May 18

මැයි 18: අඳුරු අතීතයක් සිහිපත් කර වඩා හොඳ අනාගතයක් උදෙසා පහන් දහසක් දැල්වීම

First published at https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=37606 on 22nd May 2020

මුලතිව් දිස්ත්‍රික්කයේ ඉරනපාලෙයි නම් කුඩා ගම්මානයේ කතෝලික පල්ලිය මැයි 18 දින පහන් 1000 කින් ආලෝකමත් විය. පහන් දහසක් යනු යුද්ධයේ අවසාන අදියරේ දී විනාශ වූ දස දහස් ගණනක්, සමහර විට ලක්ෂයකට වඩා වැඩි ගණනක් දෙනා සිහිපත් කිරීම වෙනුවෙනි. ඉරනපාලෙයි සහ ඒ අවට පරිසරය 2009 දී යුද්ධයේ දරුණුතම ලේවැකි අවස්ථා සමහරක් අත්විඳ ඇති අතර බොහෝ දෙනෙක් මියගොස්, අතුරුදහන් වී හෝ ශාරීරිකව හා මානසිකව තුවාල වී තිබේ. ඉරොනපාලෙයි සියලු දෙනා 2009 දී අවතැන් වූ අතර ඔවුන්ට නැවත පැමිණීමට අවසර ලැබුනේ 2011 හෝ 2012 දී පමණ ය.

COVID-19 පිළිබඳව දැනුවත්ව සිටි පූජකවරයා විසින් කතෝලික සොහොයුරියන් සහ ගිහි පුද්ගලයන් අතලොස්සක් ද සමඟ උදෑසන පූජාවක් පවත්වා තිබේ. නමුත් පුද්ගලයන් එකිනෙකා, බොහොමයක් යුද්ධයෙන් දිවි ගලවා ගත්තවුන් සහ ඝාතනයට හා අතුරුදහන්වීමට ලක් වූවන්ගේ පවුල්වල අය දවස පුරාම පල්ලියට පැමිණ තිබුණි. පල්ලිය විසින් පැමිණි පුද්ගලයින් සඳහා කන්ජි බඳුනක් ද තබා තිබුණි – යුද්ධයේ අවසාන අදියරේ දී බොහෝ කුසගින්නෙන් පෙළෙන සිවිල් වැසියන්ට ආහාරයට ගත හැකි එකම මූලික ආහාරය වූයේ කන්ජි ය.

ඉරනපාලෙයි වැසියන් මෙන්ම, එම මීසමේ පූජකවරයා ද විවිධ අවතැන්වීම්, කුසගින්න, බිය, යුද රහිත කලාපවල වෙඩි තැබීම්, බංකරවල රැකවරණය පැතීම සහ අසරණ සමූහ මරණය හා විනාශය දැක තිබුණි. යුද්ධයේ දී පූජකයන් ඉවත් කර ගැනීම සඳහා යෝජනාවක් ඉදිරිපත් ව තිබූ නමුත්, මෙම පූජකතුමා සියලු දෙනා ඉවත්ව යන තෙක් යුද කලාපයේ සිවිල් වැසියන් සමඟම රැඳී සිටීමට තීරණය කළ වීරෝදාර කතෝලික පූජකවරුන් පිරිසක් අතර සිටි අයෙකු විය. මීට වසර 11 කට පෙර සිදු කළ ඔහුගේ එම තීරණයට ලැබුණු ත්‍යාගය වූයේ යුද්ධය අවසානයෙන් පසු දින 100 ක් රඳවා තබා ගැනීමට ලක්වීම යි. පහන් 1000 ක් දැල්වීමේ ත්‍යාගය වශයෙන් ඔහුව ඊයේ ප්‍රදේශයේ පොලිසිය විසින් ප්‍රශ්න කර තිබුණි.

යුද්ධය ලේවැකි අවසාන වූ මුල්ලිවයික්කාල් ඇතුළු දෙමළ බහුතරයක් වූ උතුරු හා නැගෙනහිර පුරාම, යුද්ධය නිසා මියගිය අය සිහිපත් කිරීම සහ සාමූහිකව ශෝක වීම සඳහා සැමරුම් පැවැත්විණි. COVID 19 හේතුවෙන්, පසුගිය වසර කිහිපයේ දී තරම් විශාලව එම එකතුවීම් දක්නට නොලැබුණි. එහෙත් ඊයේ සහ ඊට පෙර දිනවල දී, දෙමළ ජනයාගේ මියගිය ඥාතීන් සිහිපත් කිරීම් හේතුවෙන් පෞද්ගලික කාර්යාලවලට පවා පොලීසිය සහ හමුදාව විසින් සිදුකළ බාධා කිරීම්, බිය ගැන්වීම් සහ තර්ජනවලට මුහුණ දීමට සිදුවීම් උතුරු හා නැගෙනහිර පලාත්වලින් බොහෝසේ වාර්තා විය.

කොළඹ සිට ජනාධිපතිවරයා සහ අගමැතිවරයා විසින් යුද්ධයේ අවසානය සනිටුහන් කරමින් ප්‍රකාශ නිකුත් කළහ. එල්ටීටීඊය ද සමඟ බරපතල හා ආයතනිකවම හිමිකම් උල්ලංඝනය කිරීම් සම්බන්ධයෙන් චෝදනා ලැබ සිටින හමුදාවට ආචාර කිරීම වෙනුවෙන් ඒ දෙදෙනාම යුද ජයග්‍රහණය කෙරෙහි අවධානය යොමු කර තිබුණි. රණවිරුවන්ගේ අනුස්මරණයක් අද මැයි මස 19 වන දින කොළඹ දී පැවැත්වීමට නියමිතව ඇති අතර ජනාධිපතිවරයා එහි මුලසුන හොබවනු ඇත. අග්‍රාමාත්‍යවරයාගේ පණිවුඩය තුළ යුද්ධය දෙමළ ජනයාට එරෙහිව සිදු නොවූවක් බවක් සඳහන් වුව ද එහි දී මියගිය, අතුරුදහන් වූ සහ තුවාල ලැබූ දෙමළ ජාතික විශාල පිරිසක් වෙනුවෙන් සහයෝගයක් හෝ සඳහනක් නොතිබුණි. උතුරු හා නැගෙනහිර ද්‍රවිඩයන්ගේ චිත්තවේගී සිහිපත් කිරීම් දෙදෙනාම විසින් නොසලකා හැර තිබුණි. කොළඹ පදනම් කරගත් රාජ්‍ය හෝ පෞද්ගලික කිසිඳු රූපවාහිනී නාලිකාවක් තුළ ඊයේ රාත්‍රියේ මා නැරඹූ ප්‍රවෘත්ති විකාශනයන් හි දී මෙම මතකයන් පිළිබඳව ආවරණය නොවීය.

මැයි 18 දිනය ශ්‍රී ලාංකිකයන් ජනවාර්ගික වශයෙන් බෙදී ඇති ආකාරය පෙන්නුම් කරවන දිනයක් බවට පත්ව ඇති අතර එය මේ වසරේ දී ද එය ව්‍යතිරේකයක් නොවීය. මැයි 18 වන දින සහ ඊට පෙර හා පසු දිනවල දී බොහෝ උතුරු හා නැගෙනහිර දෙමළ ජනයා තම අහිමි වූ ආදරණීයයන් ගැන ශෝකවීමට පෙළඹී සිටින අතරතුර දකුණේ සහ රටේ සෙසු සිංහල ජනයා බොහෝ දෙනෙකු රජයේ යුද ජයග්‍රහණය සැමරීමට නැඹුරු වී සිටිති. දුක් විඳි බොහෝ දෙනෙකුට බාධක, බිය ගැන්වීම්, තර්ජන සහ භීතිය නොමැතිව සිහිපත්කිරීම් සිදුකළ හැකි පරිසරයක් තිබීම ඉදිරියට ගමන් කිරීමේ වැදගත් අංගයක් වනු ඇත.

May 18: A thousand lamps to remember a dark past and inspire a better future

First published at https://groundviews.org/2020/05/19/may-18-a-thousand-lamps-to-remember-a-dark-past-and-inspire-a-better-future/ on 19th May 2020

The Catholic Church in the tiny village of Iranapalei in the Mullaitheevu district was lit up with 1000 lamps yesterday, 18th May. The thousand lamps were to remember the tens of thousands, possibly even more than a hundred thousand, that had perished during the last stages of the war. Iranapalei and it’s surroundings had experienced some of the bloodiest moments of the war in 2009 and many had died, disappeared, been physically and mentally scarred. Everyone in Iranapalei was displaced in 2009 and they were only allowed to return in 2011 or 2012.

Conscious of COVID19, the parish priest had held an early morning mass with handful of Catholic sisters and lay persons. But individual persons, mostly war survivors and families of those killed and disappeared, had visited the church throughout the day. The church also left a pot of Kanji for people who came by – Kanji being the only basic meal many starving civilians could afford to eat during last stages of war.

Like the people of Iranapalei, the parish priest had also experienced multiple displacement, hunger, fear, fired at in no fire zones, sought shelter in bunkers and helplessly witnessed mass death and destruction. There was an offer to evacuate the clergy, but this priest was amongst a small group of heroic Catholic clergy who had opted to stay with the civilians in the war zone, till everyone left. 11 years ago, the reward for his decision was 100 days of detention at the end of the war. Yesterday, the reward for lighting 1000 lamps was to be summoned by the local police.

Throughout the Tamil majority North and East, including in Mullivaikkal where the war came to a bloody end, commemorations were held to remember war dead and mourn collectively. Due to COVID19, there were no large gatherings like the last few years. But yesterday and days leading to it, there were many reports of Tamil remembrances in the north and east facing obstructions, intimidations and threats by police and army, even in private offices.

From Colombo, the President and the Prime Minister issued statements to mark the end of the war. Both had focused on the war victory and saluting the military, which along with the LTTE, stands accused of serious and systemic rights violations. A war heroes commemoration is scheduled for today, 19th May in Colombo and the President is expected to preside. The Prime Minister’s message said the war was not waged against Tamils, but there was no message of solidarity or reference to the large numbers that died, disappeared and injured in the war, most of whom were Tamils. Both had also ignored the emotionally charged remembrances by Tamils across the North and East. The remembrances were not covered in any of the news broadcasts by Colombo based state or private TV channels that I watched yesterday night.

18 May has become a day that indicates how ethnically divided Sri Lankans are and this year was no exception. On 18th May, and the days before and after, many Tamils in the north and east are inclined to mourn their lost loved ones and many Sinhalese in the south and rest of the country are inclined to celebrate the government’s war victory. But for many who suffered, remembrances, and an environment where this can be done without obstacles, intimidations, threats and fear, will be an important part of moving on.

After 11 years, prospects for a political solution to address root causes of the war remain bleak. Many Tamils have been trying to deal with postwar challenges such as increasing militarization, finding disappeared family members, getting military occupied land released, engaging in sustainable livelihoods, housing and coping with violence and discrimination based on gender and caste. Sinhalese and Muslims who have suffered during the war, including injured soldiers and families of dead soldiers, particularly wives, have also been struggling to move on. They too grieve the dead, look for disappeared loved ones, struggle to resettle in their traditional lands after displacement, face gender based violence and economic hardships.

The 11 years has seen some determined and inspiring struggles, such as by families of disappeared and communities struggling to regain military occupied lands. There has also been some rare, but inspiring instances of solidarity across ethnicity and geography, particularly by women. Despite the darkness around us, these struggles and acts of solidarity, like the 1000 lamps in Iranapalei, fuels hope of healing pains and the possibilities of co-existence of different communities with rights and dignity for all.

The May 18 Disconnect

First published on 20th May 2018 at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/05/20/opinion/may-18-disconnect

Travelling back to the final theatre of battle nine years later, where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the fighting, an activist reflects on the horrors of the final days of the war in 2009 and the inability of Sri Lankans in the north and south to connect to each other’s suffering on the anniversary of the guns falling silent.

May 18, 2009 is the day Sri Lanka’s three decades long war came to an end.

Mullivaikkal, a narrow strip of beach in the Mullaitivu District is where the war ended, when the Sri Lanka Army militarily defeated the LTTE and its 26 year struggle for a separate Tamil state. Before 2009, Mullivaikkal was a beautiful, but practically unheard of village, between the now infamous Nandikadal Lagoon and the ocean on the island’s North Eastern coast.

The days, weeks and months preceding May 18, 2009, Mullivaikkal and nearby areas had been the epicenter of the final battles of the civil war, with a UN estimate of tens of thousands killed – combatants and civilians and hundreds disappeared – many of them after surrendering themselves to the authorities.

Yesterday’s emotional and moving journey to Mullivaikkal felt like a pilgrimage. It started when a good friend unexpectedly invited me to join him.

It became a journey that retraced his footsteps in 2008-2009, for twelve months, under very different circumstances. He had journeyed from Vellankulam on the North Western coast to Mullivaikkal with thousands of others, and was held for 100 days in the Vavuniya Menik Farm, the Government internment camp for civilians who had been trapped in the final battle zones.

As we travelled, he showed me the places he had camped out for several months and others in which he had only tarried a few days, in and out of bunkers, amid heavy shelling. He pointed to a playground on the roadside which he said had been inside the first No Fire Zone declared by the military. Here, he recalled people being killed and injured when shells rained down while a UN convoy was distributing food. At a nearby church, a mutual friend had lost his leg.

Retracing

In that year long journey to Mullivaikkal in 2009, he had seen people fall dead all around him and many injured. We heard stories about how he had picked up an injured and dying man on the roadside, and carried him to a makeshift hospital in Puthumathalan on his motorbike while shells fell all around him. When he reached the hospital, his clothes were soaked with blood, leading medical staff there to think my friend had been fatally injured.

He pointed out a place and an incident where he had narrowly escaped being hit by shelling, but 13 other people had been killed.

My friend is a Catholic Priest. In 2009, his Bishop, the Vatican, even the Sri Lankan President had requested him and other Priests to leave the war zone, even agreeing to facilitate their exit. My friend was among the small stubborn and exceptionally courageous group of clergymen and women who refused to leave the war-zone until the last person had left.

Between April-May 2009, around the Mullivaikkal region, one of these priests died, another disappeared, one lost his leg and yet another suffered injuries. But my friend and others survived. He showed me the last place where he sought shelter until May 18 and the place the military interrogated him before his 100 days at Menik Farm.

As we walked around Mullivaikkal, he introduced me to other survivors.

One was an elderly gentleman whose wife and other relations including young children died on May 14, 2009. Keen to keep using Tamil civilians as human shields, the LTTE was preventing people from leaving the war zone, so this family had tried to secretly cross over through bushes and water. They had all drowned in the Nandikadal lagoon.

Another friend who had also stayed till the end, showed me a school in Mullivaikkal where bodies of the dead had been piled up. Another told a story of parents who survived, whose children had been killed. The children’s remains had been found when they returned to resettle after the war.

There were too many such stories to narrate, and there aren’t enough words to describe the pain.

Commemorations in the North

My friend also showed me where another Priest who had stayed with the people right till the end had died on the last day of the war, on May 18, 2009. That was Fr. Sarathjeevan, or “Fr. Sara”.

I had not known Fr. Sara, but out of respect for him, I had been attending a commemorative event for Fr. Sara and others killed, for several years, in a small village near Kilinochchi. Some friends of Fr. Sara had decided to erect a small and simple monument for him at the last church he served. From this church, right up to Mullivaikkal, Fr. Sara accompanied civilians who were being pushed back as the military advanced against the LTTE frontlines, pushing the Tigers’ frontlines, fell further and further to the edge of Mullaitivu. A second monument was also erected to commemorate all those who had died in the war.

The two monuments, standing side by side, are the first ever monuments built by civilians for civilians in the Wanni. During this year’s commemoration there, prayers had been offered for all those killed, including civilians, LTTE cadres and members of the armed forces.

Yesterday, I saw elaborate arrangements being made in the Mullivaikkal chapel for a commemorative service. Symbolic sand tombs had been made for those without graves, and they were sprinkled with flowers. There was also a bigger event with thousands of affected families participating, along with clergy, university students, the Northern Chief Minister and Tamil politicians.

North and South; Sinhalese and Tamils

Since 2009, May 18 is the day I feel the strongest disconnect between the North and East and rest of the country, along ethnic lines. Since 2009, the mood of May 18 in the North has been one of mourning. These events have been misunderstood by sections of the South, to be similar to the November LTTE Martyrs’ Day commemorations. But the May 18 memorials have not been about the LTTE.

Most Tamils in the North, which bore the brunt of the war, mourn and grieve for the family members killed. It is similar in the East, which also was badly affected by the war. For years since 2009, the rest of the country was a contrast. From 2009-2015, the Rajapaksa Government celebrated May 19 as Victory Day. The current Government decided that it will be renamed as Remembrance Day, a quieter memorial day for fallen members of the armed forces. There has been little attempt to transform May 19 into a day of remembrance of all those who fell in Sri Lanka’s long drawn war – civilians and combatants alike.

Over the years, in the North, those organizing and participating in remembering the war dead have faced restrictions, harassments, intimidations from police and military. At the end of the war, the Government at the time decided to raze cemeteries where LTTE combatants were buried. Some have had camps built over them, and military personnel play cricket on the same ground. For families of those buried on these grounds – because LTTE cadres were also someone’s family – this is agonizing.

Clearly, remembering those who were killed during the war – whether civilians, journalist, priest, politicians, soldier or LTTE – is something that divides us ethnically and geographically, even as we close upon a decade since the end of the war. There have also been voices and acts of extraordinary courage.

Returning after an emotional day in Mullivaikkal, nine years after the end of the war, I struggle to keep faith that the few exceptional voices and initiatives will prevail and Sri Lanka will overcome the May 18 disconnect. Reconciliation will remain elusive till then.