Ahilan Kadirgamar, Sunday Island, 21 August 2011
Ben Bavinck with Mr. Rajasingham, father of Rajani, Nirmala, and Sumathy
Ben Bavinck, missionary, teacher, relief worker, father, grandfather and close friend of many around the world passed away a week ago. Ben was born inBandung,Indonesiato Dutch missionary parents. In 1939, he and his family returned to Holland where he lived through the harrowing years of Nazi German rule and the immense destruction ofEuropeduring the Second World War. Those formative years, where he also participated in acts of resistance, had a profound impact on his outlook on life.
I grew up hearing about Ben, particularly, about his teaching years at Jaffna College from 1954 to 1972. Having come to Sri Lanka through the facilitation of prominent Lankan church leader D.T. Niles, his years of service in Jaffna led to many lasting friendships and the endearment of many students ofJaffnaCollege. Following that, Ben returned to the Netherlands, and worked for the World Service Department of the Reformed Churches until 1988. It was then that he also became involved in various international campaigns including the solidarity movement to end Apartheid in South Africa.While I had met Ben through my family in the 1980s, it was a later meeting that had a lasting influence on me. Ben had returned to Lanka to work for the National Christian Council as their relief and rehabilitation officer in 1988 in the context of the war. On a holiday toColomboin 1993, I happened to be staying at the YWCA Guesthouse, Ben’s base from which he crisscrossed the country on relief work. In the pleasant halls of the Guesthouse, then under the care of its late manager Mrs. Navaratnam, Ben engaged my youthful thoughts on the impact of the war and politics in the country.
Following such conversations, Ben offered to take me on a work related trip to Trincomalee. As Ben drove his car, out ofColombo, we stopped and picked up Rajan Hoole and K. Sritharan of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). That chance encounter, with such courageous and insightful human rights activists on route to gather information, would eventually shape my politicisation.
Ben’s Diaries: During those years, Ben kept a diary in Dutch; about his travels, the people he met, the stories he heard and his worrying reflections. The original diaries consisting of twenty-three exercise books, were translated into English by Ben, and then beautifully edited by Maithreyi Rajeshkumar. The first volume of those diaries, spanning 1988 to 1994 and his travels as a relief worker, were published earlier this year by the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee under the title, ‘Of Tamils and Tigers: a journey through Sri Lanka’s war years’.
The diary consists of daily entries and emerges as a most fascinating historical record of the war years. The difficulties and challenges of taking lorry loads of relief goods through army and Tiger check points, of clearances, passes and constant hassles, provide a portrait of a courageous man taking great risks and persevering through many obstacles. What is most interesting however, are his conversations with those individuals struggling to keep some sanity amidst the war. Rajani Thiranagama, Fr. Jeyaseelan, Daya Somasundaram, Rajan Hoole and K. Sritharan are some of the many individuals who consistently emerge in the diaries. Their analyses of political developments, of the Tamil people caught between the army and the Tigers, the lack of movement towards a political settlement in the South and the intransigence of the Tigers, are reflections and worries that preoccupy Ben. Indeed, Ben was much more than a relief worker; he was a life-line and a channel of communication, when political darkness and a brutal war had eclipsed the country.
In an age when the humanitarianism of large donors and massive NGOs come under much criticism, Ben’s relief efforts were of a different order. His work was inextricably linked to his commitment to a people, and a country he so loved, and whose sorrows he shared and hopes he wished to keep alive. He readily became a man among the people.
From 1994 to 2004, the period of the forthcoming second volume, he would live and work inJaffna, and share those difficult war-time years with friends such as Daya Somasundaram, the psychiatrist, and Mr. and Mrs. Rajasingam, formerJaffnaCollegecolleagues and parents of Rajani Thiranagama. They were kindred souls in whom he could confide and share the sad realities inJaffna. Mr. Rajasingam had the following to say in his tribute:
“Ben Bavinck was one of my oldest friends. I met him when he came as a teacher and missionary… He was the chaplain ofJaffnaCollegeand was also asked to teach carpentry. Though he had studied law, he took it with customary good grace and did it beautifully. … He was not only dedicated toJaffnaCollege; he was also active in the Koddaikadu village in all kinds of schemes to help the poor. …
Personally, Ben Bavinck stood by me and my family through all our difficulties. He was always a regular visitor, friend, and source of strength. When my daughter Nirmala was arrested, Ben was the only one associated withJaffnaCollegewho went to visit her in prison. He was also extremely upset by the assassination of my daughter Rajani. Whenever he was here, he came with me to Rajani’s grave. We would light a candle and he would say a small prayer.
He stood with the Tamil people, because he lived with us so much and knew our lives. But he was never a supporter of the Tigers. Ben’s book “Of Tamils and Tigers” which was published this year is a testament to this. It gives a very impartial view of everything that has happened. He doesn’t take any side as such. That is for me the most important thing in the book. It tells us about how these troubles have been going on, the shootings, the massacres, and the difficulties we have experienced.”
Inspiring Solidarity: While I would meet Ben over the years, it was after he moved back to Amsterdam that I would spend more time with him. I would meet him in New York, on his travels related to the board meetings of the American Mission which supported Jaffna College, Uduvil Girls College and his Church. He continued to visit Jaffna even during the height of the war, and expressed his concerns about the role of the Church.
When some of us initiated the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), as a voluntary network in the Diaspora, he became an active supporter. I would stay at his apartment inAmsterdamduring my travels toEurope, and we travelled together for SLDF related work and events. It was during those long afternoons that I heard more of his reminiscences, as well as worries, about Lanka.
It was also during this time that I observed another side to Ben. His son Maarten and family lived in an apartment across from him inAmsterdam. Living close to his grandchildren during these later years gave him much joy. Indeed, he had great affection and cared deeply for all his children and grandchildren, and looked forward to the get-togethers with his family.
Ben’s strength was his commitment to simplicity and honesty – a Christian for whom religion was no bar. Many people personally touched by Ben will cherish his memory and continue to be inspired by his life. Ben embodied a progressive politics and a deep commitment to sustaining the Jaffna Tamil community. Given Ben’s personal friendship and political solidarity with the UTHR(J), I end this appreciation with excerpts of their tribute:
“Several of us in the UTHR(J) came into contact with Ben in the 1960s and 70s while he was on the staff ofJaffnaCollege, but our real deep and lasting involvement with him began in 1989, after his second return to Lanka. The assassination of Rajani Thiranagama made us even more resolute to continue the work and Ben who saw the dilemmas and pitfalls we faced and gave all the support he could to this end. Ben participated in the major commemoration effort for Rajani in November 1989. We were inevitably optimistic in hoping that the show of defiance would buy us space to continue our work fromJaffna. But it was to be a long haul with Ben quietly and unswervingly very much a part of it, so much so that he made us unconscious of the extent of his concern.
Ben’s influence on the UTHR(J) was considerable, although he listened without making any suggestions. He stood by us even when our stand proved awkward to Western nations whose diplomats and humanitarian staff came from a generation that little understood Ben. Whenever the Government showed itself politically, militarily and morally in a rut, and the LTTE seen correspondingly an insuperable force, the gut reaction of peace makers was to turn a blind eye to the fate of the Tamils and appease the LTTE at any cost. By exposing the violations of the LTTE as we had done those of the State, while not opposing dealing with the LTTE, we were saying do not forget the people. Peacemakers were often unhappy. At such times while we faced isolation, Ben was among those who stood by us and upheld our morale.
The popular caricature of Westerners in this country, as shrewdly pushing some neo-imperial agenda, does Ben a grave injustice. He had no agenda except his deep humanity. Like all human beings, he was hurt when his intentions were misunderstood. He never used or publicised his contacts with important world figures he knew from his WCC days, such as the emerging South African leaders, to make himself important, except to help us remember Rajani in particular. He sought nothing for himself. He could empathise with us because he was in spirit, through long association, foremost aJaffnaman, who well knew the society and its foibles. He tried to understand sympathetically those whom he strongly disagreed with. With his Christian assurance, sympathy, commitment and words never uttered in vain, he remained as his youth had made him, a faithful member of the Dutch resistance.”