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.

No comments: