Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, by Frances Harrison, Portobello Books, 246 pp, £ 14.99
“We used to be a very proud people”1 – Uma, The Teacher
Few years ago, during a very wintery January weekend, at a Copenhagen hotel, I was scrambling to prepare a last minute Power Point presentation for a conference themed, violent conflict and health. The reason was one of the Mullivaaykkaal survivors had agreed to speak at the conference’s public symposium as an eyewitness of Vanni war (witnesses from Iraq and South Sudan also spoke at the symposium). The presentation was meant to aid the witness while speaking at the symposium. I was planning for a very brief video or photographic presentation followed by few slides with texts, therefore I was looking for pictures and videos both in my computer and online. Suddenly I remembered about this particular video, which I watched back in May 2009. I managed to get the YouTube link for that video with the help of a friend, in that video, a healthcare professional is attempting to resuscitate (cardiopulmonary) a toddler boy with abdominal injuries and he is gasping for breath few times and later video is showing his dead body, throughout this ordeal, boy’s mother’s faintish sobbing can be heard in the background. I was watching this video with another doctor and I stopped the video in halfway because it was excruciatingly painful to watch, there was a complete silence and we didn’t speak for few minutes. Eventually we decided not to use part of the video, which is showing the resuscitation of the boy. Due to my medical training, normally I am ‘comfortable’ in seeing blood, flesh and injuries but this particular video is extremely agonizing to watch, the irony is, unlike any other typical video taken during the Vanni war, this video doesn’t show much blood or graphic visualisation of bodily injuries.
Here I am recalling my experience for simply to highlight the courage and determination of those survivors of the Vanni war to come forward and share their tragic stories with wider world. They are courageous in two aspects, firstly, for defying the security risk to them and to their families and secondly, their willingness to revisit the memory – even for few hours – of one of the most brutal civil wars since Biafra conflict. The level of dehumanisation and brutalisation of human life during the last few months of the Vanni war is comparable with the conditions of Nazi concentration camps.
Therefore it is extremely important for every reader of this book to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of those survivor-witnesses to the post-war discourse on justice and reconciliation. Whatever their personal political views may have been but one cannot find fault with their desire to see justice for the thousands of victims perished during the war.
The battle for narrative
For a long period, it has been said repeatedly, that victors and wielders of power dominate the historiography and narrative of communities and nations. Even now that may be the situation, but the contestation to the established narrative is almost a universal phenomenon and the contestation is equally formidable in the western world. Presently we live in a world, where one can opt out of being wired to the established narrative and discourse, despite being powerless and weak. This is mainly due to the increased access to education and the ever-expanding dimensions of the Internet technology. The Internet has opened up new modalities of discourse that can circumvent the established narratives. The politics – especially in the west – is increasingly heading towards a grinding halt; politicians are searching for an elusive centre point within the right to left political spectrum and the Occupy Movement is protesting without a programme2, in essence, the western society is facing its contradictions and flaws head on.
It is a form of post-political society, there is no ‘political action’ in Arendtian sense and we have many descriptions and names – from various intellectual traditions – for this present impasse, but none provide a way out of this. Hence the established narrative has become too irrelevant these days; people don’t bother whether the emperor is naked or dressed and they are content with tapping their iPhones. Since we live in an era with full of contradictions – where drones are assisting revolutions in Libya and a woman foreign correspondent is being “raped” by a mob celebrating the fall of Mubarak at the Tahrir Square3 – we are increasingly comfortable in having our own self-sustaining discourses, rather than coalesce into a dominant narrative. Because, the power is no longer exist exclusively in conventional modes and power also exists in new forms and networks.
It is in this context that the war in Sri Lanka ended with the defeat of the LTTE and the massacre of several thousand Tamil civilians. Because of the technology, Tamils around the world saw most of the pictures shown in the Channel 4 documentary, Killing Field, during the conflict period itself, in a real time fashion. The ‘international community’ and the UN knew what was happening inside the warzone through their own surveillance systems. The war was allowed to continue because there is no charity called NATO exists to conduct humanitarian interventions to protect humanity; it is merely a political and military organization meant to protect its member states. Ever since the end of war, in May 2009, the Sri Lankan state never had a monopoly on the history or the narrative of Vanni war. The exiled Tamils have switched onto full-blown neo-liberal mode – human rights, institutions and good governance – comfortably working with many right wing western governments, to rebalance the lost deterrence, the LTTE.
The Sri Lankan state’s success, at the Special session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in May 2009, was received with the satisfaction of being vindicated for confirming our distrust of the UN system. The Wikileaks merely confirmed our cynicism; we have increasingly become immune to surprises. On the other hand, Tamil nationalists have successfully managed to establish their own narrative regarding the Vanni war, as if the Tamil civilians were shelled and bombed by the Sri Lankan military inside a completely decontextualized space, where the LTTE had vanished into thin air. The UNHRC regular session in February 2012, this is Sri Lanka’s turn for being disciplined, Sri Lanka is effectively locked into an international mechanism; this cannot be undone, as long as the power wielders of the international system want the status quo to continue. Thus the Tamil nationalists have gained their ‘asymmetrical power’ in a new form, the Tamil-Sinhala political discourse has been stabilized, and the good and the evil dichotomy is impeccably intact. So the challenge for any ‘outsider’ – like Frances Harrison – is to make sense out of these, equally formidable, competing and ‘legitimate’ narratives.
A group of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychiatrists and lawyers, supported by the Paris based Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI-Sciences Po), the UN and few other international agencies, were engaged in a research, “how best to approach rehabilitation of post-mass-crime-societies” and they have come out with rather unconventional findings. The principal researchers state:
“Interventions in the aftermath of mass violence tend to focus on war crimes trials today, elections and institutions building tomorrow. The frame of reference is macro, at the level of the state, although the experience of mass crime by a population is also micro, at the level of community. When selective interventions take place at this level, they are generally premised on Western health models, infrastructures and institutions. In application, these programs have ranged too often from the ineffective to the actively unhelpful. A key reason for this is that insufficient attention has been paid to the radical transformations in belief systems and codes of conduct of the individuals and communities who experience mass crime. Such transformations define a host of reconstruction issues: questions of communal and national identity; justice and reconciliation; the redistribution of property, land and wealth; the writing of history; the rebuilding of trust; and the capacity to build a new political system”4
Thus the desire to impose one community’s narrative on the other, will never be successful in this globalised and technologized world, and will never help resolve the crisis of how various groups in Sri Lanka can organize themselves into a plural society, without perpetuating direct and structural violence.
The author of the book, Frances Harrison, former BBC journalist, has mentioned in her acknowledgements that she is “grateful” to Sarmila Bose, academic and journalist, “whose book on the Bangladesh liberation struggle inspired me to think of writing this book in the first place” [p. xii]. Though these words may be mistaken as a benign ritual of acknowledgements from the author to her former colleagues at the Oxford University, instead these words are very crucial to understand Harrison’s writing.
Bose’s book, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, has earned the unfortunate adjective of ‘controversial’ since its publication in 2011, nearly four decades after the Bangladesh liberation war. Traditionally, the history of Bangladesh liberation war and Indian intervention in then East Pakistan, are historicised on the foundation of established ‘facts’ and ‘truth’. According to Bengali nationalists, West Pakistan forces committed a genocide by killing nearly three million Bengalis and raped nearly 400, 000 Bengali women, hence the India intervened to stop the humanitarian catastrophe5. This foundation is regarded as absolutely unshakable truth and that is an inherent component of the Bangladeshi national myth – Bangladeshi liberation war and its ‘dominant narrative’. In Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Bose had attempted to test these established ‘facts’ by embarking on a detailed inquiry by interviewing victims and perpetrators and she comes out with far lower figures for the number of victims killed and raped during 1970-1971 period. Also her book discusses in detail about hitherto unspoken intra Bengali civil war, during the same period. Not surprisingly, she came under intense criticism and her book didn’t hit the shelves of Bangladeshi and West Bengal bookshops. Also Indian government was not happy for tarnishing facts surrounding its ‘humanitarian intervention’ in former East Pakistan. Nirupama Subramanian of the Hindu found it problematic to see the “moral equivalence Bose has sought to create between the actions of the oppressor and the oppressed”6 in the book, (she never had such clear-cut views on Sri Lankan ethnic crisis!). But unperturbed by these criticisms, Sarmila Bose defends her findings:
“Scholars and investigative journalists have an important role in “busting” politically partisan narratives. And yet, far too often we all fall for the seductive appeal of a simplistic “good versus evil” story, or fail to challenge victors’ histories…The publication of Dead Reckoning has spoiled the day for those who had been peddling their respective nationalist mythologies undisturbed for so long. Careers have been built – in politics, media, academia and development – on a particular telling of the 1971 war. All the warring parties of 1971 remain relentlessly partisan in recounting the conflict. As the dominant narrative, which has gained currency around the world, is that of the victorious Bangladeshi nationalists and their Indian allies, they stand to lose the most in any unbiased appraisal. Unsurprisingly therefore, the protests from this section are the shrillest.”7
Essentially Bose had attempted in her book, “the product of several years of fieldwork based research”, to demystify the “facts” that had been “exaggerated, fabricated, distorted or concealed”7. Therefore it seems that Harrison in her book, Still Counting the Dead, has embarked on a similar task of demystifying the “dominant narrative of the victorious” that is Sri Lankan government’s stated policy of “zero casualty”. Bose sees the casualty numbers of the victims in Bangladeshi liberation war as exaggerated whereas Ms Harrison sees the civilian casualty numbers in Vanni war as grossly under reported. Bose challenges the narrative of the ‘oppressed’ in her inquiry whereas Harrison seems to be challenging the narratives of both the ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’.
Still Counting the Dead, contains the stories of ten Tamil survivors, nine of them survived the ‘apocalyptic’ Mullivaaykkaal massacre and the tenth one survived the horrible ordeal of rape and detention by the Sri Lankan police. Each story is interspersed with first-person statements from the survivor and “author’s own opinions”, which seems to be “intruding” for Ms Jan Jananayagam of Tamils Against Genocide (via twitter). Unlike Bose, Harrison didn’t attempt to analyze the conflict in detail but she has succeeded in clarifying her position on many sensitive aspects of the discourse surrounding the Vanni war and the ethnic crisis in general. Initially I thought that she might be compelled to be ‘pro-Tamil’ in her writing in order to bargain the access to survivors. But it seems that she stood her ground; for example, she steadfastly avoided using the word, genocide, hence came under criticism from Tamilnet for “contributing an injustice” to those survivors8.
As we noted earlier, even after four decades, openly discussing about the events occurred during the1970-71 period is not possible in Bangladesh, hence it is nearly impossible to discuss about the Vanni war and Mullivaaykkaal massacre in an objective manner, it is too contemporaneous to deal with. In that respect Frances Harrison’s effort needs commendation for daring to document the survivor testimonies within few years of end of conflict. The author states that she spent many hours with survivors in order to record their story; it is a very sensitive and delicate task, since recalling wartime memories can be immensely traumatic to those survivors. It seems that Harrison has managed to deal with them with enormous empathy and has succeeded in protecting the dignity of those witnesses.
I must admit that I will not be commenting much about the statements of those survivors (a detailed analysis can provide valuable insight into the LTTE led Tamil politics); I am more than satisfied with the fact that they have come forward to share their ordeal with wider world. On the other hand, I have made following observations on author’s views that are expressed throughout the book.
Counting the dead: Not really
Harrison has made this comment – “Sri Lankans haven’t been very good at counting their dead” – few times in her book. And few reviewers have grasped that as the core issue of the book and the conflict in general; one reviewer is praising Harrison for “backing up her emotive portraits with hard facts and figures” 9. I found that – the claim of counting the dead – to be problematic in three aspects. Firstly, there are many individuals and organizations within the Tamil community – within and without Sri Lanka – have been involved in the task of documenting the death and destruction due to ethnic crisis and none of them are complete but those documentations deserve the description of “hard facts and figures”. The NorthEast Secretariat on Human Rights (NESHOR) is one such organization involved in the documentation and publication with details of the massacres and pogroms of the past. Also there were few initiatives by the Tamil diaspora organizations but none had managed to reach any significant progress in counting the dead – detailing each and every casualty by name and counting – on par with ‘The Bosnian Book of Dead’, which is a culmination of an internationally funded three years study 10. This kind of study is not feasible at the moment to count the Eelam Tamil casualty, due to the fact, it is impossible to carryout such study in Sri Lanka, though such a study is possible within exiled Tamils but it will be a partial documentation only. In the backdrop of this dire situation regarding counting the dead ‘projects’, Harrison’s implied claim, that the book is primarily dealing with counting the dead, is highly exaggerated.
Secondly, it is unethical to privilege the victims of the last Vanni war – over other victims of previous massacres and pogroms since 1948 – for this ‘special treatment’ of documentation and historicization. It is the pro-LTTE diaspora activists, who started this trend for entirely a different set of purposes and Harrison has merely succumbed to this trend. (I have argued somewhere else about Tamil diaspora activists’ newly found love for human rights11). Thirdly, whatever the facts and figures mentioned in the book is already available in the public domain and there is nothing original in terms of numbers.
The difficulty of gaining territorial awareness and two no-fire-zones
When describing the geographical locations, streets, towns and villages, apart from some major landmarks, Frances Harrison uses a general description and she doesn’t use any names. People, who followed the conflict very closely, will not have much problem in gaining the territorial awareness during the reading but it may be difficult for a non-familiar reader to grasp a spatial picture of the terrain. As noted by Emanuel Stoakes12, the author faced with the hindrance of lack of access to former warzone area but she had visited several times to that area in the past, when she was a BBC correspondence, therefore it is highly unlikely that she is not familiar with the territory. Most likely reason is that she has avoided using too many names of villages and towns to avoid confusion for a reader not familiar with Sri Lanka.
It is noted in the map, as well as in author’s own words, that there were three no-fire-zones declared by the Sri Lankan army during the course of last six months of conflict. According to the SL defence ministry website13, there were two no-fire-zones, the first one was declared on 21/01/2009 and the second one was declared on 12/02/2009, on 08/05/2009 “re-demarcation” of the second no-fire-zone was declared with the reasoning that “This has been modified to match with the present situation and after considering the concentration of civilians in the area”13.
Humanitarian intervention and moral hazard
Most of the survivors have made a remarkably same narrative of their hope for some form of international intervention to take place until the last few days of the war. On the one hand it is very agonizing to read repeatedly of this completely misplaced expectation and on the other hand it raises serious questions about the LTTE led Tamil politics for the last three decades. It is very difficult to believe that the LTTE was expecting an external intervention, knowing very well that they are a proscribed organization in all of the potential intervening countries. Here, I will be dealing with just one aspect of the LTTE politics – its complete disregard for civilian safety and its willingness to compromise the civilian safety in order to protect itself from military assault.
Alan J. Kuperman is one of the critics of the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and its previous incarnation humanitarian intervention; his critiquing is not based on the principle sovereign equality or non-intervention, rather his critique is based on a concept called ‘moral hazard’, that means the provision of protection against risk encourages or enables risk-taking behaviour14. Even former UN boss Kofi Annan noted that humanitarian intervention “might encourage secessionist movements deliberately to provoke governments into committing gross violations of human rights in order to trigger external interventions that would aid their cause”15. Now there is enough evidence available that the LTTE was gambling with civilian safety for an unlikely outcome of external intervention. Puliththevan’s exchanges with the author during last stages of the war demonstrate the LTTE’s awkward and obfuscative attitude: it had always spent its energy on how to keep others guessing about the organization, rather than forging genuine solidarity with others. The author has succeeded in documenting – though briefly – this problematic aspect of the LTTE under the chapter of The Spokesperson.
Pro-LTTE diaspora activism: the race to the bottom
The author makes a shocking claim, that during the last few days of the conflict, a “Tiger front organization in London, who insisted the [rebel] medics [who are trapped inside the warzone] should take their cyanide capsules because surrender was not an option”, when a Tamil doctor in London was attempting to save the lives of those rebel medics by facilitating their crossing into army territory. Harrison writes that she was “left wondering if they just wanted to score a propaganda point in the media, rather than actually save lives” (p. 67).
When I contacted this doctor, he said that he sought help from Frances Harrison to publicise the situation of rebel medics and their intention to cross into army territory, thinking that may save their lives but he was asked by a prominent Tamil spokesperson in London at that time, to keep quiet and not to make any ‘unauthorised’ moves, such as this. Perhaps I would categorise this revelation that can go with the cliché of ‘most explosive revelation’ of the book.
I hope Frances Harrison’s effort will go down in the history as a welcome first step in the direction of justice and genuine reconciliation.
1] Still Counting the Dead, p. 131.
4] Pouligny, B, Chesterman, S, Schnabel, A, After mass crime: Rebuilding states and communities, United nations University Press, 2007, p.1.
15]http://www.un.org/millennium/sg/report/full.htm paragraph 216.