Through my Father’s eyes: reflections on post-war Sri Lanka 

Through my Father’s eyes: reflections on post-war Sri Lanka 
During the civil war and in the initial aftermath, I wasn’t allowed to travel to my Fatherland, Sri Lanka. Teenage angst aside, I could understand my father’s reasons – being Tamil put us on the ‘wrong side’ of things. In 2013/14, almost five years after the civil war ended, I finally made my maiden voyage and felt compelled to share that which I witnessed and absorbed during my visit. 

The people here are still at war… With greed, power and inhumanity. They are still fighting each and everyday, for survival, to recover, rebuild and revive the life they once knew, and they are doing it with the grace and dignity of kings and queens. Every single person I’ve met during my time here has in some way been affected by the war. Has lost someone, if not many people, dear to them. Has lost their home.

I’ve heard stories that will stay with me always. I’ve closed my eyes and tried to imagine the experiences that have been described to me. To be a 12 year old girl terrified to go to sleep each night in what should have been a “no fire zone” – a place of safety. Only to awake to dead bodies on either side of me. To be deathly thirsty that my only choice is to close my eyes and drink the only water I can find… The flowing blood red stream in front of me.

To be carrying my injured sister through shelling and shooting by fighter planes trying in vain to keep my wife and two young daughters out of harms way, only to later lose my sister … And be refused the right to respectfully say goodbye to her, forced to add her body to a pile of other sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.

If these haunting images weren’t enough, I’m also told of 30 newborn babies that were given up due to them being a product of rape during the war. Whilst rape is something that has become so commonplace in wars the world over, it will never cease to rattle me to my core when I think of the extra burdens that women – and girls – must bare as a simple result of being female. Being desirable and desired. And being thought of as something that can be taken, without consent. The brutality of this lingers with me. In a society with strict cultural codes and beliefs, these women will most likely now be seen as damaged and dirty, undignified and unworthy. Through no fault of their own. As a mother now, I put myself in the shoes of those 30 mothers (and countless more during the course of the 30-year-long war) and feel the flood of grief that would have ensued from carrying and giving away my child, the most innocent victim of them all. To not know who will be caring for them now, who will be feeding them, who will be loving them.

There are still displaced people living in “temporary accommodation” – which was explained to me as usually being a sheet of tarpaulin given to them by international NGOs. Nothing else to protect them from  the elements (monsoon season approaches) or wild elephants which frequently damage the camps. How is it justifiable that almost five years since the end of the war, people have still not been re-housed, or given more substantial shelter? Many Tamils have had their land, in the north part of the country (such as in Jaffna),  given away to army personnel. The painful irony is not lost on me.

My partner told me of an African proverb that comes to mind:

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

No truer is this expression than during a war, where the very soul of the country, its people, suffer at the hands of those who are chosen to protect and advocate for them.
Sadly, in most cases, the ‘chosen ones’ instead serve their own agendas, line their own pockets, preserve their own privilege – all the expense of those they were chosen by and for. Sri Lanka is no exception, with its garish Government promoting itself as victors against ‘terrorists’ while the world looked on as yet another genocide took place before their eyes. That the grass suffered is an understatement. It was trampled, brutalised, betrayed and destroyed. The psychological and emotional scars of which will remain for generations to come.

We encountered a Museum of Weapons in Mullativu (established to “beautify” the area) and a MiG fighter jet mounted in the centre of Colombo – a grotesque display of deep seated fears if ever I saw one. The supposed powerful instrument of death that finally brought down the Tamil Tigers, in reality was used to drop bombs repeatedly on the “no fire zone” where civilians were ushered into during the final days of the war. It is here that they remained trapped until they met their inevitable and untimely deaths.

Bombs, Museum of Weapons, Mullativu

Bullets, Museum of Weapons, Mullativu

 

Despite the horrors experienced by people here, they are some of the kindest and most welcoming I have ever met on my travels. They reminisce fondly to a time when they were close friends with their neighbours, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. Tamils and Sinhalese lived together peacefully and passionately, with many a mixed marriage to prove it.

Today, there are still bridges to be built, hearts to heal and scars to love anyway, before people can return to their harmonious co-existence.

My heart has been broken and filled in equal measure. My Spirit is still wandering the damaged streets of Vavuniya and trying to find pieces of the home my father grew up in in Jaffna. My Soul, however, knows without a shadow of a doubt that after the storm, the sun will always shine, and that the grass will grow back strong, healthy and full of optimism. 

All that remains of my Grandparent’s home, Jaffna


Note: the full collection of photos from the Museum of Weapons can be found here.

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“Home”

People often look at me like I’m a little kooky when it comes up in discussion that I don’t believe in mortgages. I then struggle to detangle and explain what I mean by that. To be clear, I am fully aware of their existence, evident in the millions of people who are attached to one if not more, worldwide. However, I do not believe in them for the same reason I do not believe in, and have no intention of ever possessing, a credit card – I do not think they bring us happiness. Further yet, I think it’s very possible that they destroy the possibility of attaining happiness.

Personally, I don’t agree with buying beyond my means. I don’t believe in owing vast amounts of money to a “suited fat cat” somewhere who keeps adding figures to the amount I owe. If possible, I’d like to live my whole life avoiding the damage that this type of entrapment can cause to one’s state of mind, being and health. Not to speak of the financial repercussions on a country, continent, global population, shackling of people into a borrowing culture from which they eventually cannot escape.

Stubbornly refusing to ever succumb to a mortgage however, does not mean that I do not want to be a homeowner; that I do not desire a stable place to call our own, where a family can grow together and nurture one another. I simply do not want to accomplish it with money that I do not have, that I will consequently spend the majority if not all of my life paying back. And so, I am met with quizzical looks and defeatist remarks “but that’s impossible.”

Is it?

Have we forgotten that nothing is impossible? Have we lost faith in ourselves? In our own ability to achieve our ambitions and dreams in our own way? People tell me a mortgage is basically an unavoidable symptom of our generation and era in which we live, one that I must accept in order to be a homeowner. I attempt to share with them what I think is valuable information on affordable methods of building your own home – but am usually met with the same strange looks and questions like “…so you want to live in a mud hut..?”

Hm.

I try to clarify, to explain this is just one eco-friendly technique that has been used for centuries and is just an example of many options that could enable a mortgage-free home ownership. The possibilities are vast – methods which have been adapted and perfected to suit the environment, using materials which can be locally sourced. I see from the looks on people’s faces that not everyone will understand me, but that’s ok.

We are building ourselves a humble home on a small island, a two-minute boat ride from Lagos. The roads are sandy throughout, soft white beach sand, which means a constant workout for your calves and thighs (but I enjoy it!) There are no motorized vehicles on the island, which means no fumes, no smog. Even though there is currently no electricity on the island since a ship destroyed the power line, very few people use generators – improving the air a thousand fold compared with mainland Lagos. Mango and cashew trees grow wild and coconut palms decorate the otherwise clear blue skyline. There is an abundance of wildlife – from the usual lizards, goats and chickens, to dragonflies, tropical birds and the best sighting so far – monkeys.

The land was bought for a fair price from the indigenous people of the island. Ideally, we would have to liked to have used mud and straw – a durable and long lasting method of building –  but those are not locally available materials and would have had to be sourced from another state, adding unnecessary cost and carbon footprints. So far, the place is as close to perfect as possible bar the unavoidable exceptions such as the local “area boys” collecting money for each vital stage of your building process such as the foundation or roofing. I put up as best a fight as possible but you have very little choice in paying up unless you want your materials scattered in the night – a small reminder that we are still in Lagos, and still very much in Nigeria where this financial burden has become the norm for anyone wanting to build a home.

Still, we are building our house within our means and with the help of close friends lending their expertise and knowledge where possible. By visiting the site daily to help out in anyway with the construction I have already learnt a lot about the place that will soon bare the name “home” for me. Although we may not live there permanently (because who knows what the future holds) it still fuels and excites us to be part of such an organic project, and to be there for every stage of the building process.

My eight year old neighbour-to-be, and so far my favourite person on the island, Dare, teaches me new things daily. He explains to me with a shine in his eyes the best way to grow pawpaw and mangoes. He also sweetly confessed that it was he who set our land on fire, to chase away a snake and make sure it wouldn’t build a nest in our roofing materials. I love to watch him running around, bare foot, carefree, chasing insects and various wildlife, climbing a cashew tree to pick fruit for all those shouting his name from the ground below, helping to fetch water from the well, tending to the chickens or preparing his family’s dinner on an open wood fire outside. He is a breath of fresh air and gives credit to why I’ve always thought a place like this would be a dream for children to grow up in. Immersed in nature, they not only understand the importance of living in harmony with the treats that mother earth has blessed us with but they also appreciate their environment and make the most of its natural benefits.

It may take some time, but one day we will be able to call it “home.” A home away from home in London. A home in the sunshine surrounded by a still lagoon. Best of all, a home which was built without having given a penny or cobalt of our money to a bank or mortgage company – which in my opinion (and it is truly my own), enslave people who simply want a place to call their own.