The Flight Home.
They would be landing in 40 minutes. All in all it had taken 12 hours and 20 years of a life lived in Britain. His name was Sam, short for Samarajeeva and last week his father had finally died in St Thomas’s Hospital in London. It was the reason he was on this Sri Lankan Airway’s flight to Colombo.
“Be my eyes, son,” his father had said. “Go see our home. Don’t completely give up on it, huh?”
God! He’d thought, he’d have to go, now. Perhaps he could combine it with a holiday.
“But don’t get involved in the politics, son,” his father had warned. “It’s dangerous.”
The last words of a dying 75-year-old man; a one time adviser for the Sri Lankan Government, a concerned father, a husband widowed too early. (Sam’s mother had died of lung cancer.) His father had not remarried. Even on his deathbed he had talked of his beautiful wife with tears in his eyes. Then giving his advice he too had died.
The plane was flying over the Maldives; brochure-glamorous and azure. White sand under transparent water. Just perfect for snorkelling.
“Don’t talk about the war, Putha,” his father had repeated, endlessly. “That’s all done and dusted now. People want to forget and move on. Only trouble makers remember.”
An image of a blindfolded man, being kicked then shot, a child screaming in terror, a land mine exploding, flashed before Sam’s eyes. Something he had seen on television during those last grim hours while he waited for his father to die.
“Any rubbish?” asked the stewardess.
Sam shook his head, dispelling the image. Moments after his father had died he had gone to the washroom to stare at himself in the mirror. There had been nothing in his face to indicate how he felt.
“Don’t worry,” his Dad had always said. “You’ll see, the country is fine. The war is over.”
But what if appearances were deceptive? When he had come out of the washroom that day the nurse had touched his arm sympathetically.
“Would you like to have your father’s things, now?” she had asked.
Having his Dad’s Rolex watch somehow helped in moving towards closure. Sam was full of admiration for the understanding of the staff, even though he hadn’t made a fuss.
The sound of the engines changed. The seat belt sign was switched on. Below them sunlight danced on a transparent sea. He had left Sri Lanka when he had been four. Holding on to his mother; that now distance figure who had left her home reluctantly. She had not wanted her son to witness violence of any kind.
“We had to wipe those terrorists out,” his father, a High Court Judge at the time, had said. ‘Of course we won’t kill a single civilian! What d’you think we are? Murderers?”
In the hospital, watching that documentary, Sam had seen a woman. Even his father had noticed the likeness.
“Reminds me of your mother,” he had mumbled.
That woman had been crying just like his own mother had cried when Sam had suspected appendicitis. The difference was that the woman in the film was looking at her murdered son.
“Turn it off,” his father had said. “Death is part of life and they are bloody liars. We never killed civilians.”
And then of course, his father had died. Sam could see that forgetting wasn’t easy. Now although he was going home to be his Dad’s eyes it was his father’s words that echoed in Sam’s head. When he had seen the Tamil woman on the telly his father had said,
“You’re not to tell anyone but you’re mother had Tamil blood somewhere in her ancestors.”
The plane was descending rapidly. Thick coconut palms covered the land, obscuring the view. He would have liked to have seen the place more clearly. But perhaps that was only possible from the ground.
Going to Sri Lanka?
Now the war is over, many Sri Lankans living abroad have started to visit Sri Lanka again. For some it is the first trip ‘home’ in several years and for others its been a decade or even longer.
But what about the thousands of IDPs in Sri Lanka? When will they be able to return ‘home’? (Not just the IDPs from the recent war but the thousands of Tamil and Muslim IDPs created since the early 80’s). For most of these people, going home isn’t an option for a variety of reasons including; detainment in camps, the appropriation of their land for ‘high security zones’ and ‘special economic zones’, the resettlement of Army personnel and their families into their lands. In addition the heavy military and para military occupation of the north and east makes return an unappealing prospect.
How would you feel if you were in their position? Maybe you have been personally affected by one or more these issues? If you feel strongly about these injustices then you could use your trip to Sri Lanka to do some informal research into the situation faced by ordinary people. On your return, you could share your findings with your extended family and community. If you are able you could contact the media / advocacy groups with the stories you have collected – personal testimonies can be a powerful way of exposing difficult issues. Also, the SLC would welcome your findings (written and photo) however small /large. Send an email to [email protected]
As a starting point these are some of the issues you may decide to investigate during your trip…do make it to the North and East to find out for yourself (note you will need to apply for a pass to travel there..which in itself says something about State control) :
1. Impact of the war on young people and children
– visit schools and orphanages and ask the children about their concerns and hopes
2. Changing demography of the north and east
– ask local people you meet to give you example they know of
3. Destruction of religious and cultural sites (and the building of new ones)
– speak with local people and take photographs if possible
Even if you don’t find out anything that could be reported on your return, the time you spend talking and listening to people will be appreciated. Remember that many people’s primary aim at this stage is to cope with basic survival needs and you may find that you are able to help financially or emotionally. Of course there will be deeper stories that may take more time to uncover and many people will not be comfortable sharing that information with strangers, but known people and members of the extended family may be willing to share more.
It may be useful to ask yourself the question.. “In what small way can my trip to Sri Lanka help towards advocating for dignity of the people who are oppressed?”. The best approach is based on genuine interest and sensitivity to the persons situation. Some of the questions you may consider:
1)What is the most pressing physical need? …see if you can meet it, or log it to pass onto/ report it to advocacy/help groups,
2)What is their story of the conflict?
3)What is the the truth, as they see it?
4)What will heal their pain?
5)What does justice mean for them?
6)What is their hope?
7)What acts beyond charity will fix the problems?
If you feel uncomfortable talking to a range of people why not find a family that you can ‘twin’ with – you may decide to provide them with some assistance or simply write to them from time to time.