The photograph the young woman holds is barely the size of a postage stamp. But it is the only one of her husband she could find here in her parents’ house. They had not approved of her marriage, given that he was just a fisherman from the coastal town of Mannar, while her family has lived in Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, for generations. But as the photo attests, her husband, a Tamil like herself—is broad-faced and confident. Staring at the tiny image of the man who went missing a decade ago, her mahogany eyes brighten as she loses herself in memories.
They’d fallen in love at a refugee camp in southern India in 1999, when she was 17. Both had escaped Sri Lanka’s wantonly vicious civil war, pitting the army, controlled by the majority Sinhalese, against Tamil rebels. She had fled Jaffna with her family, leaping over the corpses of neighbors as the military’s bombs plummeted from the sky. He had escaped Mannar after he saw an army officer shoot his youngest sister to death in their home. They had married under the withering glare of her mother.
They returned in 2002 to Mannar, where he could take his boat and his nets out to sea. They had a boy, then a girl. To supplement his modest income, he sold canisters of gasoline to Tamil resistance fighters. She saw little risk to this practice, which was common among Tamil men in Mannar. And when he said to her, “If something ever happens to me, you shouldn’t try to look for me—go back to your mother,” the words simply did not register, until December 27, 2006, when he took his motorcycle out and didn’t come back that evening or in the days that followed.