Tomorrow When the War Began

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.

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The real truth is, I probably don't want to be too happy or content. Because, then what? I actually like the quest, the search. That's the fun. The more lost you are, the more you have to look forward to. What do you know? I'm having a great time and I don't even know it. - Ally McBeal

15 thoughts on “Tomorrow When the War Began”

  1. Well written. That’s a given.

    It’s not strange that you don’t feel anything good or bad about the war ending. The suffering that people have gone through along the way is not something that we can comprehend and that fact alone is enough to numb any sense of celebration.

    Like you said what we do with victory is what will make us as a nation.

    How we react to this war also depends on what this means for us. I can celebrate on a selfish note because the dream of coming back home to live is suddenly a lot more realistic. For those who lost a loved one justice has been served. Some will no longer have to worry about an innocent package on a bus on their way to and from work. Under all that there is the common feeling of pride for what our forces have achieved and the opportunity for Sri Lanka to finally achieve its full potential.

    I am sure that before you know it you will feel the change and quietly celebrate this past week in your own way. If there is a spring in your step as you listen to your ipod on your way to work one of these days then you’ll know that you’re feeling exactly what everyone else is.

    This is a bloody essay for a comment isn’t it.

  2. Very well said my friend,

    I can honestly say I mirror your feelings exactly..
    Let’s just hope for the best…

  3. Kudos on one of the most compelling posts on your blog and also one of the best I’ve read on this issue on the web. Peacebuilders live in hope and risk disappointment.

  4. John Doe – Thanks for your thoughts. Would have made a good post!

    Shehan – Yes, let’s :)

    Sanjana – I actually wasn’t sure how it’d be received since it’s the first post I’ve written that’s even slightly political (!) Thanks very much :)

  5. I cant say I share your feelings because, I don’t. Except for a few visits that were always well protected, I do not even claim to feel what others feel. Yet you, Dinidu, David and countless others fill me up for what I lack and give me a chance to learn a bit more. My grand mother, who refuses to leave SL and wants to spend her last days in SL was jubilant yesterday. So were the people around her. Just for her, I wish the next war will be a pleasant one.

  6. KS – Thanks for the comment. For your grandmother and many, many others – actually for an entire country too exhausted to be able to survive another war of violence – I hope so too.

  7. very well said indeed…i feel exactly hw u feel…v just ve 2feel &wish-hope dis so called END OF WAR leads 2a better nation…..

  8. Well, I do understand your point. I do too believe that the greatest challenge is yet to come, in rebuilding the nation.
    You know what, our island is a gold-mine and we can make it happen.

  9. Dielama – Me too.

    Serendib – I agree with your first point and admire the optimism in your second :)

  10. Hey nice post as always. I know how you feel. The real war is just beginning and rehabilitation is going to be a bitch.

    I was jubilant when they announced it’s over, yet I know that there could be many conspiracies behind it all, there always is. Sometimes it feels unreal that its’s all over. It’s nice to see everyone celebrating, yet it also worries me because sometimes most people don’t know where to draw the line.

    The best part about the war being won, is not the crackers or the flags that are flying around (although it’s a beautiful sight). It’s the hope that is in the air in the city. Maybe it’s just me but there’s a very united vibe in the air these days. It could be shortlived I dont know, but if we can ride on this hope to work together and build up the nation, then I think we can def do it.

    I think this is my longest comment ever :)
    Hope your doing good. Ciao

  11. The Economist on Wednesday, 06-05-2009 at 18:42pm
    The bitter end of Sri Lanka’s war | To the bitter end |
    As a Sri-Lankan Tamil Catholic who was born and brought up in Jaffna, and thereafter moved to Colombo and then to Canada, I cannot stop grinning while reading some comments here.
    I was born to wealthy Tamil parents in Jaffna as the youngest daughter in the family. It was way back in late 60s where people enjoyed peace and harmony in that paradise island. Life was truly a bed of roses.
    By 1975-76 things were changing in Jaffna.. I heard my parents talking about some murder, and I still remember my father in his deep thoughts. In a few weeks my parents sent my brothers to Colombo to live with my aunt and her family & to attend a leading College in Colombo.
    A few years later, once I passed my grade 5 scholarship, I was also sent to Colombo to attend a Convent. At school, my friends were talking about “troubles in Jaffna” and when I asked my parents they told me to focus on my studies.
    Days passed by.. life in Colombo was quite different but I liked the new change, because there were a mix of people from all nationalities, religions, classes and even caste.. but all these differences had a prominent place in Jaffna.
    Even my best friend was a Sinhalese Buddhist girl called Nalika.
    It was 1983 July.. where a mob violence started in Colombo, due to murder of 13 Sri-Lankan soldiers in Jaffna. People said “they are burning property and killing Tamils”, we were horrified.
    My Aunts next door Singhalese neighbours protected us.. we were hiding in their attic for several days. The government failed to control the riot and it went on for days.
    However, during those dark days, despite all the ugly stories I heard, I was able to see the true beauty of my Singhalese friends.. they stood by me, protecting me from all the evils.
    I finished school and joined an Indian Bank in Colombo. Gradually, things changed in Jaffna, when “groups of armed Tamil youth” called LTTE waged a guerrilla war against the government.
    They were on a killing spree like maniacs.. villagers, women, children, infants, priests.. all became their victims. The government army was counter attacking them, trying to establish law and order to protect the civilians.
    Things were getting worse in Jaffna. My brothers (who never visited Jaffna) insisted that my parents too should move to Colombo, but they refused because they just couldn’t leave their massive ancestral property there.
    They owned 3 mansions there and all three was acquired by the LTTE and were used as hospitals and a mortuary. Only one room was given to my parents.
    Once when my father, who was a well known respectable lawyer who lived as a king in that area, wanted to talk to their rebel leader, & a Tamil youth in late teens pointed the gun to his mouth and threatened him saying “old man, the mouth is only to eat, not to speak”.. a few days later, my father died of a heart attack.
    We tried our best to get our mother to Colombo, but she wanted to join my father, which she did, a few days later.
    None of their 2 sons and daughter was able to see them for 8 years and none of us were able to attend their funerals, (if there were proper funerals).
    In a couple of years, we all left to Canada.
    I still don’t understand why my parents didn’t want to leave their homeland or house, knowing that they won’t be able to survive with those bloodthirsty maniacs.
    We, who inherited mansions and hundreds of acres of lands worth billions of Rupees from our ancestors, left Sri-Lanka only with our paper qualifications and the little money we saved.
    That’s what this LTTE & Prabakaran did to our family.
    Today, when I see those innocent Tamils, crossing over to “life”, my eyes fill with tears, wishing that my parents would have done that, years ago.
    As a person who believes in God, I know that not a single LTTE leader, or a terrorist, or a supporter, or a sympathizer, or a fund raiser, or a propagandist would survive “hell”, because for 30 years they gave us and every Sri-Lankan, nothing but “hell”.

  12. It’s nice to see a personal post from you once in a while. I can echo your thoughts and feelings Gyspy… your post kind of summed it up for me.

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