Still Counting the Dead
The enormity of what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 is still far from being generally known or appreciated around the world. A conflict pitting Buddhists against Hindus, with the latter as the underdog, doesn’t fit into any of the main paradigms which motivate and polarise activists, media or indeed governments in the wider “international community” – east v west, north v south, Muslim v Judeo-Christian, etc. Even many of those who almost routinely rush to the defence of ethnic minorities are reluctant to do so in this case for fear of being associated with the Tamil Tigers – one of the best armed and most ruthless of separatist groups in recent world history. And there is also the sense that it’s a conflict which, however unpleasant, at least is now over, and one should not risk reviving it by raking over old grievances. So the outside world continues to treat Sri Lanka’s government with respect, and at next year’s CHOGM, held in the lavish resort that used to be his home village, President Rajapaksa is to be enthroned as two-year chairman of the Commonwealth.
All this makes Frances Harrison’s book very important, and very timely. A former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, she makes the full horror of the last months of the war almost unbearably real, by allowing a series of individual survivors to tell their stories. Each of them describes living through an unimaginable hell on earth, as tens – probably hundreds – of thousands of people were crowded into an ever-shrinking strip of land controlled by the Tigers, with shells raining down on them at all times of day and night; men, women and children blown to pieces at every moment; makeshift hospitals repeatedly targeted and struggling to perform surgery often without anaesthetic; the whole landscape filled with dead bodies or body parts as well as the excrement of the living; and eventual surrender followed by lengthy detention, abuse, and in many cases torture, rape or both. (And Harrison reveals, almost in passing, that much of the Sri Lankan army’s equipment, including armoured vehicles, aircraft components and semi-automatic pistols, was supplied by Britain.)
These witnesses come from the minority who have since been able to bribe and smuggle their way out of the country, utterly traumatized and still not daring to give their real names. Inside today’s “peaceful” Sri Lanka no one would dare tell such stories to a journalist, even if promised anonymity. The defeat of the Tigers might have given an enlightened government the chance to embark on a real process of national reconciliation, which would have to have included an honest reckoning of crimes committed by both sides, Alas, there is little sign of that.
In addition to the book, Frances has designed a website where many of the stories can be explored via an interactive map and timeline.
Frances’ book is available via Portabello books in the UK, House of Anasi in Canada, and Penguin India in India. In December 2012 a Tamil language translation will be published by Kalachuvadu Publications. A Sinhalese language translation will hopefully shortly be made available online for free and distributed by various websites including this one.
The easiest way to buy the book is from the UK or Canadian Amazon.com website. By using the links below to do so, 5% of proceeds will go to the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.
If you are in the UK you can order the book here