Sarah Chatta in Daily News, 9 October 2018, where the chosen title reads thus “Faces of the war” …Stories from both sides of the barbed wire tell of the pain of ordinary lives
German native Nicolas Lamade leaned over and expressed his amazement. The auditorium of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute was packed with a mixed audience: army generals, clergymen, politicians, activists, journalists, and lawyers. Lamade, Deputy Program Director of the German reconciliation project GIZ, first came to Sri Lanka in the early 2000s when he said no one dared to question official versions of wartime events in public, let alone speak out about misconceptions of those events. A decade later, he marvelled at how far Sri Lanka had come.
Voices of Peace: They were just like us, a book by Sarah Kabir, capitalises on this moment of freedom. With the poignant perspectives of 20 combatants, 10 former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and 10 members of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), she challenges accepted notions of wartime division.
“People might hate me for saying this,” said Sarah, “but I don’t like the fact that most people in Colombo sit and talk about the war like they know what has happened.”
Growing up during the war
Sarah is 29 years old, and was born in the midst of Sri Lanka’s lengthy civil war. Her earliest childhood memories are interspersed with war effects: “I was in a local school in Colombo,” she said. “School was closed one day because a bomb had gone off.” Her school kept getting closed, and at the time, she didn’t understand why that happened. “It didn’t hit me that so much atrocity was going on somewhere else,” she recalls, referring to it as a “detachment.” But the same lack of understanding ultimately drove Sarah to explore the conflict in greater depth.
Aaranya Rajasingam, a women’s rights and peace activist who spoke at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, called Voices of Peace “an attempt to understand what we don’t know,” a subject in which, “there are more questions than answers.”
Sarah says that the project was a way for her to “listen to the people who were actually there during the war, they know better.” She points to the fact that combatants had power during the war, they fought and they killed, and now they have no say in the peace process.
Before she began the project, in July 2016, Sarah had misconceptions about culpability during the war. “I’d been working in civil society for a long time, and the narrative that we normally hear, or the narrative that we seem to keep talking about, is that the military are perpetrators and they violated all the rules. I really strongly believed that.” Her perceptions about the military made her more sympathetic towards the LTTE than the SLA. “But when I went and met these people, it changed my opinion entirely about the military,” said Sarah, “it made me realise that these people are human too, and I had kept painting them as this one entity over another, and now I’ve learnt better after listening to them.”
After writing Voices of Peace, Sarah has a much more nuanced understanding of the dimensions of Sri Lanka’s conflict. She spent the better part of a year conducting 60 interviews with people from both sides.”
Delving into ‘memories of violence’
Sarah heard about their private lives, their families, their passions, and how their role in the war fit into that. She saw them as human beings. It allowed her to see their memories of violence differently, and she never shied away from the images she calls “gory.” What bothered her more, said Sarah, was her own ability to become inured to them.
“At one point you get sort of numb,” she says, “and you’re sort of like, ‘Okay I’ve heard this. Okay, moving on.’ When that starts happening you really are not able to empathise with them, and then, you can’t connect. So you really need to take a breather and come back again after a small break.”
Sarah’s Tamil translator, Sophia Mahendran, took a break during the project to be in silence, so that she could come back and engage with the full emotional weight of the stories she was hearing.
After collecting the interviews, Sarah was nervous about how she would go about representing her sources.
“I spent a long time after the research trying to make sure that I didn’t implicate them in anything,” she says, “So I went to lawyers, and I spent a lot of time, because they trusted me and I didn’t want them to get into any trouble.”
Her experience indicates that fear and the possibility of retribution stymie the reconciliation process. In that way, Sarah’s experience has already been remarkably successful, marked at least by some of the attendees at her book launch, including former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Possibly the most subversive aspect of Voices of Peace is Sarah’s attempt to blur the lines between the LTTE and SLA. She organised the book by themes, layering quotes from different combatants one over another, without labels other than their names.
“The intention,” she explains, “was to make the readers think, ‘Oh, he could be LTTE or he could be military.’ You couldn’t even tell the difference at times.”
Rajasingam wondered if this structure inadvertently made it more difficult for readers to empathise with Sarah’s characters, but praised the book as well, calling it a much needed effort to counteract society’s “appalling ignorance about this.”
Sarah’s experience researching and writing Voices of Peace has taught her “that labels only serve to reduce our understanding or studies of armed groups. What would serve better is to really try to understand what drove them to arms and what their ideologies are or were.”
She is critical of labelling members of the LTTE as terrorists, saying, “Anyone who truly wants peace in Sri Lanka would stop themselves from labelling individuals on either side as wrong, evil, or terrorist.”
She also distinguishes between the individuals who made up the LTTE, and the LTTE as an organisation. “We cannot forget or justify the atrocities they committed,” says Sarah. She recalls the arbitrary and indiscriminate killing of civilians, the bombing at the Central Bank, and the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake, who she says, “could have led this country to a place of strength and compassion.”
‘A father, lover, daughter or husband’
Voices of Peace complicates these labels, Sarah hopes, by portraying the people who were complicit in these actions as real: “The same storyteller was also a father, lover, daughter or husband. So we cannot paint them as one or the other.”
“And it’s the same with the Sri Lankan military. A common narrative we hear now is of how the military violated international humanitarian law,” she continues, “When doing that, we must be careful not to paint the individuals who fought with the military as perpetrators. They tell us how much it hurts them after everything they sacrificed, after all they did for the country, to now be labelled as perpetrators.”
Sarah is careful not to alienate any parties in her explanations.
Voices of Peace has been published first in English, which somewhat disappointed her; Sarah always envisioned that the book would be published in English, Sinhala, and Tamil at the same time. Sinhala and Tamil translations are underway, and the possibility of a German translation has been proposed. Sarah will soon be publishing Voices of Peace online, and is eagerly looking for more ways to disseminate her work.
“If we care about peace,” she says, “let’s remember that these people are all human to begin with.”