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.

  • Gauribala

    Lots of countries including all in the West destroy books on a regular basis. If one has books of pictures depicting children as the gods have created them, they will be seized and burned in every country I know of. Why should Jaffna be exempt from this insanity.

    “When one encounters evil signs, one must, using appropriate gestures, exorcise the bad spell. Sighting monks and priests is a bad omen since they claim to renounce the divine experience of pleasure in the name of dubious moral values.”

    -Sadhu Shambhudasa

  • This incident is indeed very upsetting, I completely agree with you. Books are treasure troves of learning and should not be destroyed especially when they are sent to a place in dire need of such books (education is the only option for people leaving that place). However, surely if there was nothing wrong with the parcel, the authorities should have sent it and checked on it to see whether it was sent – since it was for a library. The postal service in this country isn’t the best but there can be ways and means of strengthening it in different ways. Certain priorities should be given to packages/parcels and sent in a proper system. One of the best ways I can suggest is to send it through an NGO or government representative there. Often, members of the media travel to the North and East all the time to cover stories. In the East, the SaveTheChildren foundation is stocking up a library for poverty-stricken children who need books and they have access to those places. You can check news or directories to see what other organisations work in the Northern area and send the books. Please be careful when you send such instrumental gifts of knowledge, it’s better to keep them until the war ends rather than send it through unknown means without the comfort of knowing that it will reach safely to its destination.

  • People fear what they don’t understand. Books equal education to many, and so the uneducated fear the education of the enemy. It’s a bit like being instructed on proper driving by a traffic policeman who hasn’t a driving licence himself and who hasn’t ever sat behind a wheel.

  • Ekcol

    14 years ago to take agriculture books bought in Colombo for use by the degree students in the Faculty of Agriculture of Univ of Jaffna, I had to take written permission from the then Commissioner of Essential Services in Colombo 3 and when that process is finished I had to submit a copy of each of the books for the various discipline in Agriculture to the Joint Operations Command in Colombo 2. That was to be sent to a professor in each of the discipline in Peredeniya Univ for them to give approval that the book did not contain any subversive material or knowledge that can produce bombs or other incendiary devices or information that would help the rebels. The lab materials or chemicals needed for soil science, food science, biology, agricultural engineering workshop were all banned.Ttypewriters and reams of papers were all restricted and the permission of theCommissioner of Essential Services and JOC were needed. Cricket Helmets were banned. So are shotput, discus and javelins, becuase the SL Defence Ministry thought the LTTE will use the iron in it to make weapons!!! 14 years and not much have changed. Jaffna is a garrisoned peninsula controlled by the gosl armed forces.

  • Asoka

    Some times explosives are packed inside the books in a hole between pages. It had happened earlier. So the checking of books is also important in present situation in Sri Lanka.

  • It is sad indeed when an innocent package is ripped apart or destroyed due to paranoia and suspicion of the recipient. However, the context in which it is viewed must also be taken into consideration; how many innocent looking parcels and bags have exploded within cities and on roads and how many innocent lives have been taken?

    The root cause for all of this pre-dates the birth of any of the people who are fighting or ruling; to the times way back when successive governments decided to accomodate nationalistic hardliners who cannot tolerate any other point of view. These are the same folks who teach others to be tolerant. I among many, as Buddhists, have constantly and consistently been let down by the clergy of my belief system making me ashamed.

    The cause of all this suspicion is due to the inability of some to be tolerant and accomodative of all. If the tigers were not fighting… if the government was accomodative of minorities… if unity superseded nationalistic platforms… if prejudice was a thing of the past. If only indeed.

  • Nandagupta

    I am glad that the librarian took his/her time to bring this situation to the reader.
    This is a true reflection of the psyche of the today’s people in Sri Lanka. What makes these innocent people so paranoid? When I was in Sri Lanka back in 1977, I send a parcel to a friend in Jaffna. No one asked any questions or bothered me. They stamp the package and I paid few rupees for the stamps. Many times I visited Jaffna, no one checked my vehicle or questioned me. Can you do that today without all check points and permissions etc.? Environment is different today. There is lot of fear, distrust, and anger. JVP and LTTE are the main responsible parties for this sad situation. What the reader experienced here is very minimal compare to the agony people go through in Vanni and other places. The government has the responsibility to eliminate terrorism and bring a fair solution for all it citizens, not divide but unite. I think the government is trying its best. Schools, civil society organizations, temples, kovils, mosques and churches have a great deal of healing work to do.

  • Jack Point

    Explosives packed in books…. But these are books going to Jaffna, what does it matter even if they do contain explosives?

    Or are you suggesting that explosives are transported in minute quantities through the post?

  • This does not suprise me at all.
    The state of Sri Lanka has always denied and sabotaged books in Tamil Sri Lanka.
    The 1981 burning of the Jaffna library( 95,000 books) was aided by the then Sri LAnkan government. This is one of the biggest book burning activities of modern history.
    Hardly anything was mentioned in the Sinhala or English media then

    So for all those apologists who have commented before me, saying that this is necessary because of the LTTE bombing tactics, why did this happen even before the LTTE was a major force?

    Look at this way. If the state cannot provide even the basic of services to its citizens then it is quite rightly they fell they do not want to be part of it.
    you are adining separation by your xenophobic actions

  • peace

    Books – the world between pages – what a wonderful thing!

    With todays exposure to internet and the world, who needs books to tell anyone how to make bombs. When people who are mad enough to put in websites all the details of every weapon that can be made and bought. Even children have access to this kind of informtaion.

    However, I am glad that checking is done to protect innoscent civilians in which part of the country they may be in. However, what I cannot understand is why, after all that checking the books have not reached its destination.