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. 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 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? 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 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’m trapped!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.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.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.I ran as fast as I could across the tar-paved road toward the paddies. Years later, I could still recall the soft sound of my bare feet slapping the tar road as I ran.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 still, 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.It had only been a few months since the terrible eruption of the Black July attacks and violence against Tamils, and tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese were at their peak. The majority Sinhalese government was cracking down hard on the minority Tamil population for alleged attacks by armed guerrillas. Most Tamils were not guerrillas; all Tamils, however, were under suspicion, especially young men and boys. It was well known that teenage Tamil boys — boys like me — were eagerly recruited by the guerrillas.I should know. I would eventually be recruited, too.All my life I had lived exclusively among Tamils. Of course, I had seen Sinhalese now and again, but had never had any real contact with them. I used to wonder what they were like; I wondered, too, why they hated the Tamils. How can you hate someone so much even though you have never met them?All of a sudden, I heard an unfamiliar sound in the distance. It was a sort of whomp-whomp sound, weak at first but getting louder and louder. I searched the sky, and in the bright early-morning sunlight something appeared as a glowing silver bullet, moving very fast but low — and coming directly at me.A military helicopter!I started to run. The rice plants were tall and green and the sprouts were yellow, and as I brushed past them they reminded me of tiny bells attached to a long stick. As I ran deeper into the field, my feet began to disappear into the muddy ground; each step became harder and harder as I sank deeper and deeper into the mud. I knocked aside the tiny bells as the whomp-whomp approached, closer and closer. As the helicopter swooped overhead, I dropped facedown into the mud.The helicopter was flying low enough that I could feel the thumping of the blades like punches to my body. I dug myself into the mud, but it wasn’t deep enough. I wallowed in the earth, twisting and turning, slathering myself in mud, trying to sink in farther.The helicopter swung around for another pass and I lay still as death. Between each pass, I tried to dig myself deeper and deeper into the mud, to obliterate myself.I lay face down in the mud for what felt like hours, my heart pounding so loud it almost overpowered the deafening whomp-whomp of the helicopter.They will find me. They will kill me. I was crying, but the tears dissolved harmlessly in the mud. I wondered if I would ever see my family again, about what would happen to me if I got caught. How would my mother feel if I didn’t return home? I worried about my brothers. Where had they gone? Were they safe?As suddenly as the helicopter had appeared, it disappeared, like the sun moving behind a bank of clouds. I didn’t dare move, however, and for hours I lay in the mud, feeling the scorching heat of the sun on my back. It was hard to move. My legs and arms were stiffly encased in the baking mud, but the rice plants were cool.All that morning and afternoon no one came to the field. There was no sound but the chirring of insects in the tall plants, the sucking noise of the embracive mud as I tried to move my aching limbs, the occasional faraway sound of traffic on the road. I waited in dread-filled silence.Hours later — I think; I have no idea how long I lay there — I heard the fast-approaching whomp-whomp of another helicopter. My heart sank. It roared overhead and into the distance, only to return a short time later from the other direction. It happened again not long after. And again.The soldiers must know a boy is missing from the village. They are searching for me. They must know I am in the fields.I was torn between running again and remaining in the field. I convinced myself the soldiers were waiting for me. Waiting to catch me. I kept waiting.I could feel the sun moving lower on the horizon. My legs were numb. My stomach was rumbling from hunger. All I could think about, however, were the soldiers on the road and in the village.Deliberately, slowly, I uprooted myself from the mud and turned to stare up at the sky. It had shifted from bright blue to dark blue and orange. It would be dark soon. It had been quite a while since I had heard the helicopter. It was time.The sky was empty and serene. I walked to the dirt path that led to the road. I noticed deep ruts — from heavy wheels and tread marks — in the soft ground; there were booted footprints, too, that trailed off in various directions. Had the helicopter spotted me? Had the soldiers waited for me, perhaps fearing that I was a rebel lying in wait to ambush them if they approached?I stumbled across the tar road, careful to keep watch around me just in case, and headed back to the village. I couldn’t see any military trucks anywhere. Past the temple along the road to our house I heard moaning noises coming from one house. Farther along, I passed by another house and heard more sad wailing. As I walked along the road I saw mothers sitting on the ground, smacking their heads, rocking and sobbing.“Aiyoo, amma!” they chanted. Oh, my mother! It was a familiar lament in Tamil, a common expression of deep sadness. Aiyoo is an exclamatory term used in spoken Tamil when something terrible happens to someone, when someone feels sorry for something that has happened; it is also uttered when someone witnesses something frightening.“Aen entai pillaiai kondu pottai?” Why did you take my child? “Eppa naan entai pillaiai pakka poran? Kadavulai, engalai kappathtu.” When am I going to see my child again? Lord, protect us.Occasionally I heard screaming: brief bursts, like choking sobs, or long and drawn out like a mournful wind. The mothers were bewailing their sons’ abductions.It is a tradition in Hindu culture, even among the poor, to wear fresh clothes every day — a sarong for the men and a sari for the women. In our village, women always wear fresh flowers in their hair. The men and women I saw in the streets looked haggard and rumpled; dishevelled, even. Oddly, despite everything I had seen and experienced that day, it was the unexpected unkemptness of the men and women I encountered on the roads that frightened me the most. Excerpt from The Sadness of Geography: My Life as a Tamil Exile by Logathasan Tharmathurai ⓒ2019. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press Ltd.