Deepa Bhasthi traces the bleeding away of innocence from the memories of those who have had loved ones, homes, and entire ways of life ripped from them by the generations-long civil war in Sri Lanka.
I used to ride pillion to school sometimes, on a big boys’ bicycle, behind my friend V. We rode along quiet lanes lined with tall trees and pretty houses, talking and giggling away like the schoolgirls we were. It sounds idyllic now, as must most childhood memories. But there was a war underway not too far from where we rode bicycles or sometimes walked to school. Some days when we walked, V told me stories of the war. She was there; her family had managed to escape.
Those days don’t seem very idyllic now when I look over my shoulder 20 years ago, in the city I can only call Madras, never Chennai. Across the Bay of Bengal sea-line, the Sri Lankan civil war was already a decade old by then. The cries for a Tamil land were getting louder, killings and crimes by both sides – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese Army – were escalating, Rajiv Gandhi had already been assassinated, and refugees were leaving Sri Lanka by the thousands – several stopping over in Madras for months, years, till their visas (for Australia, UK or elsewhere) arrived.
How to do you reconcile the beauty of the lagoon-blue beach just five minutes from your house to the smells of blood and broken limbs? How do you reconcile continued feelings of thirst to the reality that all you got at the refugee camp was water the colour of pale mud?
There isn’t anything idyllic about war, not when you are walking down safe roads listening to stories you could never relate to, for you never were shot at, even if in lazy warning, by an army man hovering slowly over your backyard in a helicopter. It changes something, even if, at the time when you heard these stories, they didn’t strike you as raw and heart-wrenching and cruel, as it does when you revisit those half remembered stories two decades later. It changes the people whose fathers returned dead three days after they were taken for questioning. It changes something in those who walk past decaying bodies by the roadside, bodies their families are too afraid to claim, or perhaps there are none left to do so. It changes how you see the world when you leave your home behind, knowing you will never return, never again ride the cycle that your father bought for you and taught you to ride on, never again see the chair that was your father’s favourite.
How to do you reconcile the beauty of the lagoon-blue beach just five minutes from your house to the smells of blood and broken limbs? How do you reconcile continued feelings of thirst to the reality that all you got at the refugee camp was water the colour of pale mud? How do you not walk around with a messed up head after all this?
The thing is, you don’t. The years go by but drawing room conversations in Tamil households still concentrate on the trickle of news and talk that travels somehow – from Mullaitivu and Batticaloa and Kilinochchi – of people killed and of things that could be done. One man’s terrorist was another’s freedom fighter, as the history of wars has always shown.
It changes you, trying to live through these things. If you aren’t lucky enough to have died already, it kills in you the mild innocence with which other humans, untouched by such deaths, spend their lives. Something dies when you have seen what humans are really, really capable of. For those of us who listen to these stories, these are just stories, other people’s stories to half remember, half forget.
It is nearly five years now, since the summer of 2009 when unheard names of towns and districts appeared everyday on the front pages of newspapers and the rest of the world sat through another primetime televised war. Valvettithurai, Trincomalee and others are names that, like our Kargil and Poonch, had little business to be in the world’s consciousness, were it not for the wars, the atrocities, the all-around human rights violations. For war doesn’t sympathise, or take sides. There really are no winners.
Five years later, the United Nations wants to see Sri Lanka do something about those 25 years, 9 months, 3 weeks and 4 days when everyone killed, everyone died. Colombo has been insisting that its troops committed no war crimes, but that’s logically impossible, for there can never be a just war. Isn’t that fact as old as the hills? Isn’t it perfectly clear when you read about all the precedents of wars the world over? The rebels didn’t do any better either. The international call is for an independent probe into alleged human rights violations from both the Sinhalese army and the separatists, led by the LTTE. The focus is especially on the final months of the war, when the government’s no-holds-barred offensive and a desperate last thrust by the rebels led to the death of tens of thousands of civilians (a United Nations report estimates casualties of 40,000, mainly Tamil civilians). This is apart from the million or so who died or disappeared in the years that passed before.
Perhaps closure is all that justice can bring, if there ever is any manner of justice. V refuses to talk about the past; she says it’s all over. Yet, she joins a semi-nunnery and sees a shrink to deal with her stories. Others I have known walk around with rage in their hearts and smiles on their faces that rarely reach their eyes.
The clamour for this independent probe is getting louder. Yet countries like Russia and China insist it is a matter of Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, even as the island, whose history gives it poetic names – Teardrop of India, Serendib – insists that such a probe could only bring chaos, that its national reconciliation process must be given some more years to bring harmony between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. India, which once tried to be the big brother of the sub-continental nations and scorched its fingers badly, hasn’t decided yet what it wants to say on the matter. It mustn’t be easy trying to please everyone from Sri Lanka to the US to Jayalalithaa.
Trying anyone in international human rights courts wouldn’t bring back V’s father, or the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, and children of an entire nation where a few generations grew up in the shadow of guns, never knowing innocence, never knowing what having no fear felt like. Perhaps closure is all that justice can bring, if there ever is any manner of justice. V refuses to talk about the past; she says it’s all over. Yet, she joins a semi-nunnery and sees a shrink to deal with her stories. Others I have known walk around with rage in their hearts and smiles on their faces that rarely reach their eyes. They move on and marry and have children and work at normal desk jobs and play cricket during the weekends, but the abandonment of home is something they will not talk about.
These aren’t just V’s stories, or those of the other Sri Lankan Tamil refugees I studied and made friends with two decades ago. This is the story of every Sinhalese, every Tamil, and every human whose life has been robbed of its innocence by war. Justice, closure and time are words we use when we try to build a life from among the shards. But the thing is, some stories aren’t written with a period to mark their end.