Thursday, July 23, 2009

3. Healing Wounds

Crossing over to the other side: of a unitary state

The refurbished metal “Queen of Jaffna” gracefully strode up to the platform in Medawachchiya by 10.30 am - the time I usually start to begin to consider the prospect of crawling out of bed on a regular holiday. But this day was different. I was running without knowing why, being urged by Sachindra to hurry, and dashing along the platform without knowing what the rush is all about, clutching my travel bag by its failing strap and water bottle in tow.

It seemed the whole train was disembarking and everyone was running in from both directions of the platform towards the only exit. Sachindra was already standing in line and I joined him a few paces behind. Soon a throng of people were waiting impatiently, in a line that stretched beyond my view of the distant edge of the platform, to be interrogated and for their belongings and bodies to be dug and prodded by unfriendly policemen.

Having spent five years away from Sri Lanka, I could no longer take roadblocks and body checks as facts of daily life. My mind was no longer numb to the predicament of the lady in front of us whose neatly packed clothes were casually pulled out of her bag and routinely put back in by the male serviceman. My ideological right cerebral hemisphere was protesting her unquestioned submission to this gross invasion of privacy and the insensitivity of the individual policeman. I was next, and as clothes, chocolates and a torch were dug out from my bag, a residual anger frothed inside me, not so much about the inconvenience I had to suffer but for the embarrassment a fellow citizen, much like my own mother, had been subjected to a few minutes before. Yet, the less emotional left cerebral hemisphere kept interjecting that these body and bag checks made my journey relatively safer. Would she prefer a higher level of 'customer care' at the cost of an additional delay, perhaps an hour or two more for the entire train to be checked with gentle courtesy? ‘But the war is over’, the right side of the brain shot back. ‘Is it really?’ the left planted an arguably rational, but forever undeterminable, state-sponsored doubt.

It took another two and a half hours until all the passengers and the train itself was declared bomb free. By then, the entire length of the train, its every passenger and their belongings had been thoroughly checked. Our destinations, intentions of travel, national identity card details, those of our host and the intended date of return had all been recorded in a large register by two other policemen. I assumed their neck muscles would not have survived a single day if they had looked up from the register to spare a smile or polite glance at each individual traveller. Any terrorist whose details were recorded in that book, would have the peace of mind that a search for his or her record in it would take longer than their life-expectancy at birth - however long terrorists and their human shields were expected to live.

I have a faint memory of the news of the “Yal Devi” train being blown up by the LTTE. There was even a song about it that I repeatedly heard on TV, “Yal Devi dumriya mediri, pipiree visiunaa… Thrasthavadin kala aparaaden, mithuran ahimi unaa…” I could not explain how, but after 24 years, I cloud still remember its tune and opening stanza. Would those people who lost their lives on that fateful day in January 1985 still be alive if the passengers were checked as we were? Between then and now, when did we stop writing songs for the friends we lost in this war? How could we have learned to be numb and submissive in the face of so much death and violence and yet have so much energy and sensitivity left over to celebrate its end?

I could not recall being so thoroughly checked or interrogated in any of my limited travels abroad. As permanent resident of Australia (but a Sri Lankan citizen travelling on a Sri Lankan passport) I would not be hassled so much on a visit to New Zealand. Here I was, travelling from one city to another within Sri Lanka as a Sri Lankan citizen! Politically, the war had been won and the country has been ‘unified’ under one government and its rule of law. Constitutionally, Sri Lanka is a unitary state because we can travel within the country without a visa. In reality however, under the provisions of the enacted state of emergency, it is more difficult Sri Lankan citizens to gain access to the northern regions beyond Medawachchiya than it is to enter Singapore – where Sri Lankan citizens are given temporary visas on arrival. Legally, we were travelling within a free and democratic country, but practically it felt like crossing over to another country. Literally, I could get assaulted or threatened (I hope not killed) for publicly voicing such ‘unpatriotic’ thoughts.

I had embarked on this journey with preconceived opinions about the sanctity of human liberty what it means to be free, uninformed perceptions about war and its consequences as well as moral and intellectual biases that tinted my view of society, its power structures and politics. Men and women had to submit their bodies to be searched, for the soldiers to determine whether any of us posed a threat to national security. As I walked out of the station, still debating the pros and cons of how we have chosen to fight terrorism, I was confronted with the humbling realisation that all my opinions, perceptions and biases were being severely challenged by the complexity of this reality that I had grown up with, yet knew very little about and remained unexplored and unchallenged by thought or reason.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

2. Healing Wounds

Linking North and South: what trains cannot do

Weeks before coming to Sri Lanka, I shared with some friends; a desire to help war affected Sri Lankans in whatever capacity possible while I am home. I had a vague grasp of the fact that refugees were just one fraction of the victims of war. Combatants constituted another fraction. I have never heard gunshots or seen bombs going off. However, having grown up in an impoverished country which spent hundreds of billions of rupees on armaments, and cultured by a desensitising daily death toll in the news every night, perhaps I too was one of its victims. So who were the ‘war affected’ that I was going to help and where were they?

One of my friends introduced me to Sachindra, who was organising groups of volunteers from the Colombo University to help with the food distribution efforts at Menik Farm – a camp housing more than a quarter million Sri Lankans who have been driven out of their homes during the recently concluded fighting in the north and east of the country. Through a series of electronic epistles that were haphazardly exchanged over the subsequent days, we arranged to work at Menik Farm for a week, with a local NGO that was responsible for distributing food to ‘Internally Displaced Sri Lankans’. The opportunity was random, but the choice was obvious.

I expected Shazard to be waving at me from a door or window on the train but there was no sign of him. I would not recognise any of the others that I was meeting for the first time. I got into the train and walked through the compartments and found them looking for me. I was meeting Shazard after four years and Sachindra, Gopi and Mauran for the first time. Gopi had grown up in Vavuniya, but now lived with his family in the suburbs of Colombo. Mauran was from Batticaloa and his family still lived there. They both had just passed out as Engineers from the University of Moratuwa, and as Tamils, had experienced the war and its consequences more intimately.

Sachindra pulled out a couple of sheets of paper. One was a letter from the head of the NGO that we were affiliated to. It was a vital document confirming that we were indeed working with an NGO that was authorised to function inside the tightly guarded camps. The government calls them “Welfare Villages” - almost tempting the uninitated to want to go and live there. Those opposed to the government’s policy of detaining these people in camps – admittedly for their own protection, until they are screened and resettled – calls them “concentration camps”, evoking deliberately, ghastly images of Nazi Germany. The true description of these camps floats unexplored and unadmitted somewhere in between these two extremes. We had plenty of warnings about the tight security in place around the camps and how access to the northern region in general is highly restricted, so Sachindra had diligently made copies of the original documents for each member of our group.

Sachindra had another document which he had printed out for himself and for me. It was a list of Tamil words in Sinhala typeface together with their meanings and this was for our use exclusively. Almost all Tamils who had lived outside the war zone are conversant in Sinhala. Gopi and Mauran were native Tamil speakers who spoke good English and could manage a conversation in Sinhala when necessary. Shazard spoke all three languages at home and had learnt enough Bangala (Bengali) to survive five years in Bangladesh while studying to be a Doctor in Medicine. To say that Sachindra and I are not fluent in Tamil would be a gross understatement. Yet we were going to be working among people who have been all but totally cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka for the past thirty years. All the children and most young adults of our age group living in the camps would not have even seen a Sinhala person until a couple of weeks ago.

I went through the list of words several times as the “Yal Devi” (Queen of Jaffna) chugged cheerfully on her way to Medawachchiya from where it will continue up to Vavuniya. This train had been a symbolic link between the Tamil speaking north and the Sinhala dominated south for decades, until the LTTE blew it up on 19 January 1985. At the end of the war, the government launched a well publicised project to reconstruct the pillaged railway infrastructure up to Jaffna and resume “Yal Devi” services to the estranged peninsula. The president had called the project a symbol of “our resolve for unity and coexistence” and had even donated his monthly salary in May to boost the reconstruction effort. We have inherited from our past a culture that is rich in such symbolism and imposing traditions. But the more I struggled to remember each new Tamil word and its meaning, the more I appreciated the futility in entrusting a train (let alone the deleterious Railway Department) with the task of representing our resolve for unity and coexistence.

The north and south of the country were like two siblings, separated at a time that now lay buried under layers of history that has been contaminated by many incomplete and unverifiable memories. One had been adopted by brutal, dehumanising violence and grwon up in its arid north-eastern plains and the other by deceit and corruption in the fertile valleys and misty mountains in post colonial Sri Lanka.

War, in a strange and cruel way, has brought us together. Perhaps we would recognise our common ancestry and intimate relationship if only we could talk to each other, but we cannot yet speak each other’s languages.