War memories -
can we forget them
and dream of peace?
By Nalaka Gunawardene
long and bloody Sri Lankan war is over, and not a moment
too soon. I really want to believe it. The alternative
is too depressing to consider.
course, there is no independent verification – it has
been a war without witnesses for the past many months,
with no journalists or humanitarian workers allowed
access. We know that history is written by victors, not
losers. I am willing to take a leap of faith if that’s
what we need to usher in the long-elusive peace.
stand on the threshold of peace, I am overwhelmed with
memories of our collective tragedy. I hope we can once
again resume our long suspended dreams for a better
today and tomorrow.
lived all my adult years with this war providing a
constantly grim, sometimes in a highly disruptive
backdrop. I had just turned a teenager when the Tamil
separatist agitations turned into a nasty guerrilla war.
I have seen the war in its many different phases,
including several uneasy lulls when guns were
temporarily silent and truces were negotiated.
watched most of my own friends join the exodus of genes
and talent from a land where they saw no hope or future.
I chose to stay on, but questioned the wisdom of it each
time a major atrocity took place. I went through six
jobs and one marriage, and raised a child who would soon
be the same age as I was when the war started.
hard to believe that I survived this seemingly
never-ending war. I realise that it has scarred me
emotionally, perhaps forever.
am among the luckier ones: I have lived through it all
with my life and limbs intact. Hundreds of thousands of
my fellow Lankans haven’t been so lucky. The official
death count, often quoted in the media, has been stuck
at 70,000 for far too long. We may never know exactly
how many lives perished in the name of liberation,
patriotism, anti-terrorism and national security.
have only ballpark figures for how many were driven away
from their lands and homes, or separated from their
loved ones. No family has been spared. No one has
escaped unscathed. This has been everybody’s war.
assume that most combatants knew what they were fighting
for, even if some were not convinced about the cause or
process. In contrast, the larger number of innocents
caught in the cross-fire often had no idea what they
were dying for, or fleeing from.
Suddenly, the labels and divisions seem to matter less.
In my mind, all the Burghers, Muslims, Sinhalese and
Tamils (to list them alphabetically) who perished in
this war have joined a grim roll call of Sri Lanka’s
lost generation. Among them were people I knew, worked
with or cared for.
classmates who joined the official war effort soon
gained wings: smart young men with expensive (and
deadly) flying machines. One crashed in the prime of his
youth. The other deserted soon afterwards; he has been
living in exile since.
were dreamers and creators. Like my ex-colleague Sudeepa
Purnajith, the talented cartoonist who died in a bomb
attack on a crowded train in Dehiwala, in July 1996. He
was 29 and about to get married.
suffered from both nature’s fury and man’s inhumanity to
man. Like tsunami survivor Thillainayagam Theeban, 16,
who was shot dead in Karaitivu, on the east coast, by
unknown gunmen in March 2007. I had tracked his story
for a year after the disaster as a story teller.
Apparently he was killed for refusing to be recruited as
a child soldier.
to believe that these cannot and will not happen again.
We must not forget the suffering and sacrifices, but if
we want healing to begin, we must start forgiving now.
remember the helpful words of William Makepeace
Thackeray: “Good or bad, guilty or innocent — they are
all equal now.”
first invoked these words when the Asian tsunami wreaked
havoc in December 2004. As 40,000 of our people died or
disappeared within a few calamitous hours, some of us
naively hoped that the pounding from the sea would help
end the war. That was not to be — much more blood had to
be spilled before we reached now and here.
30-year war has cost at least thrice as many lives as
the tsunami – young and old, soldiers and rebels, men
and women, girls and boys. It has cut right across our
various ethnic, religious, caste and class divides.
“Good or bad, guilty or innocent — they are all equal
Lasting peace, at last?
that the war is officially over, will this mark the
beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to
audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too
dreadful to consider.
remember the views of my mentor Sir Arthur C. Clarke,
who called Sri Lanka his home for half a century. He
Colombo through two youth insurrections and much of this bloody
war, never once giving up his hope for eventual peace
a master dreamer, but a realistic one. Listing ‘three
last wishes’ in his 90th birthday reflections in
December 2007, he said: “I dearly wish to see lasting
peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But
I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished — it requires
a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.”
Indeed, there is a huge gulf between war mongering and
peace building. Can a generation raised on war cries and
war drums easily switch gears? Just as the absence of
illness is only the beginning of good health, the
silencing of guns is merely the starting point on the
long road to peace. I want to believe that we can
sustain peace with the same fervour with which we
pursued or supported the war – on one side or the other.
as a nation finally stop glorifying the war and its
weapons, and return to our cultural heritage of ahimsa?
How do we turn the current opportunity for peace into
something tangible and lasting, so that we don’t allow
political violence and war ever again? Do we have what
it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger
pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we
eventually be able to liberate our minds from our
deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the
prism of us and them?
expect the state to be magnanimous in victory, and begin
to unify our utterly and bitterly divided people? Will
our governments finally stop pleading perennial
emergency and national security as stock excuses for
side-stepping the rule of law, ignoring rampant
corruption and other lapses of governance?
these and many other questions. For a long time, we were
told to be good boys and girls, to keep our mouths shut
until this war was over. It is, now, so I hope we can
talk freely again.
Without fear of bombs
want to resume our interrupted lives and dreams. I dream
of a land where the only label that counts is Sri
Lankan, by descent or conversion. I have visions of not
being suspected or presumed guilty by the authorities
until I prove or protest my innocence. I want to live
without fear of bombs, abductors and goon squads.
dream too of a rapid return to the real norms (not
rhetoric) of a functional democracy. This isn’t utopian:
as children, my parents’ generation witnessed their
country gain political independence, and they grew up in
a land where people were free to discuss and debate
issues; ask nagging questions when necessary; and change
governments regularly at non-violent elections. These
are norms, not privileges, in a free society. Norms my
generation has forsaken, either out of patriotism or in
fear of reprisals.
will our state start trusting all our people again,
irrespective of our origins, allowing everyone the
freedom of movement, expression and dissent? Can our
society relearn how to react to each ’song’ and not
probe the pedigree of its ’singer’?
as important, how soon might we as a nation become
tolerant and accommodating of each other – allowing the
full diversity and choices in political belief,
religious faith, intellectual tradition and sexual
orientation? Would we see in our lifetime a pluralistic
society that once thrived on this maritime island
through which genes and ideas have flowed freely for
political leaders, in whom we entrust our collective
destiny, now face a historic choice. Leaders of other
nations have stood at such crossroads and made radically
different choices. African analogies can go only so far
in Asia, but at this juncture, it is tempting to ask:
would our leaders now choose the Mandela Road or the
Mugabe Road for the journey ahead?
only hope that presidents Mahinda and Mandela share
more than just five of the seven letters in their names.