17 March 2014

Tragedy, its abuse and the contours of hope: Images from Kilinochchi

Kilinochchi.  It was the ‘other’ of Colombo, deliberately ‘othered’ to obtain parity of status. Words, we all know, are seldom innocent.  ‘Kilinochchi’ was capitalized, so to speak by people who slipped in the divide ‘North-South’ giving impression of an island split across the middle with a 50-50 ethnic break.  But that ‘Kilinochchi’ does not exist today.  The true dimensions of Kilinochchi, however, cannot be comprehended if that old Kilinochchi of ideological manipulation and terrorist occupation was not factored in. 

I visited that other Kilinochchi is 2002 April. I was part of a team of journalists from ‘The Island’ and ‘Divaina’ assigned to cover Velupillai Prabhkaran’s first media conference, following the Ceasefire Agreement signed two months before, on February 22.  Two days is not enough obviously to capture place, although the likes of Callum Macrae think two minutes is ample time.  The glimpses were duly digested.  They were written.  Twelve years later, it seems few want to remember that Kilinochchi.  That’s not a bad thing. However, some of those who inhabit today’s Kilinochchi like to pretend that the other Kilinochchi (of 12 years ago) never existed. A re-post would jolt memory, perhaps.  

The following is what appeared in ‘The Island’ on April 14, 2002.
The 'Other' Kilinochchi

The last time I saw those enchanting landscapes was in 1980. I was going with seven other schoolboys and a teacher, Mr. Arumugam, to play a chess match with the St. John’s College team in Jaffna. Those images are obviously hazy. I remember the Yal Devi speeding across the shrub jungle, saw paddy fields, thatched mud huts and ordinary people going about their daily business. I soaked in all of that without a single thought straying into the future. How was I to know then that twenty two years later I would happen to pass through the same area or that I would have to absorb the ravages of a war?

I was not to know, obviously, that tragedy would trace its terrible signature on what I vividly recall was a scenic panorama. Or that the lamentable stamp of tragedy would be affixed on the faces of the people I was to encounter. These thing, however, I expected to see as our vehicle moved out of Omanthai and entered LTTE controlled territory. What I also suspected that I would see were signs of the indomitable spirit that human beings are born with, that resolve to survive the worst tragedies and look to a better future.

On either side of the much talked about A-9 "highway" were the inevitable evidence of war. Topless palmyrah trees, shelled buildings which the jungle was fast reclaiming, long stretches of abandoned paddy fields, barbed wire, warning signs about the dangers of land mines and of course the checkpoints replete with LTTE signboards. The road itself was in a sad state of disrepair. And then there were the victims. Some of them at least, for everyone both in these scarred territories and outside them, suffer one way or the other.

There were people, again going about their business. In some places, especially close to what might have been deserving of the label "town", there were people lined up on either side of the road. It looked as though all the residents anywhere close to the A-9 were there to see some kind of road show. And there was a road show of sorts. A "peace tour" had been organised, the participants, according to some reports being mainly off-duty policemen. In any event, all those faces, without exception exuded an ebullience that one would hesitate to expect from a people who had suffered much and for so long.

’88-89 bheeshanya

And how they seemed to have suffered! Having lived through the 88-89 bheeshanya, I have some sense of the terror that envelopes households when death would announce its arrival anytime as an insistent knock on the door, the barking of dogs, the sound of gunfire or a distant scream. We didn’t have bombs dropped on us or shells whizzing overhead. We did have well orchestrated bomb explosions though. And yet, each tragedy is unique. Uniquely personal too. This is why the smiles, genuine and warm, evoked both joy and an inexpressible sadness. Both, for what we as a nation had lost.

There cannot be any society without children, and of these there were plenty. Some on the roadside, some returning home from school, some cradled in the arms of parents, some just enjoying the spectacle of what could be called a convoy of vehicles carrying unarmed, un-uniformed people. For a change. Trapped, willingly or unwillingly to the nefarious designs of the LTTE, imprisoned by a war whose purpose might have had long been forgotten, their hearts had resisted the inevitable bitterness that encroaches on people in such places. They all smiled.

I have seen those children before. Seen them along all the roads that lead out of the metropolis and especially along the dusty village roads which has been the traditional homeland of poverty, malnutrition, dispossession and despair. In those places too, where too living had long ended and survival was the name of the game, the indomitable will of the human being often surfaced in a smile. Or a greeting. Or the quick response to a request for a drink of water. People, regardless of their political agenda, their perceptions of being wronged, the dictates of powerful leaders, will preserve something of their humanity. Tenderness, I believe, does not die easily.

When we reached Kilinochchi late in the evening on Tuesday, we were directed to the LTTE’s political office where LTTE representatives welcomed us and escorted us to the headquarters of the "Eelam Economic Development Organisation" in Vattakachchi where a large section of media people were being housed. It had been a farm earlier, apparently. The buildings had been put up recently and were spread around a pretty, shady grove of mango trees.

As one would expect from an organisation intent on improving its image, we were cordially treated. I believe, however, that the hospitality had less to do with directives from the LTTE leadership than with the commitment of a people to a cultural tradition of going out of the way to make strangers feel at home. Sure, we were basically corralled into the premises and no one was allowed to venture outside until the time of the media conference and then again only in LTTE buses. The excuse offered was that "security concerns" forced them to do this. Constraining to say the least.

And yet, even in this place, which was little more than an open prison camp for us, there was enough space to communicate with one another, rediscover that which politicians with devious motives wanted us to forget: we were all human beings, inherently frail and endowed with the same will to live and same fear of death. And during the thirty odd hours that I spent there, enjoying the food, and the colours and shades that the passing of time painted the far away landscape with, I got to talk my mind to those who were introduced as Tamil civilians performing administrative functions and to young LTTE cadres. And of course, to listen to what they considered to be important in their lives.

Peace, as I have said before, can mean any number of things. The operative definition that each one adopts may or may not contain the strong colours of political conviction. It always includes a concern about simple things. Whenever I asked anyone about the current situation (along the way and at Vattakachchi), the answer did not contain anything of the terminology that has gained political currency. No one talked about self-determination, Eelam, right of Tamils, recognition of nationhood. This is not to say of course that such things are not part of their universe. But it is significant that what they chose to articulate were more immediate and tangible things.

Several people said "Peace is our prarthanawa" and didn’t venture to say anything further on the matter. There was hope certainly that the conflict would end. Peace, then, was definitely equated with a silencing of guns. There were many who said that what they understood as peace was "to be able to continue to talk like sahodarayo". A former resident of Galle who was engaged in repairing the A-9 road said "Sinhala Demala Muslim siyaludena sathutin inna eka thamai samaya" (Peace is Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people living happily).

Unmoored from the "necessities" of organisational goals, young LTTE cadres talked freely about things that young people usually talk about; girl friends, jobs, careers, and education. There was one young man from Kilinochchi who wanted to know how to find out about batik production. He also wanted to know how to locate buyers and export markets.

These people and these concerns I have encountered before. They were articulated in a different language, in a different place and by people who are identified or identify themselves differently. Those other people, less distanced by time, place and political agenda and engagement, I always considered my brothers and sisters. These young men and women are no different. All I wanted was to talk and to hear their voices. Maybe that is all what they wanted too. The language barrier, in every instance, was erased without anyone even realising it. The more fundamental dialects of sign and look, I found, can tell the epics that never find expression in the commerce of words that constitute the political.

On Tuesday night, we were "treated" to several hours of a video presentation. It was unadulterated LTTE propaganda. The LTTE political office in Vavuniya, which we had visited to "register" ourselves before taking off for Kilinochchi was decorated with a number of posters depicting LTTE cadres operating heavy duty weapons of destruction. I made a mental note that this is hardly the kind of thing that anyone genuinely interested in peace would consider as interior decor. The video presentation was no better. It was on the one hand a celebration of LTTE valour, documentaries of the successes scored in the battlefield. The difference from the Vavuniya "message" was that they had images that depicted the horrors of the war, attributed, not surprisingly only to the government’s security forces.

One of the videos had a Sinhala commentary. It was about the attack on the Madhu shrine. The documentary said nothing of the fact that it was the LTTE, attacking soldiers retreating the area, that shelled the church and killed 39 people. Even then the pictures of that tragedy, which is only one of many, eloquently expressed the trauma suffered by ordinary people. I am sure that there have been instances where attacks carried out by the armed forces have resulted in similar civilian casualties. They would not have been "casual" things for the victims. The same goes for the victims of LTTE brutality. Gomarankadawala, Arantalawa, Gonagala and other places with as exotic names as these, would have had people who suffered similar losses.


Those images were heartbreaking. The uncontrolled weeping of a little girl over the corpse of her mother, even though I have seen such footage before, was unbearable. I looked at that tender face with tears streaming down those cheeks and all I could see was the face of my child. Every grief stricken face that was splashed across that screen was familiar. It was someone I knew. This is not just because those faces also belonged to victims of LTTE terror. It is because tragedy does not have a cultural identity. The only "tangible" product of tragedy is a number. The vast universe of loss, dispossession and suffering is never written. Only abused. Which is why, after all, the video presentation said nothing about all the atrocities committed by the LTTE and all the ways in which they have hurt us in the name of the aspirations of Tamil people.

So what about that fairy tale thing called "peace"? What impressions did I have about the notion and its prospects at the end of the day. If I were to go on just the theatrics enacted by the LTTE in the media conference, I would say, forget it! At the same time, those couple of days confirmed what I had always believed, that the Tamil people whose agency has been robbed by Prabhakaran yearn for things that are not dissimilar to those dreamed about by the Sinhalese and Muslims. Or anyone else for that matter. And that Prabhakaran, Anton Balasingham and all our misinformed mischief-makers in the Peace Industry would puke if they really got to hear what the ordinary Tamil people, LTTE cadres included, mean by "peace".

We left Kilinochchi around midnight. The van speeded along the A-9, passing what appeared in the faint moonlight as ghost towns. The silhouettes were, once again, familiar. The sky was clear. A starry, starry night. Janaka Liyanaarachchi of the Divaina and I sang almost all the way to Omanthai.

We both knew that we were leaving a fraternal people whose lives and dreams had been hijacked by tyrants. I knew that just as much as we have suffered similar tragedies, we can be united in our resistance. The details of the media conference having already tricked down to those of us left behind in our open prison camp, I knew that the kind of unity is something that the LTTE will allow only at grave risk. Won’t happen.

Overcoming the obstacles to peace will take much more than chance conversations like those we had in Kilinochchi. It will not happen, however, if the tenderness of human to human encounters are absent when the more harsher realities are understood and engaged with.

I am hopeful, not at all because of the MoU, Prabhakaran’s media releases or the government’s apologies. I am hopeful because I have faith in people and believe that their capacity for suffering is not of lesser magnitude than their will to overcome adversity. The songs we sing separately today, we will sing together. It will take much more that poetry to will that day to dawn. Much more than conversations and commentaries. Maybe curing ourselves of naivete ought to be factored in too. Let us see, let us see.
Kilinochchi today