Over several weeks of travel across Sri Lanka, I’ve been extremely fortunate to meet individuals from all walks of life, each with their own unique story to tell. While I’ve listened to many accounts of life, love and hardship, there are some that have struck me more than others; this is the account of one such story. I’ll leave you to figure out who ‘they’ are in each instance and make for yourself whatever judgements you deem fit; this is simply one man’s words put down in text for you to read.
Perhaps it’s the recent hype surrounding the success of this film or the fact that I’m reading this book that made me want to write about this man, or perhaps it’s the fact that stories like his aren’t heard as much as they should be. His is one of the most sobering yet eye-opening stories and I’m thankful for the extent to which it shook yet enlightened me.
His handshake is firm, yet the glint in his eyes betrays a warmth within that his grip might not initially convey. A collared blue t-shirt that he seems to have just thrown on, remembering that he was having visitors, and a sarong of white and blue squares.
Too many people visit him, not all for the right reasons – police, army, investigators – and he is tired. But he will talk to us for a while.
For obvious reasons, he can’t tell us his name.
For obvious reasons, we can’t take his photograph.
For obvious reasons, we need to finish this meeting soon before the wrong people find out its taking place.
We’d spent most of our lives, especially the few hours driving up to his gate, wandering what someone like this would be – appearance, posture, mannerisms; a checklist in our heads waiting to be ticked off. In the first five minutes, frantically searching for evidence to corroborate the many news reports and televisions features we’d seen about men like him, we fail.
Our questions are generally open-ended, one of the reasons being that we don’t know what questions are ‘safe’. He strokes his thick moustache while recalling the events of the last three decades, preparing his answers.
What has changed?
Rephrase; has anything changed, really?
The army used to walk around with rifles. Now they walk around with rifles and an extra magazine of bullets strapped to their bodies; that should explain itself.
We are silent. As we will be after most of his answers; silence in understanding and the guilt that comes with understanding.
What have they done to help you?
Rephrase; have they done anything to help you?
‘Aid’, ’Development’, ’Rebuilding’, ’Rehabilitation’, ‘Reconciliation’.
Words he has heard, words he knows the real meaning of but words his life has brought him to coin new definitions for;
Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies.
Take a look at the empty land you drove past on your way here, he says, and counts off on his fingers a list of places where promises were never kept.
Houses for the ‘heroes’, a village for the victorious, built on the lands that belong to the ‘villains’ – their words, not his.
They’ll pretend that they’ve tried their absolute hardest to help us, draw up all the plans and blueprints of new homes for us, but nothing ever goes beyond a few lines on paper and a few empty words.
For diplomatic reasons, people don’t say anything.
But I can’t fight for all this anymore, I can barely sit for fifteen minutes without needing to walk a little.
He stands, walks into the house and brings out lukewarm bottles of Coca-Cola for us. We thank him.
It’s not trouble, and anyway I need to walk off the pain.
His is no usual back pain. During the two years he was forced to spend in the rehabilitation camp, his spine was broken and his kidney is failing.
Wait. We stop him; this happened within the camp?
He nods, and in a single word he translates and tells us exactly what he means.
Maybe we knew all along what he meant and just didn’t want to think it was so, because that would mean more questions, more people to point fingers at, more criminals who will go unpunished.
Or maybe because by any normal standard you don’t expect ‘rehabilitation’ to mean ‘torture’.
We should have known that things are far from normal here.
There are those who are worse off, some comatose or paralyzed; eyes glazed over as he looks down at his toes, buried in fine grains of white sand.
The spirit is broken and the flesh is weak.
They encouraged us to study, develop our skills in any field we wanted; he was studying for a diploma in education when the war disrupted everything.
Now he teaches private Geography classes at his house.
They still don’t understand why this all happened, he says.
He was given a test on being released from ‘rehabilitation’, if you can even call it that any more.
Question 67: Will your society accept you back?
He had laughed.
I picked up my rifle to protect my society – of course they would accept me back.
The man administering the questions stabbed his pen through his palm till it emerged through the other side.
I had laughed because it showed me how clearly that, even after 26 years of violence, they still understood nothing.
The pulls up his sleeve, exposing a deep scar just below his shoulder; the skin there a lighter shade than the rest of his body, a warning sign long after the wound itself healed.
This is nothing – my daughter lost her sight in one eye.
How? A phosphor bomb.
Though the medical reports will never say it and the government continues to deny it, it was a phosphor bomb.
He swiftly points at several wounds on his foot and leg – this is all proof, my daughter’s blindness is proof but who will pay the price?
People are of the opinion that we were a bloodthirsty killing machine with no sense of structure. Till they met me, people thought of only terror on our part and it took time, understanding, for them to realize that we had a system, an order and discipline to the way we did things.
Method in our madness.
But they couldn’t have that. Before anyone could shift from the ‘cold-blooded guerilla’ image of us, the government razed our institutions to the ground – every office, every school.
See for yourself – theirs is a wasteland, it must have said as it surveyed its handiwork.
The army want us all under their control, where they can watch our every move. They’ve threatened to stop my classes and asked me to come work for them, for a lot more money.
No, never again – I don’t want to be remotely associated with anything like that. Better for me to teach and live poor than do what they want me to.
No one comes here, to this town on the east coast whose lagoons are haunted by the ghosts of all those who breathed their last falling into its waters; whose bridges must be burned for all the suffering they’ve borne; whose seas, though deep blue and rushing to sands of white, run red with the blood of those who died on their shores.
Of course they don’t, they’ll drive down the new road, to where there are signs of ‘development’, where the government can proudly show off ‘post-war regenesis’, conveniently forgetting where the flames burned brightest, fires that marked this place as cursed long after the last embers dimmed out.
The police and the army walk into my house, he says, some show me respect but most don’t.
If someone treats me with respect, I will do the same for him.
Winner or loser, state or rebel, I want to be treated like a human being.
We can tell he doesn’t want to talk anymore.
He is most courteous in bidding us farewell, with a characteristic head-shake that everyone in this country has perfected and a bright smile.
I wish he knew how much hearing his story had changed us all.