Tamils suffer while world looks away
Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War
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