Tamils suf­fer while world looks away

Still Count­ing the Dead: Sur­vivors of Sri Lanka’s Hid­den War

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kapil Komireddi Kapil Komireddi

By Frances Har­ri­son Granta, 259pp, $32.99

SRI Lanka’s civil war, hav­ing raged with vary­ing in­ten­sity for nearly four decades, ended four years ago. The out­come was ab­so­lute: the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam, who led the mil­i­tary strug­gle for a sov­er­eign Tamil home­land, were chased to their bunkers on the north­ern­most beaches of the is­land and in­cin­er­ated in in­dis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing raids. On May 18, 2009, Velupil­lai Prab­hakaran, the ruth­less leader of the LTTE, was in­ter­cepted and ex­e­cuted by Sri Lankan armed forces as he at­tempted to flee to safety. Prab­hakaran had come to per­son­ify the move­ment, and his end, so tawdry, be­came the em­blem of Tamil de­feat and Sin­halese tri­umph. The govern­ment de­clared vic­tory and many thou­sands of or­di­nary Sin­halese, radiating eth­nic pride, con­gre­gated on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, to re­joice.

The for­mer Tamil bas­tions in the north and east con­tin­ued to smoul­der as the army con­ducted ‘‘ mop-up’’ op­er­a­tions. To be­come en­tan­gled in th­ese was to be ex­posed to bru­tal­ity be­yond de­scrip­tion, to en­dure the al­most lim­it­less ca­pac­ity of hu­man be­ings to in­flict pain on de­fence­less peo­ple for no other rea­son than that they can.

Sin­halese soldiers, long ac­cus­tomed to imag­in­ing Tamils, with whom they had no mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tion, as in­domitable agents of mass mur­der, erupted with an un­con­tain­able fury af­ter van­quish­ing them. The videos of Sin­halese soldiers sum­mar­ily ex­e­cut­ing Tamil men, and the clips show­ing trucks piled high with the naked corpses of raped young women, can­not eas­ily be erased from the minds of those who sur­vived the fight­ing but re­main cap­tive to its ex­pe­ri­ence. To them, the con­tin­u­ing re­luc­tance of the world to recog­nise their trauma is an ex­ten­sion of the tor­ment they suf­fered on the bat­tle­field.

In this ex­tra­or­di­nary book, Frances Har­ri­son, a for­mer BBC cor­re­spon­dent in Sri Lanka, records the tes­ti­monies of sur­vivors of the war. Barred from vis­it­ing Sri Lanka by its govern­ment, she trav­els to Aus­tralia, Bri­tain, Nor­way, Ger­many and other undis­closed places to meet the Tamils who, phys­i­cally dis­placed by the war, are now psy­cho­log­i­cally des­ic­cated by its mem­ory. She tracks down a Tamil jour­nal­ist who filed re­ports from the scene for as long as he could, be­fore de­cid­ing to cross over with his fa­ther to the govern­ment-held side. It was a short jour­ney to Manik Farm, the im­mense refugee camp ad­min­is­tered by the govern­ment, but each step be­came a ne­go­ti­a­tion with death. They saw corpses every­where — strewn across the land, float­ing in the la­goons — as fighter jets pounded the forests from the skies and shells landed from ev­ery side. Fi­nally, when they reached the govern­ment side, fa­ther and son were stripped and led to a long queue of other naked Tamils await­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion. They were among the lucky ones; the less for­tu­nate sim­ply dis­ap­peared.

The de­ten­tion cen­tre, for a while the world’s largest, was a squalid theatre of hu­mil­i­a­tion and per­se­cu­tion. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials car­ried out raids on the tents at night; young men who sur­ren­dered them­selves for in­ter­ro­ga­tion af­ter their names were an­nounced on the PA sys­tem of­ten never re­turned. A Tamil shop­keeper with shat­tered legs, now seek­ing asy­lum in Aus­tralia, rec­ol­lects be­ing dragged from the hos­pi­tal by army of­fi­cials and made to wit­ness five ex­e­cu­tions, each with a sin­gle bul­let to the back of the head. For the women, ev­ery day, ev­ery night, al­most ev­ery mo­ment in that camp be­came an or­deal. ‘‘ The Sri Lankan se­cu­rity forces,’’ as Hu­man Rights Watch put it, ‘‘ com­mit­ted un­told num­bers of rapes of Tamil men and women in cus­tody.’’

The lives of those who re­mained out­side the camp were hardly any more se­cure. Har­ri­son meets a young fe­male refugee in Lon­don, the wife of a pos­si­ble Tamil Tiger col­lab­o­ra­tor, who was picked up one evening from her home and taken to a villa to iden­tify two blind­folded men. She was locked up in a room by two of­fi­cers, both drunk. Hours later, one of them en­tered the room. In her own words, recorded by Har­ri­son: He was like a gi­ant; he came close to me and I moved back. ‘ Ac­tu­ally you are very beau­ti­ful,’ he said. I was ter­ri­fied. He pulled at my cot­ton scarf but I didn’t let him take it. Then he slapped me so hard on my face that I fell on the floor. Be­fore I knew it he took a pair of hand­cuffs and he snapped one round my wrist and the other round the chair so I couldn’t es­cape. I tried to fight with him. I was just con­scious. But he slapped me three or four times and re­moved my trousers. At the time I was 40 days preg­nant and I started to bleed. Raped by both men, she had a mis­car­riage. Har­ri­son tells other, more hope­ful sto­ries of courage and com­pas­sion — of a nun who, at tremen­dous risk, nursed the in­jured in the Tamil scrub­lands through the war; of a doc­tor who per­formed surg­eries with barely any equip­ment, in the end do­nat­ing his own blood to save a pa­tient as bombs dropped around them. But the over­whelm­ing feel­ing is of de­spair: ‘‘ I felt sad to have been born as a hu­man be­ing,’’ one sur­vivor tells Har­ri­son.

Democ­racy in Sri Lanka has been on a ven­ti­la­tor since the end of the civil war. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery im­por­tant govern­ment post is now held by a mem­ber of Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s fam­ily. Their con­duct, far from heal­ing the wounds of the con­flict, has deep­ened them. As Har­ri­son warns, the only de­fence against an­other out­break of Tamil in­sur­gency is to rein­vent Sri Lankan na­tion­al­ism in ways that will make it pos­si­ble for all its in­hab­i­tants to ex­press their iden­tity. Un­til then, the rest of the world, which with its si­lence ac­qui­esced in the crimes com­mit­ted in 2009, has a moral obli­ga­tion to con­tinue count­ing the dead.

Sri Lankan Tamils in the coun­try’s govern­ment-run Manik Farm refugee camp in De­cem­ber 2009

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