Tuesday, January 19, 2010

0. Healing Wounds

Introduction: Questions we may never ask, unless we know the answers

I am surprised how much it fascinates me every time I return to the country of my birth and the place where I grew up and spent four fifths of my life; by the things I notice now that I never noticed before.

Having spent a couple of years in a drought-stricken and sparsely populated corner of the most arid continent in the world, my senses were engulfed by the density and abundance of life here, that I had always taken for granted. It was not just the density of people on the streets, but the fact that there was hardly a bare patch, on a ground overflowing with grass, insects and wild flowers. Ants crawling on very tabletop, geckos or a moth on every wall, even stones covered in moss, mosquitos in the air and butterflies. The lush greenery of the trees in a landscape overflowing with the vibrant chaos of life can, it seems, be best appreciated after time had drained those memories of their vivid colours.

The moment I disembarked from the aircraft last May, marked my first memory of Sri Lanka not being at war. I hoped to spend the first five weeks of my life in Sri Lanka where the evening news would not have a segment about the war-front and a tally of deaths. Terrorists vs Patriots. Despotism vs Liberation. Oppression vs Freedom. Different people cheering for different sides, others watching on.

Dragged along by the rough currents of time, I felt we were prematurely venturing into the future, trying to bypass the present and ignoring - if not wilfully trying to forget a turbulent and blood stained past. However, it was difficult to ignore how this same abundance of life that had sprouted into my conscience, contrasted with an abject disregard for it i encountered in my daily conversations. I could understand how over many decades of war, life has lost its value and meaning to us. The deaths of our countrymen have, it seems, depreciated even below there statistical value, because even those among us who hold the sanctity of life as a highest concern, no longer know exactly how many lives we’ve lost to this war – let alone know their names. Most figures reported in the news vary from "seventy thousand" to "eighty thousand or more" rounding up the lives of loved ones and the countless memories, aspirations, anxieties and dreams attached to them, to the nearest ten thousand.

The war, as we knew it, has just ended, but more than a quarter million fellow countrymen, women and children remain refugees in transit camps, while uncounted numbers of its casualties walk invisibly among us. It was not a war that I directly experienced though – except for the selected images and figures in the news that may have desensitised me right through my childhood. Perhaps like many other Sri Lankans, despite growing up and living under the dark and threatening clouds of war and its violence, I had been spared the heavy downpour of its maiming hostility and ruining destruction.

That is perhaps why I decided to volunteer with a few friends, to work in Menik Farm where a quarter of million Sri Lankans are held as refugees. With the war itself over, the refugee camps remain its most prominent and horribly shameful vestiges. Most of the other memories and experiences of war in our society have diluted and dissolved into a collective forgetfulness. The gaping bullet holes and bombed craters are being covered up by triumphant nationalism and humble submission to majoritarianism, while the more subtle scars or war are patched and painted over. As a Sri Lankan, I felt intellectually and morally obliged to bear witness – if not share however superficially – what so many fellow Sri Lankans have experienced over decades of violence that had been perpetrated in the name of liberation and freedom. Our efforts and week long stay was facilitated by an NGO which was responsible for the distribution of food to sections of all four zones that had been established at the time. A week was hardly enough to experience - let alone understand the true extent of our present predicament. The consequences of learning to kill or choosing violence or endorsing it, or even making excuses for it seemed too great to be justifiable, but they are part of the reality that we as a nation, now has to recover and learn from.

Spending just a week among those who have seen and experienced war at its most intimate and frightening worst, uprooted my preconceptions as well as the moral and intellectual biases in a way I never expected. I no longer had the reassurance of an unquestionable sense of morality, or a clear sense of what could be judged right or wrong, sinful or virtuous in war. The refugees inside the camps and the soldiers who stood in fortified bunkers outside were victims made equally helpless and miserable by the circumstances into which society have thrust them into as much as how they have reacted to it. Indeed we too were victims of war in a strange but real and tangible way for having been conditioned to accept so much violence and deprivation as justifiable or unavoidable facts of life.

The experience has made me realise our ignorance of the most fundamental questions that still remain unanswered after many thousands of years of human endeavours in philosophy, thought and faith. What is right and wrong, what can be taken for granted and what cannot? What is the value of life? Why do we wage war, and when is a human life an acceptable price to pay for an ideology or cause? What is the cost of our refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of death? What do we really know about life and death apart from the myths that have been passed down through the generations?

As a Christian, what does it imply to believe that I have been saved through Christ’s sacrificial death? How can I expect to be safe through another’s death – be it that of the son of God or a conscripted soldier, friend or foe, terrorist or liberator? What makes us hope for – even believe in life after death and take for granted so much, the abundance of life within us and all around us… in the infititely more tangible and real life before death?

Originally published in "The Ceylon Churchman" (October 2009)

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