What do we do about the tears, post-LTTE?

By Malinda Seneviratne

(April 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Hostages have been taken throughout history and across continents. There have been many attempts to rescue hostages and given that hostage-takers are not exactly rational men who can be reasoned with, they have more often than not resulted in failure. ‘Entebbe’ was supposed to be the greatest hostage rescue operation. There was also the great Columbian hostage rescue operation. The first was in July 1976 and the second in July 2008. There’s 32 years between them, almost to the day.

And there are failures; high profile failures. In April 1980, Jimmy Carter launched Operation Eagle Claw to rescue 52 US citizens held hostage in Teheran by Iranian students. A sandstorm, malfunctioning equipment and poor planning ensured that the mission failed. In November 2008 we had Mumbai in the grip of terrorists. The elite commandos of India took on a handful of terrorists. None of the terrorists escaped, but over 200 civilians were killed in the process. Among them were dozens of hostages. Again, all things considered, it was a monumental failure.

It is against this kind of history that the efforts of the security forces over the past few months have to be assessed. The Sri Lankan security forces took on the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit and have so far freed over 120,000 civilians held hostage and as a human shield by the LTTE. It is by any standard an exceptional military triumph.

D.B.S. Jeyaraj, writing in the Daily Mirror ("Wretches of the Wanni earth break free of bondage," April 25, 2009) prefers to paint it as a ‘humanitarian triumph’ rather than a ‘militaristic success’. It is of course a resounding success story on all fronts. As Jeyaraj points out, it is of enormous significance that Tamil civilians defied en masse Tiger diktat and it is therefore a triumph of the human spirit.

The testimonies of the IDPs tell the story. They never believed that the Sri Lankan security forces would ever defeat the LTTE. They believed the LTTE leadership and followed it as it fled areas they earlier controlled. People from Mannar, for example, ended up in Palammaathalan, Ambalavanpokkanai and Puthumaathalan. They don’t have nice things to say about their would-be liberators. What this means is that Eelam is no longer an option they are willing to entertain, not even as fantasy.

Having said all this, we need to worry about the noises that people like Pranab Mukherjee, India’s External Affairs Minister, are making. The visit of Shiv Shankar Menon doesn’t look good. India has meddled and will meddle. Indian politicians, like any politician, will do what is politically expedient and not necessarily what is right.

That’s however India’s business. The neighbourhood bully, I have argued elsewhere, will grind you to dust whether you sing his praises or call him what he is, ‘thug’. We are not talking about integrity here. Power rules and that’s the only rule, apparently. It’s something that is worrying, but something we can do very little about, apart from telling these ladies and gentlemen from across the Palk Straits that they are scumbags.

India will do what India wants. We, on the other hand, should do what we need to do. It is okay, I suppose, to pat ourselves on our backs as a nation for engineering the world’s greatest hostage rescue operation ever. We can celebrate the humanitarian triumph. We can celebrate also the triumph of the human spirit, as Jeyaraj puts it. Is that enough? All done? Chapter closed? No.

The human spirit does triumph now and then. It is, however, typically bogged down by crass politicking, parochial interests, diurnal prerogatives etc. The challenge is to keep it alive, to feed it, nurture it, and do what’s necessary to make it the focus of all efforts post-conflict.

Tomorrow, Prabhakaran will be captured or killed. Or, those ignorant do-gooders who can’t distinguish reptile from human being will pick up that vile creature with potent sting and give it a home in their collective and sorry laps. Tomorrow, also, there will be Sri Lanka, with variable degrees of sovereignty. Tomorrow, the IDPs will be resettled. Tomorrow there will be development, the bridges, roads, schools and hospitals. Tomorrow, hopefully, there will be constructive engagement with elected representatives of Tamil people who, hopefully, will articulate true grievances and reasonable aspirations. All this will probably happen. But tomorrow is also a day and a place where certain things will remain, will hurt, traumatize and cause despair.

The civilian who escaped the LTTE is a happy creature, yes. He/she is also a highly traumatized human being. I am thinking of the mother, father and relatives (if they are alive) of the little boy whose legs were chopped off by LTTE cadres to prevent him from escaping and as a lesson to would-be escapees. The boy is reported to have, thankfully, died shortly afterwards. I am thinking about a woman breast-feeding her child even as she sobbed over the dead body of her husband, shot dead by the LTTE. Again while attempting to flee. When there are half a million such incidents there can be a huge collective cry of horror. Or, as Brecht once said, since there have been so many reasons to weep, there could be silence. Tragedy is something that does not remember faces. It prefers numbers. So many dead. So many wounded. So many held hostage. So many freed. And these numbers become tools for politicians and the names and faces that make them up are left to cower and/or retreat into private lives, dissolve into secret tears.

Development will of course put a smile now and then on a face. Not so in lacerated hearts. The generosity of a nation determined to help alleviate the suffering of fellow citizens will no doubt be appreciated. Is it enough? Will it ever be enough?

What do we do with ex-combatants? Hang them all? Let them languish in the hell of defeat and demoralization? Let them be ostracized by a society which, legitimately, need not welcome them with open arms? I think not. These are young men and women. They are not saints but then again, neither are those who are quick to judge them. They are not only young, they are also endowed with hearts, hands and minds. They are endowed with that thing called human potential. Many of them have passion, energy and a commitment to hard work. They constitute an integral part of the human resources so necessary to rebuild our nation or at least communities and landscapes made desolate by a tyrant and in the process of taking that tyrant out.

What of the security forces. Heroes, one and all, but also young, also able, also scarred by what they’ve had to do, what they’ve had to see. Do they not require reorientation if not rehabilitation? How about the rest of us, who were forced to partake of this war one way or another? How do we get past that unhappy history many of us were born into or grew up with?

This nation is badly in need of an embrace, in need of a caressing of hearts and minds that can heal festering wounds. There will be scars and that’s not a bad thing, for no one should forget what has happened, the good, the bad and the ugly. There were all these things from all sides and we are all complicit either in the perpetration, the approval or the silence.

The war, perhaps, has only just begun. Paradoxically. The hardware, the intelligence and the human resources will be very different. On the other hand, such things do not require inordinate amounts of foreign exchange. We don’t have to forego anything. The Government doesn’t have to levy a war tax for this. We can draw on our values, our history and cultural heritage. We can reference the ethics embedded in our religious beliefs. I am a Buddhist. I take refuge and draw strength from a simple line: ‘Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta’ (May all beings find happiness in body and mind). I am sure there are equivalents in Hindu, Islamic and Christian teachings.

How the ‘human spirit’ responds to the challenges will, more than the triumphs of the military, determine who we have become and what we can be, I truly believe. A nation that recovered from a tsunami, two insurrections, corrupt governments, sadly anachronistic political institutions, and a war that ran for three decades is certainly capable of much. It must not, however, sit on its laurels. That would indeed be tragic.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who edits the monthly magazine ‘Spectrum’. He can be contacted at malinsene@gmail.com.
-Sri Lanka Guardian
manuri said...

how true Malinda,very very true

It is up to us and all of us to watch out for those political scoundrals of all colours and races.

Sri lanka stood the test in times all times.

sri lanka is blessed with its people who come out collectively in times of tragedy to help a habit instil by buddhism I guess.

but this nation and its people and the media men like you should watch out for the political masters who come to kiss the babies .

we have collectively learnt a lesson for the future and we should know when the trouble breeds and to eliminate irrespective of cast and creed all the politicians of green,blue and red and anything in between who are the perpetrators of our sorrows for 30 long years.

Truth took 30 long years to surface and it is a life time.

No more lies people no more