Colombo, Disaster Management, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict

Painting the tomb white

“You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead people’s bones and every kind of impurity.”

The disturbances in Sri Lanka are slowly drawing to an end. I call it disturbances as many times we have heard the authorities say that it is not a war. But if it is not war, then it must be treated under the law. But then again it is a problem of terrorism, and the word terrorism itself is now played in a fast and loose manner. This prevents any application of law, international or local upon it.

At a time when to speak for or against these disturbances is to be done with great fear and trembling, we must stop to discover or consider the situation at hand. While being a unique situation in a unique country amongst unique people, the problems are nonetheless similar to that which has drawn much wider international attention. (Or is it that we may also be getting equal attention but I am unable to hear because of the noise in the local scene?)

At a time when many would prefer to look for precedents worldwide to draw parallels to our country (Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo to justify the GOSL or Rwanda from the side of LTTE) it seemed wise to view Gaza and its unfolding events to view the apathy of the international community.

Gaza which drew the attention of the international community saw that the conduct of both sides was very much less than satisfactory, even dismal in accordance to international humanitarian law and associated human rights which are held sacred by the UN. When things finally began moving the horse had already left the stable, and the door was closed in vain.

Like wise in the current context the International Community remained mute. Until the 26th January, when the Secretary-General was finally moved to issue a statement pleading for respect for International Humanitarian Law, but the world couldn’t be bothered. The shameless disparities in international attention are just part of humanitarian business in the humanitarian field.

Meanwhile the Tigers (claiming to be the liberators and heroes) are preventing people from leaving the conflict zone. In fact they gleefully hold back civilians keeping them as human shields so that whatever military action taking place will directly affect them. The propaganda that is generated by them is fed to the Diaspora and which further aggravates the situation. The Sri Lankan army with its much sophisticated hardware, are nevertheless pushing on, under the orders of the ruling party in a mad rush to re-claim the land. Disregarding the fact that people are kept as a human shield against their wishes, and that they need to be protected if genuine liberation of the same community is meant, indiscriminate shelling that takes place where civilians are present continues to feed the LTTE’s propaganda and cause.

Attempts by the Sri Lankan army to set up a safe zone outside its area of operations foundered in the past few days, resulted in dozens of civilians killed amid mutual recriminations by the combatants. Some Tamil civilians have managed to escape the Vanni, and are recounting their harrowing tales of threats and massacres taking place whether it is of the Tigers shooting to stop escapees or getting caught in the Army shelling of LTTE positions.

At the moment most of the luckier escapees are being held in government-run fenced in camps and there is virtually no way of their stories getting out. While the LTTE capitalizes on the horrors in their areas caused by the military operations, the GOSL uses whatever small stories of hope to capitalize in defense of their actions. Information is so very tightly controlled that whatever stories slowly pieced together can be shot down with enormous amounts of counter propaganda. Common sense is abandoned, to believing only the fanciful versions. Here again if we must, we can draw precedents from the past. i.e. the reluctance of the allies to prosecute aerial bombardment during WW2 as more damage and death was caused by the allies than the Germans. When this has already happened how can we say that it is not happening here? So it is that history is always often written to vilify the villain and beatify the saint. The lack of information makes it even more difficult for the world to focus on the conflict, exactly what both parties want. While the parties to the conflict attempt to score propaganda points within the narrow confines of the national press and the global Tamil solidarity network.

In the mean time a group of Sri Lankan citizens are confined to ‘welfare’ centers in districts bordering the conflict zone with many of their inherent rights such as their freedom of movement restricted, hopefully waiting for the day that they can return to their relatives when the war is over or when the GOSL deems its safe for them.

But those in the camps are the lucky ones, with almost all the civilian population of the Vanni being displaced; humanitarian assistance is sporadic at best; with around 250,000 civilians still trapped in a conflict zone (GOSL estimates are only half this number since of late)

Truly as we look at the situation, everything is in disarray, and injustice is rampant. Whitewashing of graves take place on a daily basis. Whether it be the International Community which trumpets on ‘Human Rights VS Sovereignty of nations’, or the GOSL which trumps on the battlefield ‘victories’ or the LTTE trumpeting their cause of ‘freedom’.

Law and order are secondary. Whatever happens, every human being has a right to live whether innocent or not. And right now as the innocent are crushed, we should stop blaming each other and start looking at what each of us has done. Sometimes doing nothing is the most evil thing anybody can do. Blaming the system, we forget that we make up the system and it is our support that keeps a regime in power.

The army maybe getting closer, but there is still the question of the civilians, our brothers and sisters, who are the real victims, ending up in the middle of something they did not start or want to be part of. Is the piece of land worth the lives of all the youth that are scarified as combatants in the battlefront or justify the creation of so many orphans and widows? Is the end of war the beginning of peace? Or is it just another whitewashed grave, leaving so many bodies underground and nurturing so many broken hearts and grudges?

There is no hope of moving forward if we cannot even remove the mistrust, prejudice and hatred we have among ourselves. We have to have the intellectual empathy to accept that everyone has justified grievances. The Tamils have justified grievances against the State about their treatment. The state has the right to ensure that everyone within its shores is looked after justly and equitably and that civilians are not harmed in any way. But we are blind to the little things that fan the flames; from the nonchalant attitude to those who are different to the failure of being accommodating differences and expecting by default for the minority to conform to the majority.

It is for everyone to be loud so that we can shout against injustice no matter where it is committed and who commits it. For as Martin Luther King said, “the tragedy of the situation is not that the bad people are loud but that the good people are very quiet”. Quiet from fear of being wrong, being persecuted, being marginalized. We must agree to disagree, there is no black and white, just shades of gray wherein each of us must wade.

A tomb is a tomb, the place where everything ends, and where decay takes place. No matter how beautiful we make it outside it is still a tomb.