Letters from Sri Lanka

He stared into the distance for an achingly long time, when I asked him how many people do you think died during the civil war?

I don’t know for sure, maybe between 60,000 to 80,000 – he said. That was one of the official figures released by the government, which accounted for both military and civilian deaths since 1983. But according to independent sources and the Red Cross, the number of deaths was far higher over the last three decades.

We chatted for a while, at his guesthouse overlooking the verdant hills of beautiful and picturesque Kandy, a city in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, the second largest city after Colombo.

We spoke of many things, but it always came back to the civil war, a war that was overlooked by the Western world. Until recently, when tourism is flourishing again and Colombo international airport is no longer a prime target for bombings and suicide attacks.

H.W.D Stephen runs a guesthouse in Kandy since 1990; he spoke passionately to me that afternoon about the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers – a separatist group in northern Sri Lanka, which was recognized as a terrorist organization by 32 nations.

He was visibly upset when we touched upon the subject of ethnic cleansings carried out by the Tamil Tigers over the years. Where Tamils and Sinhalese and Muslim civilians – including women and young children – were murdered in their villages or herded to execution sites.

The forced employment of female and child-soldiers by the Tamil Tigers remains a controversial debate in the country – where various ongoing programs are actively trying to unite children of war back to their families. Reminiscent of the efforts in war torn African countries.

He spoke of his own people, and the struggles of those who were caught in the middle. We have no grudges and resentment, he said.  We just want the world to know our story, and for people to come back again.

I told him you have a lot of common with my country. The Vietnam War and the Sri Lanka civil war shared many similarities and tragedies and their own stories; millions of voices, which will never be heard. He asked me what is your view of it all?

I said I could not answer as yet, as I am still learning about all that has transpired. But deep inside, I wanted to say to him that there is no greater tragedy – than that of people killing their own people.

 

Kandy, Sri Lanka

July 2012

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