Monday, 17 March 2014

Just Someone I Know

Ruki Fernando is my friend. I was introduced to him years ago when I was working on a film and needed some help. Another friend put us in touch with each other and ever since then we have remained friends, meeting spasmodically when he visits Britain. The last time I saw him was on a winter's afternoon when he came to lunch. I loaded up his plate with pasta fagioli and pesto and poured out some white wine.
'How much d'you think I can eat?' he asked in mock despair, staring at his plate.
He is a slight man with a slight appetite. It was the friend who he'd brought with him, who would polish off the rest of the food.

On that day, as my family came and went about their business, Ruki talked of the people in Sri Lanka who desperately needed his help. There was the widow whose cartoonist husband had vanished because of his work. And her children, deeply traumatised by their father's disappearance. There were the men and women who were gang raped, and tortured, the people who had lost loved ones simply because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tamil people, Sinhalese people, Muslims, anyone really, who spoke of Human Right's Abuse going on in Sri Lanka. And Ruki was taking on the dark heart of Sri Lanka, for this?
'Are you mad?' I asked.
'I am not alone,' he said quietly. 'And even if I were, how can I turn my back on these desperate people? They need my help.'
And his own life? His safety? Did he worry about that?
He looked at me and smiled, a modern day Schindler in the making.
'He's a saint,' his friend said, laughing but with a somber expression in his eyes.
The affection in the room between us was not of an ordinary kind. You do not meet saints on a daily basis. Outside the grey afternoon was closing in and the light was fading fast. Winter was at its deepest.

It was time to go for Ruki still had much to do before he left for Colombo the following day. I remember standing at the gate seeing him off, this handsome, unassuming man who reminded me so very much of my own relatives now long gone.
'Don't worry,' he said. 'Nothing will happen to me and if it does I know you will make a fuss.'
I supposed he said that kind of thing to all his friends. And so, I too laughed, waving him goodbye.

Then, late last night I received an email from the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. It was brief.
'Ruki Fernando the prominent Human Rights Activist, along with Father Praveen have been detained at the Killinochchi police station.' That was all.
The unthinkable had happened. Ruki had vanished.

There is little I can do about this and even though the emails this morning came in thick and fast asking for help I knew all I have is the thing I have always had - the ability to write.
But who will listen?
All over the world at this very moment men are subjecting other men to the vilest of abuse. Listen to the news, watch it, see the anger writ large on faces where 'clashes of violence erupts'. Is there a place on earth where there is no clash of violence?
Why then should my pleas be heard?
Why would David Cameron take the slightest notice of any letter I might write?
I am told that if there are enough people who feel passionate about something, then something, some change will happen. I am told, even though I doubt it, that numbers count. And so, I shall send this Post out into the ether in the hope that Ruki will be released, unharmed. Not so much because I believe in Goodness but because Ruki is my friend and someone you know is more sharply focussed in your mind than those you don't.
I hope you are well Ruki, I hope no harm has come to you, that you will see again an evening sky and feel once more the tropical sea breeze of my childhood.

Since writing this I'm delighted to say we've just heard that Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Jehasa are being released. Perhaps there is power in numbers after all!

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Raping of Paradise

This year, in March I was persuaded to write a small piece on the gang rape of a Sri Lankan girl who eventually escaped to the west. It was a story I had been reluctant to cover.
I am a novelist, not a journalist nor politician and I am not versed in the art of documentation. But the piece, Rani's Story  had thousands of hits and continues to do so. Yet for all that the experience left me listless, depressed, reluctant to continue blogging. What could I talk about next? The weather? Come Dancing? My cat? There seemed little point in speaking out about events in Sri Lanka when even some of my own friends were off on holiday to that 'marvellous island' in the sun and the Sri Lankan diaspora themselves insisted all was well in paradise.

Dispirited, I decided, I would say no more. My books would have to speak for me.

So from March until October I remained silent. Then, last night I was sent an article on the rape and murder of a young  Sri Lankan woman called Issei Piriya. Included in the article were three explicit photographs of the twenty-seven year old's naked body; a body so slender and fragile that looking at it I wanted to weep. That body which should have been the woman's private property by undisputed right, lay discarded like so much dirt, like a road kill.
She was dead of course and it was clear what had been done to her.
Even in death her face remained hauntingly beautiful.
I will not link those pictures here. It would be too shocking, too disrespectful to do so. Let imagination work in its place.

Through the night a series of questions kept me awake.

Why did no one care or stop what was happening in Sri Lanka?
Where was the voice of the international community?
Where was the voice of the Sri Lankan diaspora?
And, the greatest mystery of all,
what on earth was wrong with the men within the Sri Lankan army who conducted such animal-like acts of violence?
What kind of mind set did they have?

Don't get me wrong, this use of rape as a weapon isn't specific to Sri Lanka. One need look no further than nearby India to understand that! And in India there is no dictatorship or civil war to blame. But that does not answer the question, what kind of a man is capable of committing such acts?

We are told that education is what's needed to stop this behaviour.
Or religion, perhaps.
Or deterrents such as prison or the death sentence.
Or a democratic government in these troubled countries.
Or intervention from a more globally engaged community.
We are told the men who commit these crimes against humanity are dysfunctional individuals, monster-brothers spawned from a Grimm fairytale.
We are told all of these things but none of them provide a satisfactory answer.

And so I asked myself one last despairing question.
The ancient words proclaim that 'Man is born of woman' but where are those women now?
The mothers of those creatures who rape and kill so wantonly?
Where are they and how much do they care?
Did they not love enough?
Was this the thing that was missing in these men's lives, in their infancy?
Could it be, I asked myself, that behind every marauding monster there is an indifferent woman lurking in his shadowy past?
We blame those men who commit such terrible deeds, the governments who condone them, the dictators, the power hungry politicians, but we women are not blameless. Are we? The hand that rocks the cradle has a responsibility in all of this, too, has it not?

That hand, by definition, holds a certain power, however invisibly. I speak as a woman and a mother and someone who was born in the place that produced the world's first female Prime Minister.
If all the women of Sri Lanka were to speak out against this horrifying epidemic of violence, what kind of paradise might we begin to regain?

The Birthday Party.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hidden in the Rock

Let me be clear, I don't like flying but somehow I had forgotten about this when I agreed to attend the first Gibraltar Literary Festival. In fact it wasn’t the flying that was the problem but the amount of luggage I was taking with me. The list went something like this:

Coats [waterproof/warm/light weight]  
Shoes [ walking/running/daytime/evening]
Cardigans [thick/thin/various colours]
Summer dresses/winter clothes.
‘Co-ordinate them,’ advised a friend. ‘Layers, that’s what you need. Like a skier.’
Was there snow in Gibraltar then?
‘Going for long?’ asked my daughter, home for the weekend, eying my suitcase.
It was all very well for her with her tiny rucksack, her charmingly crumpled wardrobe and her youthful indifference.
‘Would you like a larger suitcase?’ my husband asked, helpfully.
But Gibraltar, when we landed was hot. The sea glistened entrancingly and almost everyone I noticed had much more luggage than me. Good, I thought, taking a hasty photograph of the rock, forgetting to set the aperture, balancing bag and laptop and passport, creating interesting camera shake and a boring photo in the process.

The rock, I was to discover, had many faces. At the moment it was salt-bright and blistering. At night it would be sometimes shrouded in mist.
Had I in fact brought too many winter clothes?
I had left at 4am to catch the plane so closing my eyes I let the heat and the conversation wash over me.  
Arriving at the hotel I accepted without the slightest hesitation the very dry sherry, liquid gold like the sun, that I was offered. Then, opening my sketchbook, squinting against the light I began to draw.

‘Good,’ said my husband, when I rang him a little later. ‘You’ll have a nice time, I’m certain.’
‘Sherry at lunch time?’ asked my daughter, doubtfully. ‘Is that a good idea?’
Two monkeys trod the pergola as though they were walking a plank. It was time for me to explore the town.

I wanted to discover the real Gibraltar. I had written a short story especially for the festival. I had written it with no knowledge of either the people or the place. It was a story of the frontier closure in 1969 and I had decided to tackle the emotions I imagined had been present at the time. Tackling emotions is after all what the novelist does. But I had written the story in England and now the reality of presenting this to a local Gibraltarian audience was another matter. Was it possible, I asked myself, to write about a place and a people I was unfamiliar with?
The sherry and the sun and the lack of sleep had made me sleepy, but somewhere tucked into my unconscious was the hope that I would get a real sense of place from this short visit. I passed the park where a group of tourists watched a very small ape vigorously shake a taxi sign. When they laughed the ape glared at them. I swallowed. Perhaps I should change my story, write a different one, something about a place I knew well. 

I walked on marvelling at the cleanness of the street, the green sub-tropical ferns, the palm trees, the sense of not-quite England. Everywhere I looked in the old part of this tiny town there were beautiful wrought-iron balconies, cascading plants, white washed walls. All of a sudden I was reminded of part of another city I had visited for another festival; Paddington in Sydney, Australia. 

I had gone there at the beginning of my career as a novelist and then too I had taken a risk with a story. Perhaps taking risks is what it was about. And the luxury of a ‘live’ audience somehow demanded it.
Hurrying past me in the sunshine was a Sephardic Jew, followed moments later by an Arab woman and her children. A faint smell of flowers drifted with the breeze as a squadron of seagulls circled overhead.
‘We pull together,’ said Luis the shopkeeper, when I stopped to buy a few copies of his photographs of the referendum in 1967. ‘And largely speaking,’ he added, ‘we all get on.’
The following morning, with still a day to go before the festival began, the organisers laid on a lavish trip for the writers. We planned to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa, take a moment to pause, to relax and do that rare thing, talk to one another. For we writers are solitary creatures, full of self-doubt, obsessed with our work. Tangier then, with its faded glory, its literary past, its touch of crumbling melancholia still present if you hunt it out, was the perfect place for such a moment. Sailing across a softly-tinted sea all these decades later I could not but think of that other journey taken, long ago, with my mother. I have never really forgotten it although at the time it had seemed unimportant. But then nothing sorted out the important moments from those ordinary ones at the time they take place. That can only happen later.

In the book that I was reading by Camus a line sprang out at me.
‘I listened to an almost forgotten sound within myself, as if my heart had long been stopped and now was gently beginning to beat again.’

Perhaps this is the real reason we travel. To make the heart beat again, to see with fresh eyes those things we once marvelled at in younger days, to feel as we once did? 
In the days that were to follow I would have many interesting conversations. One in particular about the writer Sebald and his use of found photographs would stand out like a beacon over all others. I knew I would remember this for years to come. 
I had come to this festival to talk about writing and my books but the place and the circumstance were giving me so much more. This surely is the joy for the writer at such an event. 

Later, after lunch, having wandered through the souks of Tangier, it was time to leave and catch the ferry back to Tarifa. But I did not leave empty handed. No, I carried the somnolent light of the town, its saffron scented streets, its rose-washed buildings back to my hotel room in Gibraltar where, rereading my short story again I decided, no, I would not change any of it. 

The following morning the festival opened. Now began a feast of a different kind; food and travel writing, journeys of the mind and explorations of the past were laid before the Gibraltarians in all their glory. And then, in an extraordinary moment of good luck, in between the writer's sessions, I found what I had all along been looking for. 
It was a treasure of a different kind, a photograph album with snapshots from an intractable past, a glimpse into a Gibraltar that I had hoped I would find but never believed I would. Here it was then, the thing I had been searching for in this land of rock and air and sea. Suddenly in that moment I was afforded a small glimpse of what once existed but then was lost.

Roma Tearne appeared at Gibraltar’s brilliant new Literary Festival [The Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival] with a specially written performance piece called The Constant Moon.

The Independent Review.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Rani's Story

The place has been difficult to find and I am late.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
And then I hand her the bunch of flowers bought on impulse. It is an unremarkable day in February. The sun does not shine and the damp air threatens rain. I have travelled up to London for this interview but at the station I hesitated, then bought some hyacinths.

The girl I am about to talk to, Rani, is twenty-six, and because I too am Sri Lankan I am interested in her story. But still, I must admit, I have been dreading this meeting. For I am neither journalist nor councillor, lawyer or doctor and I have no experience of interviewing someone who has endured what she has. So, as an uncertain gift, a token of respect, I have brought her flowers, blue as a tropical sky, scented like the air of her lost childhood. I hold them out and instantly see, even before she says a word, a desolation in her face. She is detached from her surroundings, muffled, in some way. The interview room is small. A low bed, an empty desk, a blank computer screen. No plants, no pictures on the walls, nothing personal. When I came in I noticed a row of grey socks drying on a radiator. A faint trace of incense hovers suggesting prayers. I am aware of listeners behind closed doors.
            ‘Tell me,’ I say, dismissing all thoughts of where I might be, ‘start at the beginning.’
But she cannot. Like all memories hers arrives in fragments, in vivid shards, hesitant flashbacks relived again and again in the retelling.
            ‘They killed them,’ she says, and I wait.
Once they had been six. Now Rani is just one. Alone; the emblematic story of the destruction of Tamil families.
            ‘On the ninth day of the seventh month last year,’ she tells me, closing her eyes, arms wrapped around herself, ‘my aunt rang me. She told me they had set my home on fire. She told me my mother and sister had been burnt alive. When I went back all that was left was their skeletons.’

The statement lies between us in a shock of silence. She has started with the thing upmost in her mind. Outside on the busy north London road a siren rises and falls, then fades into nothing.
Rani’s story is medieval in its savage retribution. It is a story of innocence, idealism, and betrayal in a time of civil war. One that is repeated again and again in Sri Lanka. To its shame the country has collectively mastered the art of camouflaging its horrendous crimes, bussing in western tourists to its golden beaches and fronting a campaign of faux-peace. So that the world with its limited attention span, its short supply of pity, turns a blind eye. In the glossy brochures and magazines of the west Sri Lanka is called the ‘Number One Holiday In Paradise.’    
Tamil harassment and persecution had been taking place as far back as 1958. Slowly, over time the Tamils were denied education and employment. Those who could, seeing the writing on the wall, like my own Tamil father (my mother was Singhalese) left the country. As the intimidation worsened, abductions and disappearances became common and no Tamil was safe.
Rani’s story began in 2004 when she was seventeen. She was an ordinary girl whose simple religious belief made her hope to become a school teacher to help Tamil children to a better future. Her father worked for a telecommunication company, her mother, a housewife taking in sewing and keeping chickens. Rani was the eldest of four children, all of whom, throughout their young lives had seen local violence between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an armed separatist movement). All of them had witnessed the frequent round-ups in which the Sri Lankan authorities made the villagers assemble for questioning. Rani clearly remembers as a young child seeing older children interrogated and arrested, never to be seen again. She had grown up with the palpable feeling of injustice metered out by the Singhalese armed majority to the people in the villages in the North East.  But in 2004 she was still a dreamer, an ordinary girl, who hoped for a better future. An ordinary girl for whom the time was out of joint.
And when on that fateful evening in 2004, a man, known simply to the family as ‘Uncle’ came to her house, walking up the steps to sit out on the verandah, requesting help for the LTTE cause, it was Rani, the passionately idealist who stepped from the shadows to offer that help. It was just another evening when the Nerium bloomed. Rani’s younger sister was fourteen, her two small brothers somewhat younger. How could she know then what she now knows? That her life and all the lives of her family would soon be changed forever?
Soon she was recruited into the Tamil resistance movement and used as some sort of spy but really she didn’t understand the significance of what she was doing. The LTTE arranged for her to work for a non-governmental organization. Her work involved visiting war-ravaged areas to teach basic health and hygiene. She assisted doctors in medical ‘camps’ while at the same time, remarkably, completed her A Levels.
But in 2007 other, more sinister events began unfolding. The LTTE started a compulsory recruitment of child soldiers in the build up to the final phase of the war. At least one child from every family was what they wanted.
‘How long was it,’ I ask, ‘before you heard your brothers were recruited?’  
At that Rani throws her head back and I wait for the storm to subside. The sound I am listening to cannot simply be called weeping. It is too wild, too primeval, too piercing. The sound goes on and on, defying words, the hopelessness a lament for lost love. When at last she speaks she describes how her brothers left at night, holding hands for mutual support. Neither of them, she says, has ever been seen again.

By 2008 hostilities between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE had moved to a part of Sri Lanka far from the north east of the island and Rani lost all contact with the rebels. Determined however to be of use to her family she took up new activities, attending courses in tailoring and cake making. But the harassment of villagers in her neighborhood continued so that suddenly, fearful of her past connection with the LTTE, her parents urged her to stay with relatives in another town.
Time passed and the war was over, in name at least. Rani was missing her family badly and in April of 2011 she moved back into her parental home. But, shortly after her return, she was arrested by the Sri Lankan intelligence forces, the CID. They kept her in jail for 10 days.
            ‘They tortured me so much’, she whispers, the coffee that has been brought in for her, untouched, growing colder.   
I am silent, unable to ask the questions forming on my lips so the interpreter asks for me, instead. Yes, she was beaten. Yes, she was raped, many times. As part of the torture they cut her big toe, she tells me and I shake my head in disbelief.
            ‘They hurt my mind,’ she cries, from deep within her curled up body. 
 With the help of a lawyer and an MP, Rani’s father secured her release. She was admitted to hospital for a month during which time her mother held her daughter in her arms and rocked her day and night. The only thing Rani remembers of that time is the feeling of her mother’s arms, the tenderness of a woman comforting her child. As she recalls this Rani too begins to rock gently. I look away towards the dull February light coming in from the window. Words are failing me.

            Finally, she left the hospital, a broken person. Those who have been tortured say that once their bodies have been violated they no longer belong to the world. It is this way for Rani. It was clear how very unwell she really was.  She hardly ate, could not sleep and the searing flashbacks that began then have never left her. The doctor she was seeing told her,  ‘forget the past.’  
She could not. What had been done could not be undone.
              After her release from the hospital Rani was obliged to ‘sign on’ at a police station each week but she found the sessions deeply distressing. The men there would pull her hair, sneer at her and run their hands abusively over her body. Any resistance would have made matters worse. At one point she tried persuading her father to allow her to stop the weekly humiliations. Helplessly he told her that this was impossible unless they moved away altogether. He tried but failed to arrange a student visa that would permit her to leave Sri Lanka and come to the UK. Then, on a bright November morning, on his way to work he was abducted. For some time now he had been watched because of his daughter’s connection with the LTTE. Later, on that same day, they found his battered and bleeding body dumped very near the sea.
              ‘Everything happened because of me,’ Rani now cries. ‘They killed him because of me’.
Her father had been the gentlest of men, she says.
            ‘I wanted to die after that. I tried poison – but my mother stopped me’.
And then she adds, chillingly,
            ‘If I had died my mother and sister would still be alive’.
After her father’s death, Rani, accompanied now by an uncle, continued to sign on with the Sri Lankan authorities. But by May 2012 she was no longer able to stand the abuse. Her mother frightened for her sanity arranged once again for her to go into hiding in Trincomalee.
              During those few weeks between May and early July Rani was too frightened to leave the safe house. Her mother rang as often as she dared but men from the CID had started making spot checks on their home in search of her daughter. Her mother continued to deny all knowledge of her daughter’s whereabouts.
            ‘My mother told me not to worry. She would somehow manage the situation.’ Rani tells me.
Then on 8th July her mother rang one last time. The men told her that if she didn’t disclose Rani’s address they would kill her instead.
            ‘Don’t come home,’ her mother said. ‘Wait!’
She spent a sleepless night, worrying. The following morning her aunt telephoned the safe house. The family home had been set ablaze. Rani’s mother and younger sister had been in bed.
            ‘I went back, then,’ she tells me, her voice indistinct. 
Arriving at the house she saw the villagers gathered in front of it. The moment is fixed forever in her mind, the silence of the crowd, the charred walls, the overpowering heat of the day, the smell of petrol. Someone, she cannot remember who, led her inside where two skeletons remained on a bed of ash. Everything slowed down and blurred. She saw a fragment of fabric from the dress she had handed down to her younger sister. Gripped by despair she fainted.
            Now there was no longer any reason to hide. What was lost could not be recovered. And although the police came back to harass her with questions, crazed with grief she no longer cared about her life. The villagers urged her to flee but she would not. Everyone, she tells me now, knew she would be arrested again and when they came for her in the white van she thought nothing could be worse than what had already happened. How wrong she was.
            For 47 days and nights last November, Rani was tortured and gang-raped. She was burnt with cigarettes, her head was pushed into a barrel of water. She was made to kneel while faceless men in army boots kicked her. Her distress served merely an incitement to further abuse. In the end it hardly mattered as she drifted, like a boat without oars, into semi-consciousness. Stripped of all humanity she had arrived at a place beyond human help. 
            At last, on the forty-seventh day Rani's uncle having bribed a CID officer managed to have her released. He took her to the coastal town of Mannar.

Now, in this silent interview room, with only the ticking of a clock, I am piecing together what happened next. I am piecing it through her tears for she can no longer speak in any coherent way.
She left Mannar that night hiding on the bottom of a boat. Leaving under a fistful of stars shining over a land that had betrayed her. Leaving, a word that sounded so like grieving, with the slow, slow, dip of oars into water. In this terrible way, in the torn and bloodied, semen-stained dress sewn long ago by a mother’s loving hand, carrying her broken body, she went.  Steering away from rocks that, so the legend goes, were placed there by the demon Ravana. Helplessly, sliding away from her home, shedding her past as though it were a skin. Leaving it as if it were a foreign country. Going from the place where she had been born. Sinking into the sea.
              Betrayed, she tells me, on this dull February day, ‘if they send me back from here, I will just kill myself.’
The scent of hyacinths is strong in the room.
            I have heard stories of how, in the process of the destruction of Tamil families, one shell of a person is left as a warning to others, so the brutalities could be spoken of and thus cause fear. Elie Wiesel, when he accepted the Nobel Prize said,
            ‘I have tried to keep memory alive… I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.’ 
This I think, is what I too must do. 
‘Don’t forget your flowers,’ I say, and I place them in her hands once more before raising them up to her face.
Behind the opening buds I see her eyes, as bright and as young as the blue-winged Leafbird from that place which we both once called home.


Since writing this article an anonymous benefactor hearing of her plight has offered to pay for any medical help that Rani might need. She is also soon to undergo counselling.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Planting a Bo Tree in Sri Lanka

In the aftermath of the publication of Frances Harrison's book Still Counting The Dead the discordant cawing of Sri Lankan male voices seem louder. I am hoping this is because the book is having an effect. Oscar Wilde said there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about. So it’s good that Frances Harrison’s wonderful book is being spoken of.
A week ago I was in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, where Coptic Christians and Muslims clashed in a demonstration. Men raging at other men, nothing new about that! Blood and anger spilling out in equal parts. But Egypt is not where I was born. The burnt out bus, the dirt, the corruption, none of these things move me in the way the mess in Sri Lanka does. Why do I care, I asked myself as I stepped onto the plane taking me back to Britain?

And as the flight path over rain-washed Sussex spread below us with its neat-green fields, its sheep so quietly grazing, I puzzled over the centuries of love and care lavished on this small island by its people. And the effect this has had on those people themselves. Wars have been fought to save their sceptred isle from enemy forces, its citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in unbelievable solidarity.  So that no matter how much you may cry Empire, or, hey, look at what the British did in such-and-such a country, what cannot be denied is the social conscience of the British people for their own home. Not all, you understand, there are always the exceptions, but for many it remains so. This land of wind and rain and grey scudding skies, whose magnificent parks were planted centuries ago for the benefit of future generations, is etched deep within the hearts of its people.
How lovely a thing is that?

Why can't the Sri Lankan diaspora, both Singhala and Tamil unite and care for their country in this way? Why do they simply blame each other, uncaring of either the bigger picture or the greater good, refusing to see the curse that lies on both their houses? 
Why do they not value the virtue of solidarity?
Or notice that there are dead to be remembered? 
Victims on both sides of this wretched, senseless, divide, crying out for attention. Isn’t the pity of it almost beyond words?
There are Sri Lankan children who have lost limbs, mothers who have lost children.
Trauma that will not simply go away, that needs careful handling for years and years to come.
What does it do to a woman to be raped repeatedly by a ruthless army? What does it feel like to know that no one will give you a decent hearing, that your own government couldn’t care less.
That your country’s army is a disgrace,
that its legal system is corrupt,
that its priests are too frightened to speak out,
that you yourself are worthless,
that your own side in the divide talk the talk of retribution,
when all you want is  someone to understands your hurt?

Shame is an emotion of the civilised.
Aggression, just a bully-boy crutch.
When has aggression ever solved anything? In which war?
It isn’t difficult to see how denial is being used as a delaying tactic in this struggle for lasting peace. And on the subject of denial every Sri Lankan has to accept accountability, in one way, or another, for it is only when denial is banished forever that the dove of peace will fly in.
Here, now, is that moment for the diaspora to make its collective, united entrance. To forget the game of blame, (the GOSL love the clashing of cymbals, it helps keep them in power. Remember the expression, divide and rule?), attend to those who weep, help all who have lost sight of reality (what is this Tamil state for God’s sake? Would the Isle of Wight be better if it had its own state?), demand accountability from the Government and learn that old-fashioned skill of caring for each and every single Sri Lankan citizen.
The greed and prejudice of fifty years has to stop here.
A younger, clearer thinking, new generation has to enter the arena, join forces, learn to really care for their country’s future and recognise that violence and division will do no lasting good.
Look at Burma.

Togetherness is what is needed, togetherness, built together.
From the country that produced the world’s first female Premier there should arise a new female intelligentsia that talk only of unity. They should banish the testosterone-infused rabid dogs in power, plant a symbolic Bo tree, many Bo trees in fact, form a sisterhood and begin to clean the land of its shocking disgrace. Nothing else will do. And all of us in the diaspora, every single one of us, should help them. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

Still Counting The Dead

Frances Harrison’s important new book on Sri Lanka, Still Counting The Dead is published this week. It was sent to me at its proof stage, to read. Such was the elegance of the prose that I read it voraciously in one sitting. I did not know its author, but I recognised the passionate commitment that this slight, energetic Englishwoman had for the vanished dead of Sri Lanka’s killing fields. Sri Lanka, that distant land where I was born and whose name is a song of childhood memory, a love though lost impossible to erase. I was stunned to find a stranger cared so much.

We, my family & I, left our home many years ago when the war was still   simmering out of sight. In those days there were only riots to contend with. Some broken glass windows on a bus, verbal abuse, a stone or two been thrown. Then, suddenly I saw some Singhalese youths set fire to a Tamil man. My father saw this too and also the writing on the wall. And so with the violence a hair’s breath away, we left.
What happened next is familiar history and, depending on which side you were on, the story differs. The Singhalese majority had their version while the Tamils, some of them, hounded for years, took matters into their own hands. Who amongst us can blame them? Which of us can take the moral high ground over what happened next? For of course what happened next was civil war.
The newly formed Tamil Tigers, beaten and hounded, psychologically and economically (their university careers and job prospects becoming non existent), took what they believed to be the only course of action by pitting violence against violence. Was it any surprise that grim death followed? That the chief casualty was innocence itself? Or that the great dark heart of revenge and bitterness took a strangle hold on the entire country’s psyche? Around the world today all Sri Lankan’s have a ‘view’ on the subject of the war even if they don’t voice it. Often this view is painfully at odds with the views of their fellow countrymen. No other civil war has managed to create such an astonishing cacophony of discordant voices and Frances Harrison is already finding this out.
Having spent time witnessing and interviewing victims and relatives of the dead along with decent Singhalese who have helped Tamils in their hour of need, Harrison has raised a clear voice reporting on the violence that took place on both sides of the divide. We know that both Tamil Tigers and Singhalese hard liners are at fault. That after the British left, long before any war started, each successive majority government persecuted innocent Tamils for decades. From this seething crater of injustice came the Tamil Tigers who, living by the sword, using their own people as cannon fodder, walked into the trap of becoming the aggressor. Losing what little sympathy they had from the International community they were labelled the terrorists they had become. Violence had cut its inevitable path to hell.

And now the war is over. All the Tamil Tigers are dead. And it isn’t easy to be critical of the dead. Still, in spite of this difficulty Harrison manages to take a balanced view. But it isn’t easy, the Tamil people are sensitive and some do not take kindly to what she has to say.  For while understanding what led them along this terrible road, the truth remains that no sane person can support any further desire for violence. The Tamil diaspora, their dignity twice violated, their homeland littered with land mines, their children maimed and killed, now, more than ever, need help to move away from anger. As do, interestingly enough, the disgraced Singhalese elite. The sad truth is that all this hatred, violence and grief, has worked its way through the skin of the country and into its blood stream, heading straight for the heart and head of the nation.
Thousands of corpses lie in mass graves created by the Singhalese military while the child soldiers, recruited by the Tigers, add to their numbers. Thus far the diaspora on both sides seems unwilling to engage with these shocking issues. Touch on them at your peril. For who will admit the great wrong done by so few to so many? Can the Singhalese elite stop using the anthem of ‘They-Were-All-Terrorists-So-We-Killed-Them’, and look at what they started all those years ago when the British left? Can the Tiger supporter abandon the crossed gun flag for another less aggressive symbol?
In order for a healing process to begin all white vans should be clamped, all weapons, both real and psychological, must be laid down. While memory, that most gracious of human qualities, needs inviting in with a flight of angels called up to sing the dead to rest. Frances Harrison’s book Still Counting The Dead is the first of those angels. Ignoring her words would be an act of monumental foolishness on the part of the Sri Lankan community, for she is one of the few messengers we have.  
Memories of injustice do not simply go away. Take a look at the beautiful film Nostalgia For The Light, about Chile’s disappeared and you will see the infinite extent of human remembrences and its refusal to be denied. Effort is what is needed. The effort of admission. Reading Still Counting The Dead is a start.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

'Summer's lease...'

It's that time of year at last when like the swallows we will soon be heading for the sun. The garden has become overgrown with the rain. While the unseasonable cold has held back the roses. But now they are blooming at last and the first of them is beside me on my desk. They will be gone, along with the summer itself by the time we return.

During these busy months I had not allowed myself to think of the little valley where we are going. Or the house that withstood the harsh winter of last year. Or the snow that piled up against the door, the ice that froze the pipes and the bats that nested in the roof. I did not think of the wind that would have lashed against the terraza, undoubtedly chipping off the paint and discolouring the walls. 
There will be work to do when we arrive; painting and cleaning and washing and ironing. The clothes line will flap with white sheets, the soot will be swept from the chimney, the cooker will splutter into use. I shall examine the larder, check out the tins, the dried pasta, the rice. 
On the way up from the airport we would have stopped to buy bread, butter, a few tomatoes, some mozzarella, a little piece of parmesan, some parsley, a few borlotti beans and a bottle of local wine. Although on arriving there will be a little cluster of presents awaiting us by the front door, Cargalla's way of welcoming us back.

We will see no one during those first hours for our friends in the village will tactfully leave us alone as we dust and shake rugs, sweep floors and make beds. The sun will turn slowly on the hillside shining dazzling pin pricks through the trees. And we will listen out for the nightingale in our Ulmo tree. While far above us on the Prati I will see again the place I wrote about in my novel The Road To Urbino. Then finally as dusk descends and the lights come out around the hillside and the smell of cooking fills the air, and the bats fly away to another deserted house in disgust, there will be the sound of footsteps on the cobbled lane outside before the first soft knock.   
'Benvenuti! Welcome back!'

P.S. As last year, share your summer photographs now on the theme of all things Green. I will post them up in September.