The harrowing journey of a teenage refugee who never gave up on his dream of seeing his family again.
Born to a wealthy family in northern Sri Lanka, Logathasan Tharmathurai and his family lost everything during the long and brutal Sri Lankan Civil War.
In January 1985, at the age of eighteen, he left his home in a desperate bid to build a new life for himself and his family abroad after a deeply traumatic encounter with a group of Sinhalese soldiers. As his terrifying and often astonishing journey unfolds, he finds himself in a refugee camp, being smuggled across international borders, living with drug dealers, and imprisoned.
The Sadness of Geography is a moving story of innocence lost, the persecution of an entire people, and the universal quest for a better life.
About the author
Logathasan Tharmathurai is a writer and information systems professional. At the age of eighteen, he left Sri Lanka to escape the civil war, with the hopes of finding a new home for his family. He lives in Oakville, Ontario.
Excerpt: The Sadness of Geography: My Life as a Tamil Exile (by (author) Logathasan Tharmathurai)
CHAPTE R 1
Sangkaththaanai, Jaffna District, Northern Province, Sri Lanka
I woke up suddenly, in the dark, startled. Am I dreaming?
My father was standing over me, his face bent low to mine. He straightened up, then kicked me, hard. “Elumpu!” Wake up.
“I am awake,” I answered sleepily, although I wasn’t sure why. No lights were on. I could hear smothered whispers as my brothers and sisters moved around hastily in the house.
I begged my father to tell me what was happening. “Aamykarar vaarangal!” my father whispered. The army is coming. “Oodippoi oliyada!” Run away and hide.
Groggy with sleep, I rose clumsily but quickly from my bed on the floor.
It was still pitch dark inside the house. I peeked through the window. It was silent. The moon was gone; soon it would be dawn.
“Now!” my father hissed, yanking me along.
When the weather was hot, my brothers and I preferred to sleep on blankets strewn across the concrete floors in the front hall of our house, where it was much cooler. My father, however, had his own room and insisted on sleeping on a cushioned bed under the ceiling fan. My mother, my aunt, and my sisters slept on wooden beds topped with comforters.
I looked for Kanna, my younger brother, but could see only blankets scattered on the floor. Perhaps he was hiding or had run away already.
“Where should I go?” I blurted out, confused. I rubbed my eyes, attempting to bring my father’s dark silhouette into focus, but he was just a blur. I could hear more panicked rustling and harsh, muffled whispering from my mother and sisters.
“Be quiet!” my father said. “Go! Run!”
I blundered forward in the dark but slipped on a blanket and tumbled hard to the floor. It seemed easier and faster to crawl. I crawled as quickly as I could to the kitchen, where I found the key to the back door and flung it open. I ran outside, then froze. I turned back momentarily, looking for my two brothers and sisters, hoping they’d followed. I did not like the idea of being on my own.
“Lathy!” I called back into the house, hoping my older brother would appear. “Kanna?”
Where are my brothers? Should I wait?
I squatted in the darkness of our backyard for just a moment, one that seemed like an eternity, wondering what to do.
Where can I run?
I could hear the soft rustling of the wind passing between the leaves on the coconut tree, a soothing hush that belied the terror of the moment. My body felt like ice and my heart was pounding so hard it felt as if it would burst through my chest.
In the distance, a rooster was crowing. With the coming of the sun, the soldiers would appear and I would be caught. I had heard stories of what the soldiers did to Tamil boys. I was just a teenager and I could easily become their prey. They would murder me — or worse.
I could hear another sound: trucks on the main road outside our small village.
“Lathy! Kanna!” I called out again. Nothing.
I couldn’t wait for my brothers; I needed to go.
I stumbled through our backyard garden and crept along the high cement wall at the edge of our property. It was at least seven feet high. Even if I could climb it, the razor-sharp broken bottles anchored to the top — meant to keep intruders out — dissuaded me from even trying.
My mind was racing. Could I risk going through the front gate? There was no place to hide on the road, and I could not outrun the trucks. The soldiers would see me, assume I was a rebel.
I had no choice.
I propped an old piece of discarded lumber against the wall to hoist myself to the top. I had one hand on top of the wall when the piece of wood snapped. I crashed to the ground.
“Ennada saniyan!” I swore.
I jumped to my feet and circled the yard in a panic. There was nothing else to help me scale the wall.
I willed my heart to stop thumping long enough for me to listen. I could hear the trucks coming closer: the deep-throated sound of shifting gears, the revving of the engines, the shrieking of brakes.
By this time, the stingy early morning light was bringing the flat contours of our backyard into relief. I felt unbearably exposed.
I had no choice but to use the front gate. If there was a soldier on the road, however, there would be nowhere for me to hide. My knees trembled; suddenly I felt a warm dribble on my leg. I felt my sarong with my hand, ashamed to discover that I’d wet myself. How Lathy would make fun of me if he knew! In my shame, thinking of how he would tease me was almost as bad as my fear of the soldiers.
All I wanted to do was disappear, but somehow I convinced myself to creep around the side of the house. Our front gate was made of iron bars. In fact, it was the only iron gate in the neighbourhood. Most of the families in our neighbourhood were too poor to afford iron gates, which is probably why my father had insisted on having one. In our village, fences were usually woven from coconut leaves and affixed at intervals to the trees that lined the street. My father was a proud, prosperous, and well-respected businessman; exhibiting and maintaining his status was very important to him. He insisted the gate be locked every night against intruders. After all, the driveway was wide enough for two cars — even though we never had two cars. Most families in the village didn’t have even one car. The majority had bicycles or scooters, or simply walked.
In any case, the gate was no obstacle. I was barefoot, which made climbing it easier.
At the top, I looked up and down the road but did not see any soldiers or military trucks. I jumped.
The road in front of our house, like all the roads in our village, was unpaved. Luckily my feet were tough from walking barefoot; otherwise, landing on the sharp stones would have been painful. Even so, I winced and hopped before starting to run.
I stayed low, sticking as close to the side of the road as I could to remain inconspicuous. After just a few steps, I skidded to a halt. A military truck had stopped at the top of the road. Soldiers dressed in green and brown camouflage and carrying submachine guns were jumping from the back of the truck and fanning out in groups of three or four along the road. At each house, a group of soldiers would duck into the laneway.
Except for the faint crunching of boots on the gravel, the soldiers were eerily quiet, like ghosts. Suddenly the silence was broken by shouting, first in one house and then another, and another, like slowly toppling dominoes. Orders were being barked. Rough male voices, then women’s screams and wails.
Get off the road!
I ran into my neighbour’s yard. Unlike our large, modern house, many homes in the village were crude and very small — many of them no more than improvised shacks or huts. Most had a tiny porch at the front and one big sleeping room for the family. The kitchen was cramped and had firepits made of clay for cooking. Toilets were located at the back, separate from the house. Some houses had a well, but none, except ours, had running water. Anyone who could manage it had a modest garden to grow vegetables and some little cages in which to raise chickens.
The shouts from the soldiers grew louder as they got closer. From the houses I could hear the shrill, terrified cries of women and girls. I zigzagged from one backyard to another until I reached a railway crossing. From behind some bushes I could see military trucks driving along the main road, known as the Kandy–Jaffna Highway. Soldiers were moving from house to house, searching. My only hope was to reach the rice paddies beyond the highway. Our house was only a short distance from the highway; the fields, however, were about four miles away, and I had no way of knowing if I could make it that far without being seen.
What if soldiers had been stationed at the fields to watch for boys and men making a run for it?
I waited by the highway, hiding behind the bushes until a short convoy of military trucks had passed. Then, crouching low, I ran as fast as I could across the tar-paved road toward the Sangkaththaanai Kanthasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple in our village. Years later, I can still recall the soft sound of my bare feet slapping the tar road as I ran.
I passed the temple and kept running, away from home, toward the paddies. The fields at the edge of the paddies were lined with mature trees with enough foliage to help obscure my movements.
I was panting, breathless, and slowed down to catch my breath. What a beautiful morning, I caught myself thinking, as if in a dream. I would never forget the image of the fiery edge of sunrise in the distance and the blue sky arcing above the green rice fields.
Just as suddenly as before, more trucks appeared nearby and my sense of security instantly disappeared. I hurried down a narrow path that split the rice paddy into two sections and was soon surrounded by rice stalks — bright green at that time of year — that reached to my shoulders. It was midseason, and the ground was still wet and muddy from a heavy rainfall the night before. It was early, but the sun would soon be a torch in the sky. I was alone. I had no idea what was happening to my family. There was nothing I could do but hide. And wait.
The Sadness of Geography is a moving story of a young man who leaves his country of origin (Sri Lanka) to seek greener pastures…a beautifully written story.
[Tharmathurai] makes himself fully vulnerable to the reader and shares the story of his powerful journey in a deeply transparent way, pointing out that “hatred is a hard enemy to defeat”.
Canadian Immigrant Magazine
Logathasan Tharmathurai’s heart-stopping memoir is an intimate portrait of a young man caught in the crosshairs of war. Beginning in northern Sri Lanka in the 1980s, a part of the country that was the locus of civil war and off-limits to most outsiders, Tharmathurai re-traces his steps as he makes a fraught and winding journey through the island, across Europe, and finally on to Canada. Along the way, he lays bare his complicated past: membership in the Tamil Tigers, false names and passports, and being smuggled across borders. The result is a rare and frank exploration of the risks and compromises people are forced to make in search of sanctuary. For every cynic who has looked askance at refugee boats and migrant caravans, dismissed asylum-seekers as ‘illegals’ or ‘terrorists’, The Sadness of Geography is a direct and candid rebuttal. Part history lesson, part warning, Tharmathurai’s book about Sri Lanka’s brutal past offers important lessons for the present moment, our own here and now. These pages are essential reading for everyone.
Sharon Bala, bestselling author of The Boat People