Sri Lanka: Civilians and reporters condemned to a 'fearful silence' on atrocities
Several writers now in Sri Lanka agreed to send GlobalPost some ground truth, if we agreed to protect their identities. Here is their take on what it's like there now:
Around the world people are protesting the situation in Sri Lanka: after decades of civil war, at least 100,000 Tamil civilians, and maybe triple that, are caught between the Tamil Tigers, who refuse to let them travel freely, and the Sri Lankan government, which refuses to stop firing at them. Elsewhere, people protest. They may not know the nuances of the situation, but they are not quiet. They feel free to speak.
In Sri Lanka, though, I see only a few brave voices of protest or dissent. Around Independence Day, on Feb. 4, people walked or drove past increased security details at major landmarks like the Galle Face, shopping centers, or government buildings. Even now that the holiday has passed, checkpoints and silence seem routine. The police motion to vehicles, and their drivers pull over. Passengers take out identity cards and passports. Apartments are searched and their occupants registered. And people whisper. Those who speak at normal volume tend to agree with those in power. Journalists begin to flee.
Sri Lankan newspapers and television channels don't seem to be running the disturbing images of the north that you can see in other countries, or other channels — footage of patients in hospitals that have been bombed, children with amputations, trapped and innocent civilians.
We may be about to see a large-scale and complicated killing of people from a minority group that has historically faced discrimination in Sri Lanka, and most people here, even people of that ethnicity, will not protest loudly or publicly. They don't think they can do so and remain safe. You could walk around the capital city of Colombo and not know, not really, what is going on in the north. People who object might talk about it in corners, with known friends, under their breath — and then change the subject. The government, the Tigers, and their respective extremist supporters have damned Sri Lanka with a fearful silence. And so: genocide, quietly?
A citizen journalist
Motorcycles that follow close behind are fear. The letter box at the junction is fear. The ringing of a telephone is fear. Each email is fear. We channel surf fear. We listen to it on jingles. In the nervous laughter of journalists. Words which no longer appear, people who have disappeared. The firecrackers lit celebrate terror against terror. Editors culled by sharp instruments jabbed to their necks. A vicious defense secretary who goes for the jugular. A racist Army Commander who believes Sri Lanka belongs to his people. Everything, everyone consumed by war. An economy crumbling, rendering grotesque the nightlife bling in Colombo.
How can one capture life under a brutal regime? How can one capture the hate for the Tamil Tigers consuming our democracy, our identity, our self-respect, our hope? How do we communicate the loss of peace amidst the tumescent battle cries? How do we grieve, when to cry is traitorous? To be a patriot then, we need to inure ourselves from reality. The willing suspension of disbelief. A fiction, compelling, all consuming, all day, all night. We need to live many lives with many faces. We need to survive the daily compromises. No recipe here — each day brings its own madness.
Sri Lanka is home, loved first. Loved the most. It is dying in front of us. We are dying in this beautiful, bountiful land of the Buddha. Help us find ourselves again.
A visitor to Hill Country
The bus approaches the army checkpoint. The conductor asks everyone, except the elderly, children, and pregnant women, to get down and form a line in front of the army officer. I look around at the faces of my fellow travelers — all of them Hill Country (Malaiyaha) Tamils. I search for signs of exasperation but find none. For this community, the institutionalized scrutiny of a National Identity Card, a feature-laden face, a pottu, has become something as ordinary as the tea bushes that line the landscape that their ancestors and families have toiled since the early nineteenth century. From the womb to the tomb, a former planter said assuredly, the tea estate worker and their family will be taken care of. Somehow, this does not feel like one of those idyllic moments.
I get down from the bus. Every ID is checked carefully by the officer. He is not unkind, but he is doing his job. One man is asked to open his briefcase. There is nothing but papers inside. When I hand him my passport, he says, "United States of America ... ." I stare back and say, "yes," in the most America accent I can put forth. He stares at my face and into my eyes. He looks back down at the passport and stares some more, almost unwilling to accept it as my identification, for I look like a Sri Lankan, no? "But where are you from?" he asks. I look blankly and say, "The United States of America. I was born there." The people behind me begin to stare around my body, trying to ascertain why it is taking so long. He looks through my passport, which has never before been touched by as many hands as since I arrived in Sri Lanka. After another 10 seconds, he gives the passport back, waving me toward the second line of people that have formed to get back on the bus. Everything is fine, but my heart is still racing.
Once we are all back on the bus and moving along, the conductor chuckles and says, "What, you didn't have any ID?" I say, "I did" and smile back. I've learned the game and all its tricks. I know not to pronounce my heritage, even though I am proud of it. I know that it is unwise to even try to explain it. I do not want the extra attention and neither do the Malaiyaha Tamils around me. Despite their disenfranchisement, repatriation to India, perpetual fear, and the burning of their homes and bodies in the hills, Malaiyaham is their home. We are not terrorists. There is no single Tamil voice in Sri Lanka. This is just a bus ride in the Hill Country.
After decades of violence and hardship, those who have endured the exacting toll of Sri Lanka's conflict for so many years stand at the precipice of an unforgettable moment in their country's history. Are we nearing the end? Is this a time for renewed optimism and hope? Or will the island become mired in violence and suffering once again? And most importantly, what will become of the hundreds of thousands still caught behind the front lines?
Unfortunately, the possible answers now come only from speculation and guesswork. Yet, there are a number of things of which we can be certain. As if part of some twisted game of political chess, those currently trapped in the combat zone have been used as disposable pawns in a highly politicized environment in which there are no humans or human rights, simply means to an end. This exploitation is not exclusive to one group of combatants; it is universal. The government has long oppressed the minority populations in the North and East, and there is a long history of targeting these people in war, denying basic aid, and more. Of this we are certain. Yet, this upsurge in violence in the Northeast over the past year should have made it equally clear to all that the Tamil Tigers have, and continues to, use the very people they claim to represent as political tools to achieve their goals. Too many people now taking refuge in Colombo have stories of being driven from their homeland by their so-called protectors. Too many have been lost to this nonsensical violence that has, after decades of conflict, produced a protracted suffering and not a political resolution.
At this time, during these darkest of days in Sri Lanka, let us refocus our attention once again on the people themselves. All political parties and forces in Sri Lanka have clearly lost sight of the people and their needs. The government routinely rounds up persons of Tamil descent and holds them for no reason under the emergency terrorism law. Through checkpoints and other bureaucracy, they harass and stifle the movement and efforts of these people. In the war zones, they find their hospitals and orphanages as targets. Dissent is strictly forbidden by all parties. In fact, freedom of speech in Sri Lank has never been so repressed as it is today. Conversations are reduced to a whisper, and human rights have become an untouchable topic. Journalists, even the brave ones who refuse to buy into the propaganda put forth by the government or the Tamil Tigers, now choose their words carefully or else risk death. And to top it all off, none of us really understands or can imagine the dark and ugly things that are happening in the conflict zone right now. What has Sri Lanka become?
On Feb. 4th Sri Lanka celebrated its Independence Day, and yet, there was no atmosphere of celebration or pride. Instead, the predominant emotion of the day seemed to be fear. People are afraid of many things: of what will happen to those in the Northeast, of what may happen in Colombo or other places in retaliation, of how development and social services will continue to be affected, of what they can say or do, of how they can move about — of what will become of their beloved island. "Today, we have nothing to celebrate." Sri Lanka may have earned its independence from Britain in 1948, but it is still very much in need of emancipation. The difference is that this time, the oppressor is itself.
16 February 2009