Thursday, 16 June 2011
While living and working with Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans in the East of Sri Lanka for 3 months, I learnt a lot about the devastation caused by the civil war - death, displacement, injury, shelling, destruction of buildings, economic stagnation, corruption, rape...the list goes on. I even experienced being stopped at police checkpoints, which, although there are fewer now, are still in place between districts, and where Tamils may still be stopped and interrogated about where they are going and why.
However, the majority of what I heard about the civil war which raged in the North and East of the country for over 30 years was unreal for me; stories which touched me and made me cry, but which were still almost fiction to me, having no personal experience of it.
I once sat and listened to a Tamil woman talk about how she and her family had to escape from attacks by both government forces and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), wading through rivers in the pitch black and hiding in forests. Tears ran down her face when she described how she had to lie ontop of her 3 year-old son so that he wouldn't be shot in the head. The fear a mother must feel at that moment of utter powerlessness, trying to keep her children safe, but not knowing how or for how long. Although her family survived and relocated after their displacement, many thousands did not, as Channel 4's harrowing 'Sri Lanka's Killing Fields' documentary shows.
The real-life footage of atrocities committed by both sides held me speechless in disgust. One woman tells how the Red Cross came to provide both sides with the GPS co-ordinates of local hospitals, so they wouldn't hit them, but the government forces used this information to target 65 hospitals directly. A beautiful TV presenter on the LTTE channel is reading news in a saree one minute, and lying naked and dead the next, having been brutalized, raped and killed by government troops. Somehow, previously seeing her in such a public role makes her horrific fate so much more real and representative of the hundreds of other women sexually assaulted, then tossed aside for being Tamil.
The distance between the decision-makers at the top, like President Rajapaksa, and the victims of the fallout of their decisions is so great it is sickening. While he sends his children to international private schools and buys cars and bodyguards for his wife in Colombo, poor, vulnerable people were losing their lives on the opposite side of his small island. His corruption is so entrenched now, as he has appointed family members into the most senior positions of government, that the country seems to be moving towards a dictatorship.
The video raises the question of how much the UN can do to intervene in crimes against humanity. When the UN workers in the North of Sri Lanka were told to leave by the government, they had to, and could do nothing to prevent the killings being carried out. However, I do believe the 'international community' must expose and denounce such atrocities, and show that we do care about people being killed on the other side of the world.
I will certainly be lobbying my MP to let him know that I care about people like the Sri Lankan volunteers I lived and worked with for 6 months, and that something must be done to defend the rights of the Tamil minority, and the Sinhalese civilians affected by the violence, which have been violated for so long.