Colombo, Jaffna, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

For the love of books: A story from Sri Lanka

About six weeks ago the organization I work with received a letter and a telephone call from the Swami Gnanapragasam Library in Jaffna commending our work. They wanted us to send them any publications we could spare, as they were very keen to have resources related to peace and governance in Tamil and English.

They had also sent a letter and a fax previously, which sadly we did not have the time or funds to respond to. This time though, we followed it up. We decided to post a small parcel of books to Jaffna which resulted in some rather revealing incidents at the General Post Office (in Colombo) as narrated by our Publications Clerk (lets call her Jenny).

The books were taken in a package that wasn’t sealed so that postal staff could inspect it. Those who have been to the GPO will know that the multitude of queues for each activity – weighing, buying stamps, sealing, stamping and registering. The whole idea seems to be to find a way to waste as much of the tax-payer’s time and energy as possible.

But I digress.

On this day, upon seeing the package, a woman in the stamps queue started shouting “Menna menna jaffna walata parcel ekak!” (Here! Here! A parcel to Jaffna! in Sinhala) as if the package was contained dynamite.

“Oh goodness! A parcel to JAFFNA! Someone COME here at ONCE! Check this!” went out the shouting. Others in the queue shifted slightly away from Jenny.

Out came another woman – an official with the self-important air of one.  She proceeded to minutely inspect the incendiary package and interrogate poor Jenny with questions like “Why are you sending books to Jaffna?!”, her incredulity and suspicion stressing the words books and Jaffna.

Jenny replied cautiously, “We are sending books to a Library in Jaffna”.

About a quarter hour of inspection and interrogation followed. It was evident that the postal staff did not believe that anyone could have any legitimate reason to send books to the embattled Northern city.

After the package was neatly packaged, the postal staff then decided to strip it all apart and re-package it. Jenny did not bother to ask what the reasoning behind this was.

It is now about a month since the parcel was sent. We have phoned and followed up by speaking to the Library concerned and they have not received it yet.

As a Librarian I disgusted by people who destroy books. Who destroy learning. However, the sad fact of the matter is that there are people so blinded by racism and paranoia who will continue to obstruct and impede the process of reconciliation.

How is it that we have come to inhabit a country where sending books to a library is seen as an act that’s abnormal? Unnecessary? Even partial to terrorism?

Maybe this is why peace eludes us even when we are supposedly fighting a war for it.