18 May 2017

The commonalities of celebration and grief

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected, BBC just couldn’t get enough of the protests.  Wiliam Bowles, in an article titled ‘The nerve of these guys!’ quoted the BBC back then: ‘Millions of Iranians simply did not believe the result. The main demand of the protesters has been an annulment of the result and an election re-run.’  The very same BBC, Bowles noted, had ‘no wall-to-wall coverage of Afghan outrage over a stolen election’.  Instead, the BBC had noted, ‘There was no further reference to fraud. It was pointed out that the figures were more or less in line with the opinion polls.’

That was in November 2009.  According to BBC the Iranian election was fixed but in Hamid Karzai’s case, the ‘election’ reflected ‘more or less’ the will of the Afghan voter.  

There’s a lesson here.  People see what they want to see and look the other way when the sight does not please.  

And so one memory is privileged over another, one element of a story underlined while other strands, less palatable, are ignored or erased.  

Today, exactly eight years after a thirty year long conflict was brought to an end, at least in a military sense, people are playing BBC, so to speak, one way or another.  To some, there’s reason to celebrate and for others it is a moment for mourning.  

The end of a war, regardless of who or what emerged victorious, is a blessing in some aspects at least.  No bombs, no bullets flying around, no checkpoints, no need to be wary of the person next to you, no abduction of children, no forced conscription, no need for young girls to be impregnated so that conscription can be avoided, no anti-personnel mines crippling combatants or civilians, no need to wonder at point of morning parting whether loved ones may not ever be seen again and no need for certain politicians to pay salaams to armed men.  These are blessings.  These are all reasons for celebration.  

If there’s a thing called opportunity cost, there has to be something called opportunity benefit.  

A sober reflection, say on the part of those held hostage in Vellimullivaikkal on the 17th of May, 2009 (or in fact anyone who survived that ‘historic’ hostage-taking exercise that began when the security forces secured Silavatura) on those last days as an element in a thing called ‘human shield’ and the lived reality of the 18th of May, 2017, would yield in the very least a sense of being blessed in some small say.  

On the other hand, the end of armed conflict, is a moment to reflect and such reflection gives rise to innumerable reasons to grieve.  A destroyed political, social, economic and environmental landscape, for example.  Lost opportunities, arrested development, livelihoods that were shattered and difficult to rebuild, and most of all the fact that someone that someone loved is lost forever give enough reasons to grieve.  

Of course there will be other reasons to celebrate, and naturally reasons to mourn as well.  Those for whom it was all about the character of the state, i.e. unitary, federal, confederation of separation, can celebrate or mourn as per preferred outcome.  

And so, that moment when separatism’s military persona was defeated, we can conclude eight years later, yielded a mixed bag.  We are all in that bag, huddled together in varying degrees of happiness and/or sorrow about that entire history and its part-denouement on May 18, 2009.  There’s some talk, there’s silence as well.  There’s recognition of common humanity and an inescapable sense of difference and separation as well.   

The 18th of May means different things to different people simply because there are battles, as my friend Thrishantha Nanayakkara once said, that continue to be fought in the alleyways of memory.  

Celebrators we are and so too are we grievers, separable in sentiments pertaining to outcomes.  

It is easy to dismiss relief as ‘triumphalism’ and equally easy to dismiss mourning as ‘sour grapes’ or mourners as ‘sour losers’.  However, since we have an 18th of May and since it is historic, one way or another, it is a moment good enough to reflect on.  

Let me mark this day by recounting a visit to the Menik Farm IDP facility in Cheddikulam in July 2009.  This is an extract of something I wrote back then:

“I realized that had it not been for the discipline and structured authority of the Army, things would have been far worse.  By that time, there was order.  The day-to-day was streamlined.  Conditions in these facilities were not ideal, but still better than in some other parts of the country. I was impressed by the untiring efforts by the security forces to make sure that everyone had food to eat, that the sick were taken care of, that families were reunited etc.  I was impressed by the volume of relief items that were pouring into the area.  I was impressed by the fact that there were dozens of doctors who had volunteered to work round the clock attending to the sick. 

“I remember being horrified by some of the stories these unfortunate people related.  I was impressed that despite all the trials they had been put through, most of them retained their dignity, self-respect and humanity.  Thinking back, I believe that nothing impressed or inspired me more than how these people asserted their will to live and prosper.

“I visited all the relief facilities. In each unit, regardless of size and population, I encountered ‘education’.  There were hundreds of teachers among the IDPs and many principals as well.  Naturally, there were thousands of children. Each and every one of them had ‘returned’ to school, so to speak, almost all of them after many months.  The authorities facilitated it all.  The largess of their fellow-citizens and well-meaning non-governmental organization had ensured they would not lack in stationary.  

“The people themselves, despite all the trauma they had been through and indeed had not yet overcome, had decided that the children must learn, even under the harshest of conditions. 
There were ‘classes’ under the trees and inside tents.  They were organized according to age.  The children were being taught English, Tamil, Mathematics and Science.  Some of the instructors were teachers attached to the Education Department. Some were older students or adults who had been trained in other professions.  I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the teachers and the students.  I remember thinking, ‘this country has reason to hope’.” 

I also wrote the following, a couple of years later: “The rains that will slake our national thirsts have to fall from our own skies. No one can make us smile, except ourselves. No one can make the harsh earth yield flower and grain, except ourselves.”

I still believe.   



rukmal gamage said...

If u can, please write in sinhala also. There are millions(votes) in SL they need to read this type of blogs.you have to understand the language barrier.