Sri Lanka: Voices From a War Zone by
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
It is not unbecoming to call Sri Lanka a state and society
in permanent crisis with a few interludes of hope thrown in.
As the juggernaut of violence etches deeper spirals, just
how precarious is precarious enough for the current
ceasefire to melt into full-blooded war, time alone can
tell. Indian journalist Nirupama Subramanian's bunch of
human interest stories vivifies the horror and intense
suffering that war has wrought on ordinary and
extraordinary Sri Lankans. A touching testimony against
warfare as a solution to problems, its "little histories"
are products of seven years (1995-2002) spent in the field
by the author as a foreign correspondent.
Subramanian kicks off with the grave tale of a 77-year-old
father whose daughter fell victim to a LTTE (Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam) suicide bomb attack on Sri Lanka's
Central Bank in 1996. His shell-shocked wife stopped
talking, progressively lost her memory and died from a
stroke. From 1995, the war came to Colombo city with
unimaginable terror. At the Independence Square bombing
site, Subramanian saw bewildered people crying and feeling
overwhelmed by the losses.
As the Tigers turned the heat on Colombo, it was the
minority Tamils who bore the brunt of new government
security rigmaroles - police registrations, detentions,
cordon-and-searches and officially endorsed Sinhalese
vigilantism. Caught in the "Tamil equals Tamil Tiger
equation", even anti-LTTE Tamils were harassed. Subramanian
herself, being a Tamil from India, was accused by soldiers
as a "terrorist". Accountability from the LTTE or the army
was a chimera.
The next story is about the mass exodus of Tamils from
Jaffna in 1995, whose magnitude was unknown to journalists
until much later. This catastrophe was ordered by the LTTE
to deprive the government an all-out victory. Those who held
out in Jaffna were warned by Tigers with death threats,
shots in the air and legs. The evacuated town looked like a
graveyard. To force civilians further south into the Wanni,
the LTTE arranged free transportation, tea and bread to the
internally displaced persons (IDPs) and restricted "exit
passes". By 1996, many IDPs returned, defying LTTE diktats,
but found Jaffna occupied by the army and haunted by evil
spirits. In one man's words, "We carry a double burden.
Sinhalese racism and tyranny of the Tigers." (p 37)
Subramanian's kaleidoscope travels to Vavuniya, a popular
destination for the IDPs fleeing the north. Fearful of
"Tiger sleepers", the government implemented a draconian
pass system in the town comparable to apartheid. Tamils had
to get passes from the police to leave camps or go to work.
Anyone without the permit could be jailed for 18 months
without charges. Even influential Tamils with emergencies
failed to get passes in time. Curbs on movement and mangy
food rations turned Vavuniya into "a vast open-air prison."
(p 44) Visiting presspersons had to apply for a "white pass"
to enter this jail. The inhuman system which had no basis in
law alienated Tamils from President Chandrika Kumaratunga,
who once intended to win their hearts. One returning refugee
from India said it all: "Instead of peace, we discovered the
pass." (p 54)
In 1997, the Sri Lankan army launched Operation Jaya Sekurui
to wrest a portion of the LTTE-controlled north. Before the
rebel counter-attack, soldiers in the tactical headquarters
at Thandikulam had a sixth sense of being sitting ducks. One
senior officer admitted, "If you were not scared at that
time, there had to be something abnormal about you." (p 57)
Renegade cries of "We don't want to die" and "Please don't
let us die" rang the air around the trench lines. The
military's recruitment drive had few takers, unlike back in
1990 when Sinhalese youth joined in droves. Pathetic
attempts to censor news about battlefront casualties had
failed and the grim tragedy of war widows enveloped
Sinhalese villages. Thousands of troop desertions occurred,
causing law-and-order quandaries.
In 1996-7, to pay for
armament imports and improve its parlous foreign exchange
reserves, the government trained and encouraged a record
number of poor citizens to emigrate to the Middle East as
housemaids and au pairs. Several were cheated by greedy
employers out of salaries, physically assaulted and stranded
without means of getting back to Sri Lanka. While they were
away, families often broke down. Defending the callous trade
slammed by rights advocates as "selling of women abroad as
slaves", the Minister for Labor claimed that Sri Lanka had
Subramanian moves on to the canker of missing army men.
Using technical fig leaves, the government played down
debacles at the front, inviting false hopes and frustration
among relatives who waged lone and collective struggles to
trace their loved ones. More than the LTTE, they had bitter
feelings toward the government. One woman whose husband was
declared missing in action for two years was in
uncontrollable tears, remarking, "The ones who support this
war are those whose sons have not gone to fight." (p 99)
Jaffna under army rule had a checkpoint proliferation, where
scores of Tamil civilians were detained, subsequently
tortured and unceremoniously buried. Meant to nab Tigers,
the heavily fortified roadblocks became stops for "picking
up" innocents for questioning and disappearance. In 1998,
400 bodies were exhumed from the Chemmani mass grave
following magisterial orders. Although senior army officers
were involved in the killings and cover-up, families of the
victims got no clear answers or justice. All indicted
security personnel were released on bail.
Subramanian met Razeek, a notorious counter-insurgent in
Batticaloa, two days before he was murdered by a Black
Tiger. His army-assisted group of 150 men had killed 30
LTTErs, taking 21 casualties. A Tamil who belonged to a
rival Eelam outfit, Razeek assisted Indian and Sri Lankan
intelligence agencies as a "Tiger spotter". Disguises,
machine guns and automatic weapons were a way of life for
him and a means of self-protection. In his opinion,
eliminating the LTTE would end Sri Lanka's conflict. Armed
with the military's carte blanche, his men taxed local
traders and bullied civilians. Not many in Batticaloa
mourned his assassination.
In 2000, Subramanian saw the stupefying destruction of
Chavakachcheri and Colombothurai when the guns fell silent
briefly. Returnees had "nothing to return to" in the
concrete rubbles that were once thriving small towns. One
IDP lamented, "We have been through this every few years. We
barely finish repairing the house when it is destroyed
again." The manager of a news stand wondered at his
fragmentation, "What sort of life is this? We are in one
place, our children are somewhere else, our things are in a
third." (p 143) Stress, depression, trauma and suicides were
endemic and individuals were under strain to cope. The sense
of community was totally shattered.
In 2001, Sri Lanka's prime minister declared a "conspiracy
against Buddhism" and ordered mass ordinations of a thousand
new monks immediately. In a theocratic country vested with
paradoxical "militant Buddhism", this was a twin to the
recruitment of impoverished Sinhalese as soldiers.
Influential monks held that the "Tamil problem" would
disappear once the LTTE was defeated. Political concessions
to minorities were considered deathblows to Buddhism and
steps to the breakup of the country. Kumaratunga's new
constitution with federal provisions was stonewalled by
Near Kathankudy, Subramanian met an
escaped Tamil child soldier from the LTTE after the
ceasefire agreement (CFA) was signed in 2002. His helpless
but defiant mother had only one protection mechanism left:
"They have to shoot me before they take him away again." (p
170) Post-CFA Batticaloa was "only afraid of the Tigers, not
the army". People were too petrified to protest the LTTE's
"one family one child" conscription rule in eastern Sri
Lanka. A typically cynical area commander of the rebels
brushed aside this burning misfortune as propaganda "spread
by our enemies".
In 2002, Subramanian left for the Wanni to attend LTTE
helmsman Prabhakaran's press conference. The long drive up
the A9 "highway of blood" had nothing but ravaged houses,
ripped tree stumps and landmines. The security checks for
journalists in Kilinochchi "would put any post-9/11 airport
check to shame". (p 193) Prabhakaran's guards took up
positions like the US presidential security service. He was
essentially a "prisoner for life, locked in a cage of his
own making", unable to ever embrace democratic politics.
In 2003, the author visited Mutur (Trincomalee district)
where Tamil-Muslim tensions were strong since the LTTE was
allowed to open political offices in government-controlled
areas. Muslim rejection of the Tigers as sole spokesmen for
"Tamil-speaking people" made Mutur a flashpoint for
tit-for-tat incidents and land-taxation disputes. The father
of a Tamil boy who disappeared in revenge for the killing of
two Muslim men cut a sorry figure. The war took his first
three sons, and now the CFA had snatched his last issue.
This book shines with a rare compassion for human grief that
only the best journalists can summon to their writings.
Subramanian has fathomed the ugliness of war and challenged
the national security narratives which glorify it.
Sri Lanka: Voices From a War Zone by Nirupama
Subramanian. Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2005. ISBN:
0-67-005828-9. Price: US$8.15, 230 pages.
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