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.