Photo courtesy JDS/Guy Calaf, Agence France-Presse​

By the time this article is published, the votes on the hotly-contested UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka will have been cast and counted.  I am writing this as the debate over the resolutions is taking place in Geneva, and I find myself wondering if the outcome will be meaningful for the lives of hundreds of thousands of victims of our 30 year war.  Don’t get me wrong – I recognise the significance of the UNHRC resolution in terms of its moral and political symbolism, and that it may have profound implications for the Sri Lankan state’s position within the field of geopolitics and international relations.  I know that it will very likely impact the course of Sri Lanka’s national politics – even if I can’t anticipate the precise consequences.  Whilst I’d like to hope that the outcome of the UNHRC vote could lead to the harm and hurts of decades of violence being addressed in a meaningful and effective way, something inside me tells me not to kid myself.  Not wanting to to be heretical, I simply cannot bring myself to have much faith that the UNHRC resolution vote, regardless of the outcome, will make much difference to the lives of people who have been deeply marked by the conflict.

Much of the debate around the current showdown in Geneva has claimed that what is at stake is Truth, Justice and Reconciliation.  Over the past months, I have become increasingly sceptical that a process of international reckoning anchored in Geneva or a process of national reckoning such as the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission process are capable of delivering – even under the best conditions and with sincere efforts – what is desired from them in terms of this holy trinity.  I feel that these are blunt, bureaucratic instruments that are unlikely to produce the sort of truth, justice or reconciliation that is needed by those who are most entitled to it – the thousands upon thousands of us who have suffered direct losses and harm from the war. And they probably cannot really deliver it for the rest of us either.  Instead, I have come to believe that the path to a better kind of peace requires a different sort of approach – one that is deeply personal even as it must engage with the experiences of others.  It is probably something that requires honest and difficult processes for each of us.

In the past year, public debate about the facts of what happened during the final months of the war has been dominated by commentary on the details of (and even more often on the ‘vested interests’ ascribed to) the  Report of the Expert Panel to the UN Secretary General, the subsequent report of the GoSL Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’s report, and two high-profile documentaries from Channel 4 in the UK.

I chose not to watch Channel 4’s first ‘Killing Fields’ documentary when it came out in 2011.   I had been inside Menik Farm at the end of the war, and talked with people who survived the ordeal of the final months of warfare.  I had been with the relatives of those who did not escape the violence. What I saw and heard was enough for a lifetime. But what I learned was also messy, complex and inchoate.  The stories were fragmented; they occasionally contradicted each other and were sometime silent on the most difficult events; and of course they changed in small but important ways as time passed. These stories defied compilation, summarising, reduction, and in some cases even communication.  Still, by coming to know the people who told them, I came to hold inside me a mosaic of undeniable visceral truths about what took place in the hell into which over over 300,000 people had been cast.  I doubted that Channel 4 could reveal to me new horrors that I had not already felt.  The subsequent detailed debates in the media and in my social circles about the content and authenticity of the ‘Killing Fields’ documentary rendered my refusal to watch somewhat irrelevant – but seemed to confirm my judgement.

I was, however, struck by two things.  The first obvious issue was how the public discourse shifted so quickly from consideration of what had happened in the Vanni to a debate on the provenance of the footage – the images were shocking, but were they real?  The second was a more serious observation – that the controversy about the legitimacy of the documentary produced in the UK had completely eclipsed the reality that within several hours journey from anywhere in Sri Lanka you could actually meet thousands of people who had been through the events depicted, who had witnessed atrocities, who could vouch for losses they had experienced personally and were still suffering the effects of.

The two subsequent reports by the panel of UN experts and the commissioners of the LLRC suffered from a similar displacement of the voices of the people at the heart of the matter. The latter did see rare instances where some recognisable human experience broke through the procedural and political strictures imposed on the Commission.  Many of the people who took the risk of testifying before the LLRC did so out of a need for their truths to be told, heard and recorded.  The approach to testimony, in this case was quite inadequate for this purpose, as survivors were rarely able to speak on their own terms and were subsequently usually rendered in the report as mere ciphers, rather than as sentient beings.

In Sri Lanka today, our access to the truths of the final stages of the war need not depend so much on the verdicts of forensic experts examining photographs and video or on the credibility of well-referenced reports, as on our will to travel up the A9 to make contact with those who lived through that period.  On this small island, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a friend of a friend to make an introduction.   In social terms, Sri Lanka is still a village where we are never separated by more than a step or two from people with a first-hand perspective on how the war was really waged.  Truly hearing what people have to say (or don’t say) may be more the challenge – but overcoming this barrier is also a matter of will, patience and heart.

A retired friend of mine in Colombo, having viewed the government’s alternative version of the Channel 4 ‘Killing Fields’ documentary asked me if I really thought that the army could have treated people ‘like that’.  It was hard to imagine, he said, that they could have behaved like such beasts.  I had gently to remind him that from where we were standing talking on his balcony we could see the spots where the tortured bodies of suspected JVP members had been burned and hung from a lamppost during the terror of 1989.  He nodded slowly.  The truth of what the armed forces (and armed insurgents) were capable of was already available to him as a Sri Lankan who had lived through an insurrection in his own town.  It was just not very easy or pleasant to admit it to himself.

We ought to know better than to uncritically accept the half-truths and justifications purveyed by propagandists. Thirty years of war should have made us attuned to detecting disinformation, and an even longer history of violence by state forces and insurgents should have made us acutely aware of the systematic cruelty and criminal acts of which both are capable. Whilst those of us who have lived in or near the theatre of war have countless recent examples to caution us, those who are more detached need only to remember the extra-judicial tactics widely abused by the Sri Lankan state during the last JVP insurrection, the LTTE’s forced evacuation of the population of Jaffna to cover its retreat in the mid 1990s, the routine concealment of government atrocities whether in Suriyakanda or Sathurukondan, and the LTTE’s massacres of Muslims or its brutal methods for dealing with competitors and dissenters within the Tamil community. Even those of us too young to remember should be able to recognise the opportunistic and rather transparent methods used by both sides to discredit the few independent accounts of the conflict – allege bias, suggest conspiracy, label as imperialism, claim financial impropriety, question competence, undermine credibility and attack personally when under criticism – and should refuse to be distracted from the moral issues that really matter.

The unpleasant truths of what transpired during the final stages of the war – and indeed in the thirty years that preceded that – are not outside our grasp.  In fact, you might say that we already have some of that knowledge within us, and need only allow ourselves to recognise it.

Justice and Reconciliation
The question of what to do with the truth is more complex and difficult.  On the one hand, those of us who have suffered (and those of us who support survivors) have a desire to see perpetrators of violence punished or held accountable.  Yet, our thirty year war was more than a series of individual acts of murder, damage and destruction.  The violence was not just cyclical, but also structural.  Even as we abhor and condemn the cruelty of individuals who tortured, maimed, oppressed and killed – we have to acknowledge that they often did so within the context of terrible personal histories, forced enlistment, draconian chains of command, powerful ideologies of persecution, realities of repression and militarisation, and actual existential threats.  This is not to absolve individuals of responsibility, but rather to place their actions in perspective.

Perhaps most important to note is that the perpetrators of violence also carried out their terrible acts with the tacit or explicit support of millions of ‘civilians’.  It’s not a stretch to say that there is blood on all of our hands – from at least some point in the history of our long conflict.  We all bear some degree of responsibility for the commission of atrocities, even in our failure to oppose them in deed or thought.  All of us have probably paid taxes that bought bombs and bullets that killed people.  Most of us have voted for, endorsed or simply accepted leaders who bear direct responsibility for violence and loss.  Many of us have turned a blind eye to ethnic prejudice and even harboured it within ourselves. Others of us have justified unlawful killings as a ‘necessary evil’, rationalised collateral damage as ‘unavoidable’ or rejoiced (perhaps secretly) at the deaths of hate figures.  Still more of us have denied, minimised or ignored the suffering of tens of thousands who have been displaced, dispossessed or discriminated against.  Each of us has sustained the war machine in some way – I know that I have.  Whether or not we chose to acknowledge this at the time, it is not a defence now simply to say that we did not know.  All these acts are not equivalent under the law, but they have all contributed to enabling the harm inflicted on others. In moral terms, do they not belong to the same plane of violence? If so, who amongst us is then to cast the first stone? Is it enough to charge only those of us who pulled the triggers or those of us who ordered the bombers?  What do we about the rest of us?

Perhaps our approach to justice should not only be about holding others to account, but also judging ourselves.  If we wish for others to atone for their sins and omissions, then so must we.  Answering the question of how we can each do this is not easy, and is likely to be very personal.

In my own journey, I am trying to do this by seeking ways of responding to the circumstances of those whom the conflict has left in pain or in serious hardship.  I’m learning that this is far easier said than done.  People do not want sympathy or pity, nor I am equipped to help them get them what they really need – information about missing family members, replacement of lost livestock and decades worth of accumulated capital, decent work that will remove the necessity for parents to work in the Middle East, better health services for disabled children, help adapting to life after military service, the freedom to return to their own land and a hundred other difficult and important things.  Many people also want to be heard and have their losses acknowledged publicly.  This last part is something that I am able to help with, facilitated by friends and acquaintances – to be present, too listen to stories, to witness respectfully, to share with friends and occasionally to write about issues that matter to them. This is only a start and itself does not mean much, but I hope that it might form a basis for real relationships that may allow me to play some useful role in the future.

It feels far too early and presumptuous to talk about reconciliation.  It seems to me that the desire and means for overcoming anger, animosity and mistrust must come from within each of us as individuals, rather than be transacted at the level of community leaders or national figures (who of course, could set a good example).  The experience of being with people who have suffered enormous losses has made me realise that reconciliation is not a destination, but rather a deeply personal ongoing process of transcending and managing painful histories.  When I look at those women and men whom I admire deeply for their attempts to put aside their own hurts to relate to those of others – none of them talk explicitly about reconciliation.  They just get on with the work of recognising and connecting with the humanity in others, even those whom they have many reasons to dislike or even hate.

I feel that that we cannot afford to hold our collective breath and hope that the wrongs of the past will be resolved by war crimes tribunals, independent panels or government commissions – any more than we can wish the consequences of our violent history to simply fade from memory.    Regardless of the outcome and consequences of the vote on the resolution at the UNHRC in Geneva, acknowledging truth and enabling justice are processes that we ourselves must take responsibility for individually.  It may only be through this that we might be personally or collectively graced by reconciliation or real peace.