The cost of war

by nkabom Sri Lanka’s Andi Schubert finds hope amid ruins. (August 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)When I got the email telling me I had been selected for Nkabom, I had just left home on the first leg of my trip to the Jaffna peninsula in the North of the country. Driving through areas that had very literally been at the center of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict was for me more than just a tourist tour to the north. I was traveling to the North with my uncle, to visit his home – a home he was rebuilding for the second time. A home that symbolized to me in some senses a return to a part of my roots that I was not familiar with, in all honesty, that I was almost alien to.

I observed and learned a lot in the week that I was there. I noted the selective memorialization – how some memories were glorified and memorialized in massive monuments and plaques while others were torn down and defaced. I observed the elephant in the room: the LTTE - now militarily no more, its leaders decimated over a year ago. But their presence hung around in the most unusual places – next to an ice cream parlor, in a children’s park now guarded by armed soldiers, in the bullet marks on a fort constructed by my ancestors and in the murmurings of the people I met. I saw the incurable optimism of people like my uncle who were rebuilding their lives for the n-th time. Not just rebuilding, trying to convince others that once again this time there would be something tangible, permanent and long lasting. It’s incurable – this optimism – and it is everywhere.

But I think for me the most powerful image I’ll take away with me from this trip is the visit to this ruined Hindu temple. The construction of Hindu temples in Sri Lanka is generally undertaken by a rich benefactor in contrast to the construction of Buddhist temples which generally receive considerable State support and patronage. We came across this temple while attempting to reach Pooneryn by road (we were turned back by the Army halfway down the road). The temple belfry had the year it was constructed – 1944 – displayed just below the bell. We removed our slippers and walked into the temple premises, the thorns of the weeds growing wild on the ground pricking our feet while the heat from the searing mid day sun burned the soles of our feet. The first thing that struck us was the tin shed – in the middle of the temple. It housed the temple gods. All resplendent and regal wrapped in the choicest silks but housed in a tin shed – since the temple didn’t have a roof. We also found a Vel chariot just outside the temple proper. The sheer size of the temple and the presence of the chariot suggested that at some point of time this temple had been a significant centre for worship in this town. But this seemed a bit strange as we saw almost no houses on the drive to this temple. Where had all the people who worshiped in this temple come from?

Returning from the temple, this question was bothering me – until I started noticing what I hadn’t noticed before. I saw the foundations of houses, just the foundations, every 15- 20 feet – sure signs of a flourishing village or simple township at least. None of it remained. Just the foundations and the occasional pillar to remind those who knew no better (travelers like me) that, more than 30 years ago, life thronged through this place, that people lived here: neighbors, friends, family. Now, all that remained was a ruined temple and their gods in a tin shack. And then, in that realization, those generally hidden costs of war hit me: the loss of relationships, the violation of those personal spaces, the disappearance of entire townships, the shifting of gods from temples to tin shacks – what does this do to a people? What does victory mean?

In the spirit of that incurable optimism that I found, however, I chose to cling to that image of the temple gods in that tin shack. Why? Because it tells me that in spite of loss someone, somewhere still thought it important enough to do that. That somewhere life was taking root again…

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test:

Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away. – Mahatma Gandhi