I Was in Colombo Yesterday

Written 19th May 2009

I was in Colombo yesterday, the day they overran the LTTE.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t a world event. It made international headlines for a couple of days. The overthrow of a notorious rebel group. The slaughter of a group of men dubbed psychopaths and meglomaniacs, along with several hundred of their most stalwart fighters. More than thirty years of implied and overt conflict, finally brought to a bloody and inauspicious end at the edge of a salty lagoon on a strip of sandy coastline that few people- other than its locals- have ever seen or heard of- let alone know how to pronounce properly. Mired in controversy amidst allegations of human rights abuses on all sides and the alleged slaughter of cilivians.

The Sri Lankan Tamils are a group of people beleaguered by misfortune. Brought to this beautiful island two centuries ago to work in British tea plantations, they have been outsiders in a land they have wanted to claim as their own. In some parts marginalized and viewed as aliens, for thirty years and longer they have faced abuse, violence and displacement.

To add to their woes, they found themselves with a vociferous and vicious extremist edge, a group of men who claimed to represent them to the world who used propaganda, totalitarianism and extreme violence to communicate what was a legitimate call for equity and freedom where these two basic rights were missing. Asassination, mass killings, and terror attacks became hallmarks of the movement, and the same was returned to them with equal and greater measure. As often as not, it was the moderate Tamils themselves who suffered at the hands of the LTTE.

It’s a well-trodden cliche to point out that in any war of this sort, most people just want to live in peace, and the same is as true in northern Sri Lanka as it is in Gaza. And equally overlooked.

I won’t miss the LTTE. Theirs was a vicious regime, and its legacy will be the memory that in its last days it held hundreds of thousands of non-combattants against their will as human shields where it was plain to see that thousands would die as a result of the government onslaught. For several long months at the beginning of 2009, there is no doubt that the very worst place on earth was not war-torn Iraq or the IDP camps of Darfur, but the twenty-square-kilometre area designated the ‘safe zone’, a picturesque beach void of clean water, shelter or food, where shells and mortar-fire rained indiscriminately down among families. Men, women and children were torn into pieces by high-explosive rounds and burning shrapnel. It is likely the world will never know for sure just how many died during the weeks of combat, but what we do know is that the civilians who did come out of that place lived through as close a picture of hell as this world has ever known.

That warfighting ended yesterday.  But that said, there was no cause for celebration.

For the majority Sinhala population, the LTTE have been a blight on the land. For decades they have run an alternative governance system in the territory they have controlled in the north of the country, reaching out to carry out suicide bombings and killing-sprees even as government forces and militia groups have responded in-kind or with escalations out of sight of the urbane urbanites whose existence is otherwise interupted by the violent reminders of a struggle for independance. More recently, a media increasingly subservient to a militarizing regime has sown seeds of ignorance, polarization and hatred. The Tamil struggle for recognition was reframed as nothing more than a terrorist movement, its leaders demonized, its followers relegated to the legitimate target of artillery shells and government gunfire. The humanity of the situation was lost.

I sat in a taxi yesterday evening. Victory had been declared at lunchtime, and all afternoon the city was rocked by explosions as celebrating crowds let off loud firecrackers. Cheering and whistling supporters flocked to public places. National flags hung from every ballustrade and fluttered on every fender. The driver was beaming.

“Prabhakaran, family, all dead,” he gloated, referring to the LTTE’s leader who is as household a name in Sri Lanka as Osama bin Laden is in the States. I nodded graciously. Prabhakaran’s son had indeed been found dead among the piles of bodies, although his wife and daughters were living in the UK in exile. Something about his grin made me feel a little sick. Victory is one thing. Finding pleasure in the death of humans is another.

And there’s more to it than that, of course. While the media lauds the accomplishments of the military and government with sicophantic overtones, the truth that nobody here acknowledges is that the current military conquest of northern Sri Lanka is nothing more than a chapter in the struggles this island faces. Killed on the beaches near Mullaitivu, the majority of LTTE fighters have been killed, but hundreds more are believed to be hiding in the dense jungles across the north of the country, thousands more lurking among the quarter of a million displaced people currently being housed in detention centres thinly disguised as wretched relief-camps. Worse still, the brutality with which the army has crushed the rebellion, and the disregard that it paid for the lives of the Tamil hostages, will have only fueled fresh and renewed hatred in many of the disenfranchised. Boys and girls who watched loved ones blown into pieces will not quickly learn to love the forces who claim to be their liberators. The calm may last a week. It may last a year. It may even last two or three. But the bombings, the killings, and eventually the fighting, will return in one guise or another to this beautiful paradise.

As the city rejoiced yesterday, I felt uneasy. There was a restlessness, a darkness that seemed to hang over the place. Maybe it was the way the celebratory firecrackers were hollow echoes of the fierce gunbattles that had annihilated ten, maybe twenty-thousand lives over recent weeks, just a few hours’ drive north of here. Maybe it was the bigotry and chauvanism that the population celebrated, choosing to forget about- or perhaps genuinely believing- the reports of thousands of innocent men, women and children being violently killed on a picturesque beach so recently. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the fete was built on such dark and fragile foundations. Regardless, I saw the waving flags and the cheering crowds, and listened to the gloat of the people I spoke to, revelling in the slaughter that had taken place that morning, and I felt only deep sadness.

A storm blew in that evening. Blustery and violent, it brought the city to a halt and emptied the streets. Rain poured from the sky in great tropical sheaves, diagonal and unrelenting. Streaming in funnels past sodium spotlights it roared and thrummed, flooding gutters and washing openly across parking-lots. I’m not supersititious. I don’t believe it had any significance. But it reflected the turmoil in my soul magnificently.

Talk about raining on your parade.

Today again there were celebrations. Flags in every doorway, waving from car windows, blowing from streetlamps and overhead cables. Whistling and cheering. More firecrackers. Big ones. Ones that make windows rattle. Jet aircraft screamed low over the city in loops. Helicopters made the air tremble as they swept overhead. Traffic was chaos as convoys of bigwigs were ferried to and from parliament to hear speeches of victory and reassurance, roads closed. I watched the Admiral of the Navy rush past in his black sedan, guarded by a team of bodyguards on high-speed bikes and commandoes with MP-5 submachine-guns in open-backed jeeps, faces fierce and guns locked against shoulders, scanning for any signs of danger as they sped through the city streets.

I thought to myself, this is freedom?

I rationalised it by imagining what it might have looked like in a small Texas town, had Mr. Bush’s forces killed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan back in late 2002. The flags, the honking, the jubilance. Probably, Colombo showed restraint. Certainly there were less people firing guns into the air than I imagine would have been found in Texas. But that said, I also hope that if the process had claimed the lives of thousands of Afghan civilians over a few weeks of air-strikes, that celebration might be at least a little tempered and rational. Who knows. I’ve already expressed my feelings on the rhetoric of terrorism here, and there’s no value in playing what-ifs.

I hope peace comes to Sri Lanka. I genuinely do. It is a beautiful country with warm people and so much to offer. I’d like to be able to say that, given what I’ve seen here over the past couple of months, I feel positive for its future. But truth be told, barring a real miracle, I can only hope that my own children will not be reading about violence in Sri Lanka when they are my age. When I leave here next week, I will continue to carry the country in a special place in my heart- as I have done for every country I have worked in- but it will be a place weighted with concern.

Author’s Note: The politics, cultural interpretation and critical opinion on the conflict in Sri Lanka between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka is a highly polarized one, and one loaded with a rhetoric of hatred. The time at which I wrote the below article, which was as the conflict unfolded and climaxed, was a time of great vitriol in both the media and the population. It was a dichotomous time in that it was both a great tragedy in the loss of life, and a cause for celebration for many. Feelings and opinions remain sharply divided, and arguments on both sides of the fence are bitter.

This piece is a reflection of my own response to the conflict, and was written first and foremost to help me process the turmoil of feelings I was experiencing watching the crisis unfold. It was written on the back of nearly three months working in Sri Lanka supporting people affected by the conflict, being intimate with the actors and receiving reports from people caught up in the fighting- often very distressing. As a result, my own emotions are caught up in the piece. I do not, therefore, claim that it is an unbiased article or one that captures the whole truth of the situation.

In reading through this I would ask you to bear this in mind. I welcome response, but would ask that likewise you would be gracious in your choice of words, however you may feel about the situation in Sri Lanka. I will not publish comments that are aggressive or abusive in tone. I am happy to see this blog as a place for discussion of important and difficult subject matter and where opinions can be expressed, but want the atmosphere to be one of mutual respect.

Thanks for your understanding.

5 comments on “I Was in Colombo Yesterday

  1. To the author

    Thankyou for your blog. As a person formally from Sri Lanka I found it to be of great interest. I noticed that you have not included your name on the article. I do not blame you as I have witnessed the abuse and disrespect that many commenting on the subject matter level against authors. It is sad, that on this particular subject matter, people who seek to speak the truth or simply outline descriptions of what they see are subject to such unacceptable behaviour.

    I do not seek to correct your opinion or your descriptions of what you saw – something you are more than entitled to. I just wanted to raise a couple of factual points that you outline in your piece, errors in my opinion that have led to the impression of weakening your otherwise more than legitimate interpretation of the situation.

    Firstly, Sri Lankan Tamils were not brought to the island 200 years ago my the british. The group referred to in Sri Lanka’s demographic data as Indian Tamils were the Tamils brought to Sri Lanka by the british for the purpose of tea picking 200 years ago. They are largely based around the country’s tea plantations. However the Tamils from North East Sri Lanka, known in demographic data as Sri Lankan Tamils, the ones that fought for an independant state, moved to the island, from south india over 2500 years ago. They were originally Malayalies from Kerela, and changed to speaking Tamils due to Tamils being the regional superpower. Ironically, Singhalese are also originally from Kerela and when buddhism spread to SL, as buddhist texts were written in Pali, they eventually converted to speaking Singhalese, which is a dialect that comes from Pali. Tamil on the other hand is a classical language.

    Secondly, the rumour that Prabhakaran’s family, particularly his daughter and eldest son were based in the UK was a rumour instigated by the Sinhala establishment. According to the SL government and the Sinhala diaspora, they were both suppossed to be residing in Ireland. However, oncle his eldest son’s body was found, the government could not help themselves but boast. If you note one of the LTTE’s press releases from May 2009, K.P Reji, the then leader of the LTTE, acknowledges the deaths of both Prabhakaran’s eldest son, Charles Anthony and his daughter Dwareka during battle. I note that in your discussion you have not accounted for Prabhakaran’s 12 year old son. It is amazing how the SL propaganda machinery, if followed and copied, make small mistakes naked to the layman let highly evident to the learned.

    I hope you continue to write your descriptions and opinions, however for the sake of your observation’s credibility, I simply ask that you pay due diligence to ensuring that your basic facts are accountable, otherwise it will only leave opportuinty for the sceptics to question your position.


    • Many thanks Kris for your courteous and informative response, and I happily stand corrected on the facts you provide. I was not aware of the difference between the Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils, so thanks for pointing that out. As merely an observer- as opposed to a researcher or a journalist- my posts are built on what I have access to in my surroundings and as I learn about the places I’m working in, so it’s inevitable that certain details will be either skewed or missed here and there. Thanks for being gracious in pointing those out.

      As you observe I don’t post my full name on this blog as it is a place where I want to feel free to raise particular issues freely without compromising either my organization or my own ability to visit certain restricted contexts.

      All the best.

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