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Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

The long and bloody Sri Lankan war is over, and not a moment too soon. I really want to believe it. The alternative is too depressing to consider.

Of course, there is no independent verification – it has been a war without witnesses for the past many months, with no journalists or humanitarian workers allowed access. We know that history is written by victors, not losers. I am willing to take a leap of faith if that’s what we need to usher in the long-elusive peace.

As we stand on the threshold of peace, I am overwhelmed with memories of our collective tragedy. I hope we can once again resume our long suspended dreams for a better today and tomorrow.

I have lived all my adult years with this war providing a constantly grim, sometimes highly disruptive backdrop. I had just turned a teenager when the Tamil separatist agitations turned into a nasty guerrilla war. I have seen the war in its many different phases, including several uneasy lulls when guns were temporarily silent and truces were negotiated. I watched most of my own friends join the exodus of genes and talent from a land where they saw no hope or future. I chose to stay on, but questioned the wisdom of it each time a major atrocity took place. I went through six jobs and one marriage, and raised a child who would soon be the same age as I was when the war started.

It’s hard to believe that I survived this seemingly never-ending war. I realise that it has scarred me emotionally, perhaps forever.

But I am among the luckier ones: I have lived through it all with my life and limbs intact. Hundreds of thousands of my fellow Lankans haven’t been so lucky. The official death count, often quoted in the media, has been stuck at 70,000 for far too long. We may never know exactly how many lives perished in the name of liberation, patriotism, anti-terrorism and national security. We have only ballpark figures for how many were driven away from their lands and homes, or separated from their loved ones. No family has been spared. No one has escaped unscathed. This has been everybody’s war.

Lost generation?
We can assume that most combatants knew what they were fighting for, even if some were not convinced about the cause or process. In contrast, the larger number of innocents caught in the cross-fire often had no idea what they were dying for, or fleeing from.

Suddenly, the labels and divisions seem to matter less. In my mind, all the Burghers, Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils (to list them alphabetically) who perished in this war have joined a grim roll call of Sri Lanka’s lost generation. Among them were people I knew, worked with or cared for.

Two classmates who joined the official war effort soon gained wings: smart young men with expensive (and deadly) flying machines. One crashed in the prime of his youth. The other deserted soon afterwards; he has been living in exile since.

Some were dreamers and creators. Like my ex-colleague Sudeepa Purnajith, the talented cartoonist who died in a bomb attack on a crowded train in Dehiwala, on the west coast, in July 1996. He was 29 and about to get married.

Others suffered from both Nature’s fury and man’s inhumanity to man. Like tsunami survivor Thillainayagam Theeban, 16, who was shot dead in Karaitivu, on the east coast, by unknown gunmen in March 2007. I had tracked his story for a year after the disaster as a story teller. Apparently he was killed for refusing to be recruited as a child soldier.

I want to believe that these cannot and will not happen again. We must not forget the suffering and sacrifices, but if we want healing to begin, we must start forgiving now.

I remember the helpful words of William Makepeace Thackeray: “Good or bad, guilty or innocent — they are all equal now.”

I first invoked these words when the Asian Tsunami wreaked havoc in December 2004. As 40,000 of our people died or disappeared within a few calamitous hours, some of us naively hoped that the pounding from the sea would help end the war. That was not to be — much more blood had to be spilled before we reached now and here.

This 30-year war has cost at least thrice as many lives as the tsunami – young and old, soldiers and rebels, men and women, girls and boys. It has cut right across our various ethnic, religious, caste and class divides. “Good or bad, guilty or innocent — they are all equal now.”

Lasting peace, at last?
Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.

I remember the views of my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, who called Sri Lanka his home for half a century. He lived in Colombo through two youth insurrections and much of this bloody war, never once giving up his hope for eventual peace and reconciliation.

He was a master dreamer, but a realistic one. Listing ‘three last wishes’ in his 90th birthday reflections in December 2007, he said: “I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished — it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.”

Indeed, there is a huge gulf between war mongering and peace building. Can a generation raised on war cries and war drums easily switch gears? Just as the absence of illness is only the beginning of good health, the silencing of guns is merely the starting point on the long road to peace. I want to believe that we can sustain peace with the same fervour with which we pursued or supported the war – on one side or the other.

Can we as a nation finally stop glorifying the war and its weapons, and return to our cultural heritage of ahimsa? How do we turn the current opportunity for peace into something tangible and lasting, so that we don’t allow political violence and war ever again? Do we have what it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we eventually be able to liberate our minds from our deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the prism of us and them?

Can we expect the state to be magnanimous in victory, and begin to unify our utterly and bitterly divided people? Will our governments finally stop pleading perennial emergency and national security as stock excuses for side-stepping the rule of law, ignoring rampant corruption and other lapses of governance?

I have these and many other questions. For a long time, we were told to be good boys and girls, to keep our mouths shut until this war was over. It is, now, so I hope we can talk freely again.

We want to resume our interrupted lives and dreams. I dream of a land where the only label that counts is Sri Lankan, by descent or conversion. I have visions of not being suspected or presumed guilty by the authorities until I prove or protest my innocence. I want to live without fear of bombs, abductors and goon squads.

I dream too of a rapid return to the real norms (not rhetoric) of a functional democracy. This isn’t utopian: as children, my parents’ generation witnessed their country gain political independence, and they grew up in a land where people were free to discuss and debate issues; ask nagging questions when necessary; and change governments regularly at non-violent elections. These are norms, not privileges, in a free society. Norms my generation has forsaken, either out of patriotism or in fear of reprisals.

When will our state start trusting all our people again, irrespective of our origins, allowing everyone the freedom of movement, expression and dissent? Can our society relearn how to react to each ‘song’ and not probe the pedigree of its ‘singer’?

Just as important, how soon might we as a nation become tolerant and accommodating of each other – allowing the full diversity and choices in political belief, religious faith, intellectual tradition and sexual orientation? Would we see in our lifetime a pluralistic society that once thrived on this maritime island through which genes and ideas have flowed freely for millennia?

Our political leaders, in whom we entrust our collective destiny, now face a historic choice. Leaders of other nations have stood at such crossroads and made radically different choices. African analogies can go only so far in Asia, but at this juncture, it is tempting to ask: would our leaders now choose the Mandela Road or the Mugabe Road for the journey ahead?

We can only hope that presidents Mahinda and Mandela share more than just five of the seven letters in their names.

Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer, and blogs on media, society and development at: