"In our lives,
there is no peace.
In our trees,
there is no life.
The dead ones become firewood;
The green ones give shade.
The Onlooker - You tell us.
Which tree are we?
Will you ease our worries?
Will you wipe our tears?
We are waiting
for the shade trees."
Years of conflict and living amidst suffering and death has traumatised a whole people. Particularly the 300,000 or so who survived the final months of the war in Vanni have seen much and undergone much. Nearly all of them have had some psychosocial impact on their lives. Their problems began with their repeated displacements over the period 2008-2009. In the final months of the war, they experienced and physically witnessed untold suffering and avoidable killings of fellow civilians. Their suffering and trauma continued during their enforced internment in camps and even after they had been "re-settled". Psychiatrists and psychosocial workers tell us that these will impact not only on the individual but also on families, the community and society in general.
The basic aim of psychotherapy is to bring out the repressed memories and associated emotions as a process of healing. This cathartic effect, according to Prof. Daya Somasundaram, the former Senior Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jaffna, helps people come to terms with what has happened and carry on with their lives. If people can be given an opportunity to express their stories through words, poems, songs, drama, drawings or other creative arts, it would help in their recovery. It would provide some meaning for the enormous suffering they have undergone, hope for the future and trust in the world. It would also help others understand what has happened as well as create an enabling atmosphere for resolving contrasting views. It is this that encouraged Sivathas, a child soldier, write the poem quoted above to give expression to the trauma that he had gone through. It was to help in the process of healing.
In South Africa and many other countries which had gone through years of conflict, attempts at reconciliation through ‘healing of memories’ using techniques like truth commissions were used. We need to remember and come to terms with the past, if we are to achieve true national reconciliation. In his 2000 Kanchana Abhyapala Memorial Lecture, Prof Piet Meiring, a distinguished academic and a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, quotes an observer as saying, "We have been celebrating too soon. We have jumped from the time of struggle and liberation right across to a time of jubilation and celebration in one gigantic leap. In between there needed to be a time for remembering, even mourning. We had not sufficiently dealt with the past. Then, Prof. Meiring quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu as saying, "We have to face the past. Because if you don't face the past, it may return!" The South African Commission was mandated to give an opportunity for people to relate their own stories and thereby restore their human and civil dignity. The objective was national unity, national reconciliation and national reconstruction.
Facing the truth of the past
Our own Lessons Learned Commission, one hopes, will work on a similar mandate. The eminent persons who comprise the Commission must set, like the South African Commissioners, the healing of memories and national reconciliation as their priority. It must encourage people to tell their stories. It must withstand any pressure to concentrate on investigating the failures and weaknesses of the then UNP government's cease-fire agreement or to concentrate exclusively on the human rights violations by the LTTE. The Commission has been given a six month deadline. If it is to function as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, then the deadline is unrealistic. The South African Commission took over three years to complete their work. They were under no pressure to present a political or partisan report.
If our country is to be reconstructed and reconciled, we need to face the truth of the past, however distasteful it may be or however hidden from the people it has been. That is the only way to move forward as one nation. We cannot simply live in a world of denial of the truth. What Prof. Meiring said of South Africa is painfully true of Sri Lanka as well. "As we step out of the wreckage of the past, (we) are still in many respects a spiritual wasteland, a reality painfully expressed by the appalling crime rate, the breakdown of family structures, a growing disrespect for the dignity of the human person. We are a nation in need of healing, in every sense of the word."
It is imperative for the psychosocial and mental health of the Vanni IDPs, those still in camps, those re-settled and those still in detention, that efforts be made to re-unify families by giving information on their fate and whereabouts. It is now over a year since the defeat of the LTTE and the massive displacement of people and the state has yet to release information about the IDPs – their names, the last known place of residence, where they are now held or re-settled, and, if known, their fate. This will help to re-unify families and/or enable them to come too terms with the past. It must also allow free access for professionals to engage in psychosocial support, counselling or cultural healing practices. It is only by repressing this information or not allowing the stories of what happened to get out that encourage calls for investigation of war crimes.
In the aftermath of the first southern insurgency in 1971, in a letter to the then Prime Minister signed by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Raja Goonesekere, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Regi Siriwardene and the Ven. Puhulwelle Wimalasena, the Civil Rights Movement stated: "We consider that just as much as a democratic government has certain obligations in exercising its powers in relation to the general body of citizens, it has also certain obligations even in dealing with persons who have broken the law or are alleged to have broken it. It must guarantee that all such persons are dealt with by due processes of law and in keeping with the fundamental principles of justice. At the same time, it has a duty to ensure that no person who has not committed an offence under the law is punished by indefinite detention or by other means. For otherwise, a government would be flouting the principles of justice that are vital to democracy in the very act of claiming to defend democratic institutions."
Those comments made forty years ago are still valid for today's situation. Among many people, in all parts of the country but particularly among the minorities, there is a sense of outrage, indignation and despair. If we are to forge national reconciliation and to involve all our people in efforts at national reconstruction and economic recovery, then a conscious committed effort must be made to erase such feelings and create a climate for national participation in the life of our nation.
The challenges for reconciliation
Rukshan Fernando is a young committed activist who has, like this columnist, visited the Vanni on a number of occasions in the recent past. His observations published in websites and newspapers which have cared to do so, are shared by this columnist as well. He writes: "The Vanni people had suffered a lot. Under the authoritarian rule of the LTTE when people, including children, were forcibly recruited to fight, dissent was punished and many lived in poverty. Then during the war, where entire villages were displaced more than ten times, some had been injured, all had lost properties, and most have had their loves ones killed, missing and detained.
So people I met in Vanni are happy that the bombings and shelling have ceased. They are relieved to have been allowed to go back, after multiple displacement and subsequent detention by the government. But they still face an uncertain and fearful future.
Most people in interior villages live isolated lives, surrounded by soldiers they fear. Men live in fear of being abducted or detained. Women and girls live in fear of sexual abuse. They also fear domination of their lives, lands and culture by the Sinhalese and Buddhists.
Students are concerned about access to educational facilities. Farmers and fisherfolk await opportunities to engage in their traditional livelihoods.
Even those who had suffered under the LTTE and had opposed the LTTE are saddened as the cemeteries of Tamil militants are destroyed and monuments are built by the military for Sinhalese soldiers.
And the despair and fear worsens as the rest of country prepares for a massive celebration of a war victory, while people in the Vanni cry over their dead family members, try to trace their missing family members, try to recover from their injuries, await release of detained family members.
Divisions between Sinhalese and Tamils, North and South become clearer as the Sinhalese in the South celebrate and Tamils in North mourn for the same occasion. If Sri Lanka is a home to one family, where Sinhalese and Tamils are brothers and sisters, what we might see on the occasion of one year since the end of the war is something like having a funeral and a wedding in two rooms of the same house for two children of the same family.
One year after the end of the war, reconciliation would be a hollow and empty word unless concerns such as the above are not addressed."