Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Crossing over to the other side of a unitary state

Part 3

The refurbished metal “Queen of Jaffna” gracefully strode up to the platform in Medawachchiya by 10.30 am – the time I usually start to begin to consider the prospect of crawling out of bed on a regular holiday. But this day was different. I was running without knowing why, being urged by Sachindra to hurry, and dashing along the platform without knowing what the rush is all about, clutching my travel bag by its failing strap and water bottle in tow.

It seemed the whole train was disembarking and everyone was running in from both directions of the platform towards the only exit. Sachindra was already standing in line and I joined him a few paces behind. Soon a throng of people were waiting impatiently, in a line that stretched beyond my view of the distant edge of the platform, to be interrogated and for their belongings and bodies to be dug and prodded by unfriendly policemen.

Having spent five years away from Sri Lanka, I could no longer take roadblocks and body checks as facts of daily life. My mind was no longer numb to the predicament of the lady in front of us whose neatly packed clothes were casually pulled out of her bag and routinely put back in by the male serviceman. My ideological right cerebral hemisphere was protesting her unquestioned submission to this gross invasion of privacy and the insensitivity of the individual policeman. I was next, and as clothes, chocolates and a torch were dug out from my bag, a residual anger frothed inside me, not so much about the inconvenience I had to suffer but for the embarrassment a fellow citizen, much like my own mother, had been subjected to a few minutes before. Yet, the less emotional left cerebral hemisphere kept interjecting that these body and bag checks made my journey relatively safer. Would she prefer a higher level of ‘customer care’ at the cost of an additional delay, perhaps an hour or two more for the entire train to be checked with gentle courtesy? ‘But the war is over’, the right side of the brain shot back. ‘Is it really?’ the left planted an arguably rational, but forever undeterminable, state-sponsored doubt.

It took another two and a half hours until all the passengers and the train itself was declared bomb free. By then, the entire length of the train, its every passenger and their belongings had been thoroughly checked. Our destinations, intentions of travel, national identity card details, those of our host and the intended date of return had all been recorded in a large register by two other policemen. I assumed their neck muscles would not have survived a single day if they had looked up from the register to spare a smile or polite glance at each individual traveller. Any terrorist, whose details were recorded in that book, would have the peace of mind that a search for his or her record in it would take longer than their life-expectancy at birth – however long terrorists and their human shields were expected to live.

I have a faint memory of the news of the “Yal Devi” train being blown up by the LTTE. There was even a song about it that I repeatedly heard on TV, “Yal Devi dumriya mediri, pipiree visiunaa… Thrasthavadin kala aparaaden, mithuran ahimi unaa…” I could not explain how, but after 24 years, I cloud still remember its tune and opening stanza. Would those people who lost their lives on that fateful day in January 1985 still be alive if the passengers were checked as we were? Between then and now, when did we stop writing songs for the friends we lost in this war? How could we have learned to be numb and submissive in the face of so much death and violence and yet have so much energy and sensitivity left over to celebrate its end?

I could not recall being so thoroughly checked or interrogated in any of my limited travels abroad. As permanent resident of Australia (but a Sri Lankan citizen travelling on a Sri Lankan passport) I would not be hassled so much on a visit to New Zealand. Here I was, travelling from one city to another within Sri Lanka as a Sri Lankan citizen! Politically, the war had been won and the country has been ‘unified’ under one government and its rule of law. Constitutionally, Sri Lanka is a unitary state because we can travel within the country without a visa. In reality however, under the provisions of the enacted state of emergency, it is more difficult Sri Lankan citizens to gain access to the northern regions beyond Medawachchiya than it is to enter Singapore – where Sri Lankan citizens are given temporary visas on arrival. Legally, we were travelling within a free and democratic country, but practically it felt like crossing over to another country. Literally, people get assaulted or threatened for publicly voicing such ‘unpatriotic’ thoughts.

I had embarked on this journey with preconceived opinions about the sanctity of life and the inviolability if human liberty, which had led to uninformed perceptions about war and its consequences. These moral and intellectual biases had tinted my understanding of society, its power structures and politics. In real life, through out history and in the foreseeable future, men and women suffer and sacrifice their lives in the service of preserving of these ideals.

I walked out of the station, debating the pros and cons of how we have chosen to fight terrorism and was confronted with the humbling realisation that my opinions, perceptions and biases were being challenged by the complexity of this reality that I had grown up with, yet knew very little about. My understanding of the social and political forces that shaped my life remained unchallenged by rational thought and their history remained tainted.

  • Heshan

    Definitions are but relative. If you think in absolutes, then you’re doomed from the start. So for example… take the case of the “terrorist.” This in fact a politically motivated definition. It is not the “terrorist” who need instill fear in the populace; it is the Government and its cronies. After all, a suicide bomber has but one act, one grand crescendo. The probability that you yourself will be caught up in this final act is roughly one in a million, the equivalent of being hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street on a green light in broad daylight.

    On the other hand, Government corruption, Government thuggery, and Government folly are far more pervasive. We can perhaps “convict” the terrorist – suicide bomber – for one act, but it is an act for which he pays the ultimate price simultaneously. On the other hand, our friend the Government does not wish to indulge in martyrdom and so resorts to a host of deceptive mechanisms to hide its sins.

    To simply hunt down potential suicide bombers and ignore the source of the problem – which is largely a political question – is to take a circular approach. Until and unless the grievances of the so-called suicide bomber are objectively weighed and an optimum solution is found, within the sphere of public debate, that is agreeable to long-term sustainability, the “terrorist” will re-appear, again and again. The terrorist need not be Tamil… the terrorist can appear in the form of zero future for the children of those policemen checking the bags, little to no improvement in the quality of the train one rides (due to an acute shortage of technically skilled workers), etc.

    To summarize, the real terrorist is Government apathy. Apathy that stems from presiding over a welfare state. Dealing with that apathy is far better than reminiscing about how a search might have prevented a tragedy in 1985. Look at the entire historical picture – as they say, the “sum is greater than its parts.”

  • Heshan, I agree wholeheartedly. If we consider real statistics, the probability of being a victim of a suicide attack is a lot higher than one in a million – possibly one in ten thousand or so (assuming a total of two thousand Sri Lankans – Civilians and military both) have died in suicide attacks out of a population of 20 million. the probability of being caught in a traffic accident is perhaps hundred times more considering i have myself been in two already in a third of my expected lifespan. but yes, i have considered these statistics with the same thoughts as your.
    the only point i would add is that for me, the line between the government and citizenry is not so distinct… and as for determining what’s more important and better is a subjective matter. surely, if one of my lovedones were a victim of the yal devi bombing, soucide attacks and terrorist tacktics would matter a lot more to me than the question of ‘apathy’ as you describe it – which is no less an issue.