The Sunday Leader

Invictus

By Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge

Lasantha and Sonali 13 days before he was murdered

When I was 16 years old my father was to bring home a book from his travels to a beautiful little village called Caux in Switzerland. The title startled us. It read gravely, How to be Your Own Selfish Pig…. And Other Ways You’ve Been Brainwashed by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.
Macaulay was the daughter of the great Christian Thinker, Francis Schaeffer. Within the pages of this excellent book were examples of people she had known through her work and the crises of faith they experienced when life got difficult. It was a reminder to us to think about what we believe in and why.
My Dad bought the book from a store, from whence came many such books that adorned our family library. The bookstore was run by the Moral Re-Armament Movement (MRA) – which would come to be one of the most influential movements in my life. The MRA now called the Initiatives of Chang (IofC) had its conference centre in Caux.
Interspersed within the pages of Macauley’s book were quotes in bold writing by famous people. Two branded themselves forever in my memory and would later become my inspiration in life and work. One defiantly and cleverly read, ‘So I’m a Jesus Freak. Whose freak are you?’ and the other was a quote by German Theologian Martin Niemoller,
“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
These words so haunted me in my teen years that I would use it constantly in school essays, in my final exam for my journalism diploma, in articles I wrote to magazines in those days and in personal statements to foreign universities.
Well over a decade later when I joined The Sunday Leader in 1998, and as Lasantha and I embarked on a partnership as colleagues and investigative journalists and many years later as partners in life, those words would serve as our mantra.
And now as I look back to December 2008 I remember the happiness, the laughter, the boldness, the abundance and the fullness with which Lasantha lived his life. It was not a life to be regretted or mourned, it was a life to be celebrated.
Indeed when one Indian diplomat who had heard of our wedding reception on December 27, 2008 texted Lasantha days before his death on 8 January 2009, congratulating him and stating ‘we must celebrate,’ Lasantha texted back jauntily, ‘Life is a celebration.’
As for me it has been an arduous personal journey of on going healing. But as with his life there will be lessons to be learned in his death.
Looking back two years, there is a newfound discernment, realisation and understanding that only comes with distance. For instance why some people acted the way they did after Lasantha’s death. Why many of his numerous ‘friends’ were suddenly scarce and why those he had hardly met or had been estranged from him in life had suddenly become all too visible.
As the world descended upon our newspaper office, many scrambled and even clawed to the cameras eager to get their 15 minutes of fame, anxious to be perceived whether true or not as a part of the life and work of Lasantha Wickrematunge. I recoiled like a salted snail.
In the glare of a spotlight I had week after week turned on others as an editor in chief and investigative journalist, I refused in my intense grief to perform for the cameras. Perhaps a conservative Anglican private school up bringing had ensured that I wouldn’t make a spectacle of my emotions in public. Wailing uncontrollably like a hired mourner — even though I suppose that may have been expected of me in the South Asian concept, was not possible. Numbed with shock and speechless with grief it came more naturally to me to seem poised and dignified for the few cameras I allowed in my home.
In The Sunday Leader, week after week I wrote stories and columns, sometimes 10,000 words per week. Investigated graft in government, travelled to war ravaged zones, met numerous sources in secret, researched and read, checked and rechecked facts and made sure I never made claims personal or otherwise I could not prove. Never before had I been more grateful for my decade of experience as a lawyer. I would wake up at 5 am if not earlier to be in office by 6 am and left work well past midnight on deadline days so that we could do what we set out to do — change the world.
That Thursday morning as Lasantha lay battling for his life, only his team of doctors were allowed at his side. My sister’s husband as a doctor was with the rest of the medical team inside the operating theatre. I was just outside the door of the theatre with my sister who is also a doctor but remained to comfort me together with three of my very close friends.
A little later I directed the rest of the staff who were sitting outside, back to their desks as at the back of my mind nagged Lasantha’s voice as it always did – ‘but what about the newspaper – whatever happens it must come out on Sunday.’ After all it was this passion towards The Newspaper that had now put him in hospital. While some told me it was impossible to do, I was determined not to let Lasantha down by caving in to this terror meted out to us.
I was the Chief Editor of The Morning Leader but had always been on duty as the Acting Chief Editor of The Sunday Leader whenever Lasantha was out or felt he needed a break.
I was therefore never more aware of my burden than I was then, as I sat in the hospital corridor praying for his life. Later as people streamed in their hundreds to pay their last respects and as Lasantha’s body lay in my home, I was compelled to be at my computer in my office room at home, editing articles and looking through copy to make sure the paper came out that Sunday. Many who came home to offer their condolences had to be told I was upstairs getting the paper ready for Sunday. It was one of the hardest but strangely most fulfilling things I have ever done in my life. I felt undefeated, as if whatever the odds we would go on and we would fight through.
The day after the funeral the next Monday – January 12, I was back at work, a huge emptiness gnawing inside me yet knowing the paper had to go on. I was determined to bring out the Midweek paper as usual, and prepared for an explosive Sunday Leader including a political column for the Sunday following his funeral. Yet while I did this for several weeks after Lasantha’s death, by February I knew I could go no further in journalism until I had healed my soul after being so personally, emotionally and viscerally pummelled and so numbed with shock.
But what inspired me to this frenzied journalistic life that had no room for anything but reportage? Apart from my own beliefs and moral compass it was also partly one man — Lasantha Wickrematunge. Whether you agreed with his brand of journalism or not he was a force to be reckoned with. A never say die soul who was a tsunami in his work.
This explains why for a journalist who had already survived many physical attacks, his death came unexpectedly and as a shock. He was never still. He shimmied with energy and he always beat the odds. Through the years, he survived attack after attack, and jauntily told me he was in control. I had come to accept blindly the words of assurance he always spoke with an easy confidence.
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control’, he told me just a little before trained assassins surrounded his car and bludgeoned him into unconsciousness.
The questions that surround his violent death will have to be finally answered by those who survive him. The nuanced life that Lasantha led, his relationship with the present political administration, his fretful connection with President Rajapaksa and the people that surrounded him, the issues of human rights, freedom of speech and the future of Sri Lanka post LTTE and why a society failed to prevent the massacre of thousands of civilians and dozens of journalists and turned instead into a bloodthirsty cheering mob will be examined and grappled with by analysts and think tanks in the years to come.
It is nearly 20 months since President Rajapaksa declared the civil war ended. And yet for many the battle has just begun. Resettlement of refugees has been slow and painful. A Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission with a mandate drafted to carefully avoid inquiry into alleged war crimes or to investigate into rights violations, has commenced. Many have no faith in such homegrown commissions that have proved ineffective in the past and are notoriously partisan towards the government that appoints them.
Be that as it well may, one thing is clear. As peace descends upon Sri Lanka with the demise of the LTTE and our country can once more look to a prosperous future, it is not on our bloody past that we must dwell. Rather we must draw on that inner strength we know we have. Our compassion for each other, our tolerance for diverse opinion, our embrace of our multicultural and multi ethnic society and our respect for human rights.
Through great tragedy and hardship, through the blood of soldiers and civilians and journalists, through the tears of mothers, widows and orphans, a unique opportunity has presented itself for the people of our country. An opportunity to abandon distasteful triumphalism and exploitation of the weak: and look instead for sincere reconciliation and empathy in victory. An opportunity to become a country once more with a thriving democracy — a trusted elections commission, an independent and respected justice system, a sophisticated society, an educated populace — a place of magnificent emerald jungles and pristine coastlines — it is in this new year a time not to look to past hurts but a time for our nation to return to itself.
As we think of Lasantha and others who have passed before us in this new year I’d like to end with a short Victorian poem by William Henley that I learned on my mothers’ knee and that even now hangs on the wall above my work table. Despite the best efforts of many (and you know who you are) we shall in life or death remain undefeated.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

23 Comments for “Invictus”

  1. marise

    pure “beautiful” – sonali you are my nomination for Person of the Year

    • Bimal

      Yep, you got that right. Pure evil, pure home wrecker, pure gold digger, pure liar, absolutely pure hypocritical vampire!

      • I totally agree with you. I wonder why some people think that Lasantha is a great man. How could he leave his wife and children if he loves his children so much as Lasantha’s family says.

    • NeutralTamil

      Lasantha Wickrematunge is a great man, a great leader, he spoke for the basic human rights, the minorities deserve, even-though racists in majority accused him of getting money from LTTE.

  2. Kapila Bandara

    The Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka was not the only one, nor was the first one, tailored to fit prevailing political circumstances. Self-appointed ”Investigative” journalists, would have found out by now that such institutions of transitional justice served political ends throughout their history — Argentina, Morocco, South Africa, included. Some journalists, it appears, do not seem to even show they understand the concept of transitional justice, not they discuss objectively. Half truths abound. This was also the case of the ICC and ICTY.

    You are not the only one. We all look forward to a free Sri Lanka — free of the virus of tamil terrorism. My beautiful Sri Lanka, the little paradise, now has an historical opportunity to unleash its potential free of fear; free of brutality and free of the racist savagery that was let loose on us by the Pol Pot from Velvettitura.

    • Markus

      There is no objectivity for genocide. The perpetrators must be brought to justice. Transitional justice??? I wonder what the jews would say about that?

  3. Humm! Sad story and I am sure he will be in many harts not only in SL but around the world for his fearless journalism calling the spade a spade.

    Lasantha is.. ONE IN MANY… who would do his job with no prejudice or favor, I remember Lasantha and Sonaly coming down in Sep or Oct to 2008 on a short weekend stay at the Resort Hotel that I was working and that’s where I really new what a gentleman and a bold journalist he was known for..Few words could explain his explicit approach to human’s of any nature.

  4. dagobert

    When “self appointed ” Investigative Journalists are either naive or pre-occupied they tend to run like a blinkered Horse or a Mare.

    This is nothing unfamilier at a Horse race course.
    Sometimes, they do a Tongue Tie on these naive Horses and Mares as well.

    So……….. the father has been to the land from where the Vatican obtain their guards.
    And he has picked up a book with an apporpriate title for his family. quote’ How to be your own selfish PIG …grabbing, stealing or encouraging your colleagues or friends or boss’s spouse speaks mmmm sooo much of the title.

    Jesus may have been quite annoyed !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Tony

    No investigation done about the insurance fraud re: Lasantha’s death. This is one key aveneue of investigation that has not been done. It would be more interesting than the assassination of Lasantha and the events that surround it.

  6. I Hussein

    I looked at the picture, kept looking for few minutes.
    You both were smiling……………….a beautiful smile.
    Beautiful smile on your faces keep looking at each other.
    I felt sad. Really sad.
    Lasantha – We miss you. We will miss a brave man.
    Sonali – I dont know what to say.
    But I enjoyed your article.

  7. Amal Gunaratne

    As a human being, i am against any sort of violence such as verbal, emotional, or physical against humans. However, there are professions that face those violence due to the type of service they rendered. The soldier has a unique profession that involves in certain type of duty which risked his own life. Similarly, some journalists who involved in journalism also inflicted with sufferings since they have to involve with certain works which included danger such as reporting on battles. Some solders survived to tell their stories to their grandchildren, but some are not. It is very sad, but they sacrificed their life for their mother land. Similarly, Lasantha had sacrificed his life for his mother land.

    Further, i am not a avid reader of news papers or read the articles of Lasantha. Journalists can choose three ways of reporting the news. Either they can write against, for or as_it_is. On certain situations, none of these methods is safe. Similar to solders duty. May be on peace or war, the solder’s life is not safe since they hold the weapon.

    Having said that, certain people possess certain qualities such as courage to inform the reality. Can they survive in this society? Yes, with certain precautions, but hard. Similarly, the solder was given training to face the battle. However, there is no guarantee that he comes home to see his loved ones. That is his profession.

    I greatly admire the dedication of Sonali, and i wish her all the success in future endeavours. We are humans, and always face dangerous situations. It may be at work place or home. Live for today. Tomorrow is a another day. Earn good merits for future.

    • Bandara USA

      He didn’t sacrifice his life to motherland.

      • LankaLiar

        Yea perhaps it is a proud son of his mother land murdered him. Not from any other land. You can see the state of the motherland now

  8. Lola

    <>

    Thank you Sonali. God bless!

  9. peacelover

    Dear Sonali!
    MLK and GANDHI, great world leaders and humanitarians also shot dead by their opponents who ever had the courage to openly face them in a democratic way. MLK and GANDHI’s names and what they did for humanity is always in the hearts and minds of thousands and will continue to be remembered until the last human being in this world.

    Lasantha, he also earned his place in the history of journalism and humanity.

    Sonali! your courage and dedication to journalism and Lasantha also place you in the history books same as Lasantha.

    Beautiful people like both of you keep us going on the beleive that a true democracy will prevail one day in that island named time to time in the history as Tabrobane, Ceylon, Eezhm, Ilankai, ………..Srilanka.

    As you said I also a follower of German Theologian Martin Niemoller’s quotes.
    “When they came…………”

    I wish you a helathy and long life to be with your children, people who you love and who love you, whenever and whereever they need you.

    Only two words I have for you, on behalf of voiceless people in thet island

    THANK YOU.

  10. Kapila Bandara

    have we been assaulted/lynched by the ideological weapons of evangelical movements, that come packaged in various guises, including journalists?

    Besides, the line “and then they came for me” appears to have been copied (or plagiarised?), from a Christian author’s book, cited in one of these articles: “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    Let’s just say the Late Mr Lasantha read the same book. If not, someone added the line to his supposed last editorial.

    When will we know the whole truth?

    But these lines also raise a more troubilng issue for media and our free society. The influence of right wing evangelism (as in the case of American evangelist Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman’s Moral Rearmament Movement) in the thinking of some journalists that we know now. This largely Protestant movement, which began meeting in Caux, has shown its ugly face in many countries, and Buddhist Sri Lanka became a target perhaps through some journalists, who continue to be frontline Attack Dogs for evangelists. By their own admission some journalists are firm believers of MRA’s ideologies.

    This MRA movement was earlier known as the First Century Christian Fellowship. Members believe that God is working through them. Such a belief is not a bad thing and we respect that, but HOW they put that belief to work in another matter altogether. Anyone who has known about the MRA, which operates cells in many countries, would also be aware of its tendency of self-aggrandizement — they posit themselves as the only real solution for the world. Such arrogance was noticed in this paper, too — that WE Stand Up For Justice, attitude.Unbowed. Unafraid. Whether what they seek is justice, or villification, revenge and persecution is worth debating. Prosecutor or Persecutor?

    Is Sri Lanka facing the wrath of an evangelical crusade? For one, should Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans be aware of a Protestant group funding a certain Asian human rights group that has condemned Buddhists and Sri Lanka’s culture as evil?

    We need to keep our eyes wide open about certain journalists and their craft. What motivates them? Who or what influences them? Some have converted, and are flagbearers for evangelical ideologues and ideologies. Buddhist Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka has become fair game for them.

    Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should be Unbowed and Unafraid, too.

    • Markus

      This should probably be a good reason to assault churches and priests? Each one of us have a right to say what we want its not only Buddhist Sinhalese who have right over any one else. So what if our thinking is influenced by Christianity? You don’t have the right to be a superior being just because of your religion.

    • LankaLiar

      This is what is called pure “Lanka Talk”. Keep it up

  11. Leon

    Take care Sonali. We need journalists like you to make this world a better place

  12. mismat khan

    Sonali, your story reminds me of Julian Assange of Wikileaks and his plight. sadly, not many want to hear the truth. may your tribe increase. truth will prevail eventually.

  13. P.L.J.B.Palipana

    Thanks lot for your balanced reporting.

  14. Nalin USA

    Bandara USA, If you are living in the USA, should you not be concerned about the country that feeds and clothes you, which is the USA? Why poke your nose in SL? If you are so interested in SL, why not pack your bags and live there?

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