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The Face of Suffering

The Tamil diaspora, which played a significant part in the war, now confronts a recently displaced population that is likely to seek revenge.

Frances Harrison on her recent Sri Lanka book and how writers must ensure that crimes against humanity are not forgotten.
Frances Harrison on her recent Sri Lanka book and how writers must ensure that crimes against humanity are not forgotten.

(NEW DELHI) - From 2000 to 2004, at a time when the peace process in Sri Lanka was arguably working, Frances Harrison was the chief BBC correspondent in Colombo. She made several trips to Vanni, a predominantly Tamil region and the heart of LTTE resistance in the north. “That’s when I got to know the Tigers.

Well, as much as they would let someone get to know them,” she says with a laugh. Her voice turns serious when she describes Vanni as entirely different from the rest of Sri Lanka, where schoolchildren sat on ammunition boxes in classrooms with bullet-pocked walls. They had never seen computers, and the only airplanes they knew were fighter jets, from the constant din of the government’s war. The tentative peace at the time enabled stories of trauma to surface. “Some of the women hadn’t even had the chance to mourn for their dead children. They came to Vanni to see the mass graves for the first time. I was privileged to earn their trust and bear witness to their stories,” says the British journalist.

Harrison also reported on the 2004 tsunami. Even for a population familiar with death, the ferocity with which the waves swept away communities and villages was baffling. The tsunami became the “benchmark of suffering” for the Tamils. But after the hospital bombings at Mullivaikkal, northern Sri Lanka, in 2009, their benchmark changed. And with good reason. UN estimates of the number of Tamils killed from January to May 2009 range from 40,000 to 75,000 and the figure is still changing (official government estimates remain stubbornly lower). Over 1,00,000 people from Tiger-held areas have disappeared and remain unaccounted for. The scale of the killing in the relatively small geographical area of northern Sri Lanka was worse than anything Harrison had previously witnessed as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Iran. “I’ve heard my fair share of awful stories, but these were off the scale,” says the 46-year-old in an interview in Delhi.

The subject of Harrison’s book, Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, did not emerge until 2010, after the LTTE was defeated. In 2009, she closely followed the war over the internet. She was in touch with journalists in Sri Lanka at the time, and was alarmed at how many of them were seeking exile. “I couldn’t believe that the photographers were so desperate to get out. I thought it was usually writers who got into trouble,” she says. When the UN Human Rights Commission adopted a resolution praising the Sri Lankan government after the war, she knew there was an untold story. Survivors of the war were streaming out to Europe, Australia, and Canada. The first to leave were the Tamils with foreign passports. They had returned to Sri Lanka before the war to “serve their people”, and were now desperately trying to find safety.

The book, which she wrote while a research fellow at Oxford University, intersperses hair-raising, heart-wrenching stories of escape and survival — with statistics on hospital attacks, journalists killed, number of asylum-seekers, widows and disappearances — from the government, independent observers and human rights organisations. The testimonies are thick with detail: the nun, the fighter, the shopkeeper all come to life as Harrison charts their journeys to safety. The numbers remind us that these stories represent the untold suffering of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils, who were all but entirely abandoned by the UN when their government crushed the LTTE.

Harrison travelled through Europe and Australia, interviewing survivors and documenting their testimonies. She recalls being moved to tears by a story she heard from one of her first informants. “It sounded like The Great Escape, straight out of the movie,” she says. “I soon realised that each survivor’s story was more incredible than the one before.” She tells the story of Lokeesan, a journalist for a pro-rebel news site. He recalls that toward the end of the war, the army had surrounded the Tamils, and the only way to escape was to wade through a freshwater lagoon filled with corpses. Racked with thirst, he sank to his “lowest point” and drank the same water. Another survivor, Uma, was compelled to buy a small packet of skimmed milk for Rs 3,500, though she could ill-afford it, the milk was the only source of protein she could procure for her injured husband, Bhavan. He had been shot in the leg trying to escape from the army, but was later captured. In spite of having nothing to do with the LTTE, he was tied to a tree and tortured for months. Uma escaped alone to a small suburb of London, and did not hear from Bhavan for more than a year. Although Harrison believed that Bhavan had “disappeared”, he was finally able to contact Uma and make arrangements to seek asylum in the UK.

When Harrison visited refugees in their new homes, she was struck by how spartan the homes were. “I felt a dreadful urge to put plants or flowers in their houses, to put something living there, amidst all the death,” she says. After being repeatedly displaced, perhaps they no longer held any attachment to material objects. But at another level, perhaps, they were trying to recreate the atmosphere of the refugee camp, an entirely bare space. “Many of my interviewees mentioned that their minds were elsewhere,” she says. “They were unable to assimilate in their new countries.”

The book is an attempt to go back in time and put a human face on the untold suffering of the “Sri Lanka option”: the systematic extermination of a political insurgency by deliberately keeping the rest of the world out. As the international community examines other wars, such as Syria, Harrison wants to ensure that what happened in Sri Lanka does not go unnoticed. “It’s critical for writers and lawyers to piece together the evidence, so that the government doesn’t simply get away with its war crimes,” she says. Her indictment of the UN is hard-hitting without being didactic. The international community, particularly countries in the West, signed off on the doctrine that the LTTE was a terrorist organisation, and needed to be eliminated at any cost. That was easier to accept than to address problems of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Harrison feels that without a semblance of reckoning for the dead, the vicious cycle of violence will not end. “The world needs to realise that it isn’t over in Sri Lanka. This is not a question of the individual culpability of the perpetrators of war crimes, but one of justice for the survivors,” she says. “Reconciliation” has become a dirty word, because there is no honest attempt to discuss, let alone resolve, the root causes of the conflict. By telling the human stories of this marginalised war, Harrison wants to establish that the dead still count for something.

The most challenging aspect of her research was asking Tamil survivors questions about the LTTE’s atrocities. “As a journalist, I wanted to tell both sides of the story, but found that it was too soon for the Tamils to acknowledge the crimes their side had committed. Two parallel and entirely separate narratives have emerged,” she says. The Sinhalese have their own, entirely legitimate, narrative of suffering that focuses on different events.

Harrison is deeply concerned about the war’s consequences on Sri Lanka’s children. Soldiers returning to their homes in the south have suffered unspeakable trauma that will resurface in the form of domestic violence and other social problems. The deterioration of the rule of law and an increasingly authoritarian government will have a negative impact on the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils. The Tamil diaspora, which played a significant part in the war, now confronts a recently displaced population that is likely to seek revenge. For her part, Harrison tells us their stories with a rare empathy and honesty that makes the narrative of resilience impossible to ignore.

Special thanks to Indian Express



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