Entrepreneur builds her life from scratch | Sunday Observer

Entrepreneur builds her life from scratch

Sajirani and her assistant at their stall
Sajirani and her assistant at their stall

It is nearly ten years since the end of the war against terroism. Yet, we find many who tarry unable to make a living; unemployed and disheartened, blaming the whole world for their misfortunes. However, there are a few who have risen phoenix-like through their own effort. Krishnathas Saajirani is one such woman who built her life from scratch, to become an entrepreneur now employing 15 women.

We met her at her sales outlet at the BMICH at a recent exhibition. A broad smile lighting her face, she was sharing her products with the consumers explaining about the products when necessary. Though the mark on her forehead is visible to all, they would never think that behind her smile lay a story of horror, fear, struggle and most importantly an indomitable will. Krishnathas Saajirani’s life had been far from smiles - a history of battles always of others’ making.

“We are from Pudukuduyirippu in Mullaitivu,” she says. “My husband was also connected to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). During the last stages of the war against terroism, as the battle became fierce, the families of our village were cornered in to a small area. My son was about nine-years-old at the time. The LTTE did not let us leave. All the villagers gathered together. As the Army advanced, death by shelling was imminent and we lived in constant fear. Some of us decided to leave no matter what, though it was a great risk. Then, people started escaping – in small groups, mainly during the nights. Our group consisted of our three families - my mother, husband and son; my sister, brother-in-law and their children; my brother, sister-in-law and their daughter. A few other villagers were also with us,” she reminisces her escape from the village.

She remembers how the LTTE forced innocent civilians into ‘human shields’ and how much hardship they faced seeking ‘life’ through showers of shelling and bombardment. “All those who didn’t leave, died there,” she whispers.

“There were bodies strewn on the road. Some died from shell and sniper attacks before our own eyes. We went through the Nandikadal lagoon to the army controlled area. There were bodies floating on the lagoon, not one was complete. They were without heads, hands and legs. The water in the lagoon was redenned with blood.

Memories filled with fear

“I remember how a pregnant woman died. A shell hit her and her body shattered into pieces. However, the baby was found to be alive. The elderly women in the group managed to disentangle the baby from her body. They gave him to the Army personnel when we met them. I heard that he is at an orphanage.” They are dark memories filled with fear and horror belonging to a time equally darkened by war. Sometimes she wonders whether it is a dream, that she is still alive, she said. Not only her neighbours and friends, she lost her family as well.

It was while they were crossing the Nandikadal lagoon that she lost her husband. It was many death traps all rolled into one. With water coming up to their necks, they had to escape the shelling as well as the deep pits which dotted the lagoon. It was only a long pole in the hand of the leader, which guided them through the mire. They held hands keeping together as a family. “I saw my husband dying. He went down as a shell hit him and fell into a deep pit. I was stuggling to find him and fell into another. Someone held onto my hair and dragged me out of the pit. I was hit by a piece of shell and was wounded on the forehead.”

The mark still visible on her forehead has its own dark story of yore. Hapless and helpless, a few who escaped with only their lives had crossed the lagoon to the Army controlled area. However, as it was night, they had to stay submerged in the lagoon till the morning next day, till the Army inspections and rescue operations began. By morning her four-year-old niece had died and her son was in a critical condition due to the long hours spent submerged in putrid lagoon water.

Wound on her forehead

While Saajirani was sent to the base hospital in Vavuniya with her son, others in their group along with about 60 people had been sent to the camp at the Vavuniya University grounds. After spending about 10 days at the hospital she came to the camp as well, said Saajirani. The inability to pay proper respect to her beloved husband at his death was a nagging factor that made her sad and depressed during her time at the camp.

Though they were transferred to the Ananda Kumaraswamy camp at Settikulam after three months, she was often falling ill due to the wound on her forehead she said. “I was having frequent ‘fits’ after I was wounded. So, they admitted me to the hospital in Vavuniya. Doctors said it was not good for me to live in a tent and sent me to live with a relative in Vavuniya. However, I didn’t want to stay there permanently. After seeing a TV advertisement for cleaners at a hotel in Vavuniya I applied and got the job. They paid me Rs. 300 per day and I worked there for some time. The war had ended by then and they were disbanding the camps and letting people go. I brought my mother and son back, kept her at our relative’s house, boarded my son at the Vavuniya Tamil High School and went back to work at the hotel.”

However, as her son started complaining that he couldn’t stay at the school boarding facility she had to leave the job and take both her mother and son to her sister’s place at Chavakachcheri, said Saajirani. She had started making snacks such as wadai and rolls for sale, distributing them through a network of boutiques around the area. Her mother had started selling fruits and other items at the weekly market. In August 2012, as part of the resettlement scheme they returned to Pudukuduyirippu, says Saajirani. “There was nothing left of our house. The area had become a shrub jungle. Each family received Rs. 25,000 and basic facilities from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

We cleared our plot and fixed our tent there. There were no facilities in the area – no schools, hospitals, not even a small boutique. So, I thought it would be good to have one. When we received small tents from another non governmental organisation (NGO), I started a small boutique there. The goods were brought in from Chavakachcheri town,” she said. That was the initial step to her entreprenial life today.

There had been goods belonging to people who escaped the war, lying around in hordes. Bicycles, motor-cycles and vehicles were collected into piles here and there, she reminisences. “The army informed us to take our goods away. The kitchen utensils were rusted and therefore useless. I only took a bicycle. They had repairmen there as well. So, I got it repaired”. What she had used the bicycle for was to collect coconuts from the surrounding areas. Waking up early she had walked the abandoned plots in the surrounding areas and collected the coconuts fallen from the trees. The fear of land-mines had kept many people away from the areas and she had be extremely cautious going in to uncharted territory, she said.

However, there was an incident that scared her off from collecting coconuts. “Once, when I was cycling back to the village the bag got loosened up and the coconuts were all strewn on the road. A man who was there at the time helped me to gather them back. However, later he tried to harass me. It made me feel disgusted. Though we faced a fierce war situation during LTTE control, we never had to face such predicaments. When I got on to my bicycle and peddled fast to reach home, he followed me. I was lucky to meet one of the villagers soon, who accompanied me home. That was the last of my coconut collection days.”

Selling essential commodities

She then started selling essential commodities such as rice, chillies, salt, sugar and onions, purchasing them at a wholesale rate from Chavakachcheri town. “Five kilos was my limit. Later, someone opened a wholesale store closer to the village. Then I started purchasing from there.”

That was the time another NGO offered a loan in kind, equivalent to Rs. 50,000. She had requested them to help her get a three wheeler, siting the problem she faced during coconut collection. They had agreed to do so, provided she had a driving license.

Though the medical certificates of the shell attack was an obstacle, listening to her story and hearing her plight had softened the hearts of the officers she had got the opportunity to apply for the driving license. Once she got the license, she had leased a three wheeler utilising the Rs. 50,000 from the NGO and savings from her hard earned money (Rs. 75,000) and had learned to drive it well. “I started packeting spices and other essentials like chilies, saffron, salt and pepper.

I had to handwrite the labels. I used to sell them in my boutique and through a few other outlets. Later, I made snacks and sold them as well.” She explains how she went looking for food and other items for sale at the Sunday Market, along with her son during the weekends. While some waited with their hands folded, she had been journeying forward slowly but surely.

It was during this time that the government had provided them with a one day training about packaging condiments and spices. The participants had been taken to Jaffna to visit some entrepreneurs already involved in the business. However, as there were many entrepreneurs engaged in the same field of business they were not very successful, said Saajirani. “That was the event that opened my eyes to the need of doing something different.”

Reading about the demand for organic food she had experimented making the children’s snack ‘tipi tip’ using gotukola concentrate which had failed. However, her experimenting on ‘papadam’ inducing gotukola concentrate had been a success. Later she had started making vegetable papadam.

It was four years ago, in 2014 that she got the opportunity to present her products at an exhibition in Kandy. “They tested my products at a research facility and accepted that they were hundred percent vegetable products. Later, they called me to Colombo and granted an award.” And now, her organic vegetable based products reach many supermarkets and shops in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi as well as the Good Market in Colombo. Fifteen women, widowed or disabled due to the war against terroism, are employed at her factory. In addition to the three wheeler, she has purchased a small van as well.

Factory not large enough

Her mother still visits the Sunday Market to sell their products, said Saajirani. While she makes around Rs.15,000 after paying her employees, the monthly profit between Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000 is reverted back into the production line. Her hopes and dreams of certification had not beeen realised for the want of a more spacious factory. “Though I applied for SLS and ISO certification, the officers who came for inspection said that the factory is not large enough to do that. We still don’t have enough profit to build such a large factory,” said Saajirani. Though politicians when they came to their village seeking votes had praised the work she does and made many promises of help to expand the factory, they are yet to be fulfilled, she said.

Asked about the future of her business, she said that she would continue it as long as she lives, helping women affected by the war. “My goal is to help war affected women like me. I’m not sure whether my son would employ these women if I hand the business over to him, so I’ll let him study and do a job of his choice,” said Saajirani.

During the exhibition at BMICH many bought her unique organic vegetable products. However, no one would have known about her unique achievement. Though the mark on her forehead was visible no one cared to inquire about it as Saajirani and her assistant laughed and talked with the customers who visited their stall.