The war ended on the ground, but its still their in the head

Shanie in Notebooks of a Nobody in the Island, 6 Nov. 2010

“Having the chance to perform the Gaza Mono-Logues is an incredible opportunity for me as these thoughts conveyed by kids my age give us a sense of war that I can relate to from the conflict that existed in my own country until very recently. It means a lot to me as it has given m the chance to acknowledge feelings I felt and suppressed during the war in Sri Lanka.”

Over two days last week-end, the Goethe Institute auditorium in Colombo was packed to capacity as a small but very appreciative audience watched fourteen young actors superbly role-play the stories of children caught up in the war in Gaza. The above quote was the comment of one of the young actors on stage in this Gaza Mono-Logues which, on the initiative of the Ambassador for Palestine, was performed in Sri Lanka by Floating Space, a three-year old theatre group in Colombo in collaboration with the Palestine-based Ashtar Theatre. A note distributed to the audience says that Gaza Mono-Logues was part of an international artistic movement that spoke for the young witnesses of war, standing against the silencing of young people and the denial of their human right to childhood.

In this creative theatre initiative, the young actors role-play and relate the personal experiences of fourteen teen-age children from Gaza articulating the tragedy of children caught up in conflict and war. There were stories from the streets, from the camps, from schools and from frightened homes. But, as the producers’ note stated, the lived experience of the children articulated in the stories is not limited to Gaza. It could be that of our own children and indeed of all children caught up in conflict and war, as has been recorded by sensitive psycho-social workers even in Sri Lanka. The title of our column this week is borrowed from one of the stories in Gaza Mono-Logues. Another child says: ‘Before the war I was a child… But after the war I discovered I’m not child any more. ‘Yet another says, ‘I think I’m still scared …. but I pretend not to be.’

In Sri Lanka too, Professor Daya Somasundaram, former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jaffna and co-author, with his UTHR colleagues Rajini Tiranagama, Rajan Hoole and Sritharan, of the Broken Palmyrah, has made an extensive study among the Vanni displaced persons. He, too, has published his findings in an international mental health journal and records stories from children and adults similar to those told by the children in Gaza.,He says it has become a basic principal aim of psycho-therapy to bring out the repressed memories and associated emotion as a process of healing. This cathartic effort helps people come to terms with what has happened and to carry on with their lives. That is why many have urged the appointment of a Commission with a wide mandate on the lines of the Truth Commissions that had such a reconciling impact in South Africa, Ruwanda and other places. For such a Commission to be effective there has to be some pre-conditions. There must be a will among all parties to arrive at the truth; the Commission has to be truly independent with all its international and/or local members selected by consensus between the government and all sections of the opposition; there has to be a witness protection law in place; and there has to be an assurance of amnesty from prosecution for those witnesses who assist the Commission to arrive at the truth, whatever their previous role in the war. Over eighteen months after the end of the war, this may be the appropriate time for such an initiative for the healing of memories as has been suggested before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission by some eminent persons, most recently last week by the Bishop of Colombo Duleep de Chickera.

The Vanni Mono-Logues

The article by Prof. Somasundaram and the uncensored stories that he records give us a different perspective on the horrors of the war. A child says it in verse (translated by the author):

“Life destroyed – our

lives scattered;

Suffering saw – we

sadness imposed;

Caged by war – we were

Trapped in suffering;

Enough the sorrow – we

Escape to survive.”

Another ten-year old child says: “I had a father, mother and two siblings. My native place is Kilinochchi. I am a fifth-year student. Due to the war, we were continuously displaced from seven to eight places. When my father and I went to the shop to buy food, a Kifir rained bombs. My father died immediately. I was lying on the street with injuries in my stomach and my leg bleeding profusely. I cried to be taken to hospital. People going on the street just looked at me. No one picked me up. Eventually, someone took me to hospital in a bicycle. I came in an ICRC ship to Padaviya and then to the Vavuniya Hospital with my mother. What happened comes continuously as a nightmare. I am scared. I am sad when I think of my father.”

Another fifteen-year old has a lengthy story about the horrors he underwent over the years. He lived in Kilinochchi with his parents and two sisters. His father was a car mechanic. He had done well in the fifth grade scholarship exam and was studying in the Kilinochchi Maha Vidyalayam. The LTTE had a conscription policy o/f handing over one child per family. One day, as he was returning from school, the LTTE cadres were waiting to abduct him. He escaped by going through by-lanes and reached home. From that day, he and his sisters stopped attending school. Under the margosa tree in the compound at their home, they had dug a bunker and escaped into it as soon as they heard a Kifir. This happened several times a day. With the war, the family moved from Thirunagar to Tharmapuram. He sat for the ‘O’ levels at Tharmapuram. His ambition was to be a doctor. As the fighting passed Paranthan and moved towards Tharmapuram, the family moved to Visvamadu. They lived in a tent on land belonging to a friend of the father. They had no toilets or clean water. During the monsoon, they had to live with two feet of water.

The bunker in the compound was filled with water. Then in his own words: “T about 1 pm. This horrible incident took place. A shell came from nowhere landed on our tent and exploded. Everywhere there was sound of crying. I lay in a pool of blood, moaning. I could not get up and walk. On my side was my sister without a sound. Only my father was uninjured. When he picked me up crying loudly with oppari (wailing), my two arms were not under my control. I could not move them. I was able to move only my right thumb. Amidst all these difficulties, I was admitted to the Puthukudiyiruppu Hospital and underwent surgery. When I opened my eyes the next day, my world was in darkness. My two sister whom I loved as my own life (uyirukku uyirai nesitha) had died in the shelling. My father had buried them in the bunker itself. My two arms were amputated and my mother had her right leg amputated below the knee. In this misery, we were transported in an ICRC ship to Trincomalee and then to the Mannar Hospital. Now, my whole life has become gloomy.” And he end by pleading with Professor Somasundaram, “I still have dreams of becoming a doctor. Can I study with prosthetic arms? Please help me, doctor.”

Apocalyptic Carnage

Independent observes will agree with Somasundaram’s assessment after his study of the situation in the Vanni that unfolded following the end of the war. His assessment tallies with that of the UTHR reports and that of other international human rights groups. “There had been a certain atmosphere of Tamil nationalism, a feeling of autonomous independence, a camelot of sorts. However, the LTTE maintained a fascist totalitarian control over the civilian population with its network of prisons for dissidents and enemies, who were killed or tortured, and a strict pass system that did not allow people under their control to leave the Vanni…. As the Lankan forces advanced using heavy artillery, shelling and bombing from the air, the people fled eastward and then north-eastward, through Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu, to end up in a sliver of land on the east coast. During the latter stages, the LTTE actively prevented the people from escaping into the advancing Lankan army controlled areas, shooting and herding them to keep them as human shields. There was also large scale conscription of adults, females and children. Food became scarce and expensive, there were reported deaths due to starvation, clean water was difficult to find, medical help and supplies became non-existent as people fled from one place to another seeking some respite from the continuous shelling and firing. People lay dead on the streets and in their hastily dug bunkers. Some 20,000-40,000 are estimated to have died in this apocalyptic carnage.”

True reconciliation can come about in our country if all of us are made to face up to the truth. It is now eighteen months after the end of the war. There are still many scars, both physically and mentally, among the civilian population, among the security forces and among the former LTTE supporters and cadres, whether conscripted or voluntary. Even as a nation, even for the people who lived away from the scenes of conflict, there still remain scars, real and imaginary. The war may have ended but it is still there in our heads. All this needs to be dealt with and the memories and the scars subject to a healing process. The Government has no need to fear a war crimes probe if it sets in a process of reconciliation and shows a desire to heal the wounds of war. This then may be the time to set up a Truth Commission on the lines already suggested by many independent observers.

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