‘I rode back home that day watching fires burn the places I knew and loved. I watched mobs hunt for petrol. A curfew on the streets meant some areas were deserted, by the people who knew they were under attack, and in hiding. The mobs kept going though, despite the curfew. I watched the police stand by and help them search for their targets. They laughed together and spoke like old friends. It kept going for days, and it seemed like no one up there cared.’
That wasn’t about Digana.
A man emailed me his story, because talking about it still shakes him. Twenty-something and returning home from Fort to Wellawatte on his bicycle, terrified for what lay ahead, till his neighbour stepped in and saved his life. It is a warm July, and the year is 1983.
‘Curfew was put in place that day, but it seemed to be for us and not the rioters. In the hours that followed, the extra policemen they had deployed – supposedly for our protection – stood back while allowing the mobs to carry on. After being looted for valuables, they burned our houses with petrol bombs. There was a blackout, and the STF used their powerful lamps to help mobs find their targets in the dark, so they could stone their homes. Why did they let them carry on for so long?’
That wasn’t about Digana either.
A lady whose passports and emergency bag are packed, just in case. A teacher, she told me escaped as the mobs were moving from Aluthgama to Dharga Town, and returned to find her home classroom destroyed. It is June, during Ramazan, and the year is 2014.
‘These attacks are happening during curfew, the mobs are still running everywhere. An entire row of shops were burning and police were merely watching this with their arms folded. They were using petrol bombs and iron bars to completely ruin homes, shops, holy places. The army and STF arrived hours late, when the rioters had moved onto destroy another area. There was no one to order them otherwise, no one to protect us.’
That was about Digana.
It is an account from a young boy that laments how people, law enforcement and leadership failed those who needed them most. As they always have. Condemnation came long after the fires had burned out, and by then it was too late. It is an average March, and the year is 2018.
Sri Lanka’s history, in the wake of Independence, is a series of cycles of violence; one burning out as another begins, much like the fires of the destruction that burn unchecked for days. The most upsetting accounts from the last month have been those that tie these three incidents together; actors and methods are slightly adapted to the times, but intent, destruction, complacency and slow response are constant. The one thing that changes is the timestamp on the news report.
The anxiety of not knowing how your life will play out when there’s a target on your back. The flight response of looking to leave home, leave this country that won’t keep you safe, to somewhere alien but secure. The feeling that those who are meant to protect you and take decisions on your behalf don’t actually care about what you feel. As one generation moves the memories of violence to the far chambers of their memory, another fire begins – seen, witnessed, traumatising one generation and retraumatising another. This goes on until no one alive at any given time in this country has lived at a time of complete innocence.
Digana is Ampara is Gintota is Aluthgama is civil war is Black July and beyond.
There might be some saving grace if the violence ended with the silence of the weapons, if it wasn’t allowed to linger the way it does. But it remains.
In wounds that have begun to fester. And when you live with that ache for long enough, you convince yourself that it’s normal.
I don’t have a political, social, historical, legal analysis of what we can do, anymore than I have a psychological, human, emotional understanding as to why people carry out and perpetuate violence.
I am exhausted with moments of hope being seen as happy endings to a problem that runs in our very bloodstream. Reading unfolding atrocities makes one weary, especially when you don’t have the option to airplane and disconnect as the news keeps pouring in. But when a photo of the rare but admittedly heartening good news surfaces, it almost serves to render the painful reality silent. It is plaster on the festering wound.
Our history has been a series of these plasters, and botched attempts at surgery that have made things worse.
Putting two people from different communities together in a good photo together and calling it unity.
Driving through a former combat zone to your holiday resort and calling it peace.
Titling an obscenely expensive gathering in three languages and calling it reconciliation.
I know that what saved that man, that lady and that young boy was kindness and generosity of those who protected them. I know that those stories are told with great pride, that people risked their lives to keep others safe. I admit that acts of that nature are incredibly humbling in their service, and are things we need to remind us that good things are possible while our world crashes down around us.
But that man, that lady and that young boy fear that all of this can happen again, because those who wronged them the first time were never held responsible for their actions.
Unafraid of punishment, because it never comes for them, they do as they please to those who don’t always have the power to fight back. Their actions sometimes provoke violent retaliation. Their actions also invoke quiet submission to maintain a feigned normalcy, affording the space for another violent attack.
Change needs to come as justice – in condemnation, in action and in prosecution. When we don’t fear to tell people that they are wrong, despite the language that they speak or the colour that enrobes them. When we understand that all are worthy of dignity, and do not slow the slightest hesitation to punish those who compromise that. Not a plaster, but a slightly invasive surgery that, while painful, will start the healing process to eliminate the virus for good.
In a history such as ours, this justice will be the greatest change.