mother’s body is on fire, her teenage sister is covered in blood and the mutilated, charred corpses of her relatives lie scattered everywhere.
It’s a recurring nightmare.
“I see my mother’s burning face ... she is calling me to help her, but I can’t or I will be killed from the shelling also,” says the 23-year-old, petite Sri Lankan woman, wiping the tears from her face with a blue and white checkered handkerchief.
“My little sister is lying with blood all over her skirt, but I cannot see the wound. She is unable to speak but from her eyes she is trying to tell me something. She dies. I too want to die.”
More than two years since Sri Lanka’s 25-year-old conflict ended, mental health experts say thousands of survivors are living in torment typical of war survivors — haunted by memories of the final months of fighting between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces.
“The horrific, abrupt end to the war saw people witnessing their family members die, but most could do nothing but run, forced to abandon the bodies of their loved ones without performing important last rites,” said a Western aid worker with an EU-funded charity, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the Sri Lankan government.
As a result, many of the war-affected have failed to gain closure, and are haunted by flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares, suicidal thoughts and anti-social behavior.
Experts suggest the poor mental health of men in particular has driven many to alcoholism and led to numerous reports of domestic violence, child abuse and family separation amongst war-hit communities in the Indian Ocean island’s ravaged north.
But while aid workers welcome President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s policy to rebuild the north economically and spur growth, they say the “invisible scars” of the war remain unrepaired.
Sri Lanka is now in its third year of peace after defeating the Tamil Tigers in a cataclysmic final battle in May 2009, when the separatists held nearly 300,000 civilians as human shields in a tiny strip of land as the military closed in.
In the island’s northern Kilinochchi district — the Tigers’ self-declared capital — the population of 120,000 was forced to flee or take refuge in displacement camps as the army advanced with the aim of ending Asia’s longest running modern war.
One year since returning home, many still live in temporary houses made of corrugated iron or under tarpaulin sheets held together by wooden poles. They recount stories of constant artillery fire and aerial bombardments.
Now mothers, who did not have time to mourn their dead children, show apathy toward their living ones, while children show signs of anti-social behavior at school, unwilling to participate.
Teachers talk of having to calm screaming students — some as young as six — who fall to the ground with their hands over their heads at the sound of thunder or from the loud bang that comes from a tire burst, believing the shelling has begun again.
Almost everyone speaks on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals for revealing details of what occurred in the last phases of war — an issue which stirs sensitivities of a government under Western pressure over allegations of war crimes.
But while a small number of women and children are now beginning to come for counseling, men in this conservative, patriarchal largely Hindu Tamil community are reluctant.
Unwilling to talk about what they saw, counselors say their plight is worsened by the despair of seeing their homes gutted, their possessions lost and the lack of jobs.
Many seek escape in cheap liquor or sit idle in the shade of the small shops and bullet-ridden buildings which line the main road through Kilinochchi town.
The government’s strategy has been to focus on economic development by investing in roads, railways and ports construction in the north.
“Our priorities are providing housing and job opportunities for the community now. We need private sector investment and income-generating activities for the returning displaced,” said R. Ketheeswaran, the government agent in charge of Kilinochchi district.
“We don’t even have enough doctors and nurses in this area. Mental health is not a big issue.”
With only one psychiatrist for every 120,000 people and a few dozen counselors, less than 5 percent of those who need treatment are getting it, say aid workers.
(AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)
Editing by Bryson Hull and Ed Lane