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