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    South Asia
     Aug 20, 2005

Conflict kaleidoscope

Sri Lanka: Voices From a War Zone by Nirupama Subramanian

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 no choice.

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 these "warrior-monks".

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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