May 18, 2009
I was watching ‘My Fair Lady’ when the war ended.
My phone disturbed the enjoyment of the old classic – one I’d grown up watching since the age of at least 5 – with its constant buzzing in of alerts.
Updates. Breaking News. All saying the same thing. Someone’s been killed. The names are different; the triumphant proclamations of death the same. Almost mechanically I forward the texts to my mother downstairs, knowing she’ll probably appreciate them more.
Then the final and most important of them all – the leader, dead, shot. The mass murderer, the simultaneous bearer and destroyer of the hopes of an entire community. The embodiment of one side of this 26 year war. The villain, the psychopath, the almost ghost-like elusive figure of terror. Dead. From ghost to human to carrion.
Strange how the death of one could spell the end of 26 years of terror. Strange, but true.
I read the words and could not comprehend them.
My brain told me to rejoice but the crackers outside only made me jump, uncomfortable in my own skin.
The war was over. Over. Over. Over. No matter how many times I said it over in my head – or even out loud – it just seemed… unbelievable. Unfathomable. This war has been in my life as long as my parents. So strange to think of it that way. Obviously not to compare the two but just to think about the length of time – my lifetime. It started 2 years before I was born. So I have simply lived with it all my life. And over that time 70,000 people have been killed, or so I’ve been told. Who knows the real numbers? Who can quantify it, really? There’s certainly no way to qualify the lives that have been lost, on both sides. At least – I hear myself tell others – at least the death toll stops there.
And what did I feel? Strangely, nothing much.
Maybe a detached sense of relief. A random thought like “Maybe I’ll be able to see Jaffna soon”. Maybe a sort of dumbstruck surprise that it all happened, seemingly so fast (although it was 26 years in the making). Maybe a glimmer of something… something good. Promise? I don’t know.
Sick, at home home from work and with restricted mobility, all I could do was sit around all day and get impressions from what I could see, hear, and log into, and feed off them accordingly.
So I put ‘My Fair Lady’ on pause and headed downstairs.
I read reports of jubilant crowds on the streets. Their crackers and shouting pervaded the usually quiet atmosphere of my home. A fair way in from the main road, the noises of the streets rarely ever get through our walls. They did today.
I turned on the TV and almost every channel is dedicated to reporting on the end of the war. During the breaks in the news, the advertisements do their bit too, praising the army for its efforts while simultaneously marketing their products.
I watched the news with my mother who had whipped out her flag a few days ago in anticipation of this grand finale to the war and even her enthusiasm wasn’t contagious.
I laid my head on her lap and we watched a clip of soldiers loading injured, crying civilians into jeeps for evacuation. As I looked at them, malnourished and dehydrated and with nerves probably shot to hell, I started to feel something. I hid my tears but they snuck out of me anyway.
Facebook, Twitter, Kottu – it was all full of it. Brimming over with sentiments of all kinds – mostly celebration and shows of nationalistic pride but others were not so sure how they felt. And for a while, I’m glad not to be alone.
My political inertia has frustrated many – from parents to bosses, to friends, to lovers. But I am still confused. My opinions still feel half formed and tentative, and more than a little jaded after my single year in the media. But I also feel that I haven’t enough knowledge of my own to meaningfully combat the problem myself. I greatly admire those who do but am still unsure about which opinion is my own. There are just so many. Where’s the difference between having your own set of strong convictions or being shaped by the convictions of others? There are just so many out there. Some black and white; most several shades of grey. I just haven’t been able to pick a shade yet.
So I’ll just go on and say it.
I find it difficult to be happy about today.
Should I be ashamed? Am I being unpatriotic?
Perhaps my celebratory mood is marred by the fact that though the war is over, it has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. Not just lives lost in death, but lives lost in trauma.
Perhaps I feel ashamed because I haven’t really done anything to help. I switch on my A/C before I go to bed each night and still complain about the heat. I often wonder if I could bear even a fraction of what those people – young and old – have had to face these past months. I have my doubts.
And the children. My heart aches for them. Really aches, and I’m almost relieved to feel something palpable. The children who’ve lost their parents to cruel, indiscriminate crossfire. Those who’ve lost their fathers or brothers to either side of the war. The little ones in the camps, not getting enough to eat, not getting their education, bawling with tiredness and hunger. The children who’ve had limbs blown away by accidentally stepping on a mine while at play. The child combatants who have been made to do the most fearful things before hitting puberty. The boys who enlisted in the army to take on the fight for a nation. What future for them? Sure, there’s rehabilitation, reintegration and all the jargon in the world to give us some comfort that they’ll be ok in the end but… is ‘rescue’ even a word in their vocabulary?
Will the nightmares ever go away?
Perhaps I feel nothing because as I write this I feel like a fraud. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. I can only have an opinion, I guess, and even that is hazy.
My life will probably still go on as usual. It was paradoxically always and never touched by the war. I had the checkpoints and security to deal with, same as everybody else, but it was a mere irritation. Something to get out of the way, to groan about as I rooted in my purse for my ID when I saw the STOP sign being waved at me from a checkpoint. It was never a problem that made me fear for my life or the life of a loved one, or make me guilty about my very identity and place in the country.
I have grown up with the war but have, because of that very fact, become almost numb to it. I am happy that it’s over and I am happy that the nation has broken out into euphoric song. I just can’t bring myself to sing along with it just yet.
In a way, it’s like wanting something to happen so badly and when it does all you’re left with is a dull sense of “now what”. Don’t I know what that’s like.
“I want peace. I want the war to be over” – was always easy to say. But now we’re there. We’ve arrived. And that’s great, I am definitely not sad about it. But what we do with the victory is what’ll make us as a nation, isn’t it? We are united in name today, but tomorrow we have to take it not just a step further but all the way through till the end. And the task ahead seems like an even greater battle. There is so much to work on. There is so much to prove – to oursleves, to each other, to the world.
At night, I went back to ‘My Fair Lady’ and laughed in all the right places but couldn’t really concentrate.
The crackers went on into the night, sometimes drowned out, sometimes aided by the thunder of a threatening storm. The songs of the people outside filtered in through my window as I settled into bed and once again I wished I could sing along. Maybe when we win this next war with ourselves, I will.