By Amjad Saleem –
This weekend will commemorate 5 years of the end of the bloody conflict in Sri Lanka. As has become customary, the main protagonists and/or their supporters will be marking it in very different but usual manners. There is still a lot of debate as to how Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans mark the conclusion of one of the most traumatic periods of their history. The whole aspect of the war in its entirety remains a largely controversial subject and is often a subject that is not necessarily discussed in gatherings. This perhaps alludes to how the subject needs to be approached and also what is the perception of those bold enough to approach the subject. Thus Sri Lankans are not afforded and do not afford themselves of an opportunity for healing and to some extent, this responsibility seems to be abrogated to the powers that be. The challenges of how the country as a whole understands and remembers this is still being debated, as the National Peace Council aptly put it, ‘No wise country celebrates war victory after a civil war’. This thus remains an obstacle that all communities and stakeholders with an interest for the benefit of Sri Lanka, need to understand and overcome. Whilst the past can’t be a ball and chain for the future, we also need to understand it in order for us to move forward without.
In the deliberations and commemorations that will follow this weekend, one thing that will be conspicuous by its absence will be the voices from the ground. Over the last 5 years, what has always struck me about the narrative that has been currently spun by all sides when discussing the war and commemorating it, is how far removed it is from the reality on the ground. There is much to be reflected at the top end of the spectrum in terms of reconciliation and moving forward. Equally though, it is not just at the top level that work needs to be done. It is important that work is done at the grass roots level. Unfortunately experience shows that it is hardly the case that grass roots are engaged with meaningfully. They are talked at, talked to and talked with. However rarely are they just allowed to talk and for the rest of us just to listen. My experience in Sri Lanka especially during the end of the war in the camps in Manik Farm, allowed me to listen to many of the Tamil refugees. Their message resonated with others I met with from other communities across the country, affected by the tsunami and the conflict. While political and military solutions may bring an absence of war, however peace cannot come about or be sustained without significant engagements of all strata of society with tangible benefit being seen by everyone, in particular the affected communities. In other words, ‘peace’ means nothing if parents still cannot feed their family or cannot afford to buy medicines for their sick children or people do not live in an atmosphere of respect and understanding with the rule of law.
The issue of conflict and the narratives spun around it at the macro level often means that that we forget these micro voices. We do not see the broken families that have to pick up the pieces of lost childhood and parentless generations. The narratives do not consider the societal breakdown in communities from all sides dealing with the stresses and trauma of post conflict be it alcoholism; drug abuse; domestic and sexual violence. These lesser heard voices unfortunately do not grace the annals of heroism or martyrdom that make up the commemoration of the conflict and its end.
However it is in these lesser heard voices far away from the posturing and political platitudes that the real story of the conflict and its consequences for the country and its people are told and have to be understood. These stories explain the real sacrifice that has been made in the villages across Sri Lanka. As in any conflict, it is the women and children who sacrifice and suffer the most but yet are seldom heard. It is their stories that we need to commemorate and celebrate.
To my mind, there is none that does this well than the Her Stories LK project. I came across this at the opening of its exhibition in London in March. It is simply a platform that allows the simple and sad stories of Sri Lankan women who have suffered from the conflict to be told. The stories are from all parts of Sri Lanka and comprises of stories from Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese women that include soldiers’ wives and mothers as well as mothers and wives of Tiger cadres. This means that the project aims to be as balanced as possible. It doesn’t take any sides nor does it make any political statements. Nor do they choose to criticise or lament larger political issues.
However in providing that opportunity for the lesser heard voices to be heard, it makes a statement. Simply put, ‘war ultimately is about the people on the ground who suffer for the actions of their representatives and hence the post conflict should also be about the same people’. By humanising the conflict through the individual stories that are exhibited, what we are reminded off is that whilst we may posture and pontificate our various positions, ultimately it is the people at the ground that will suffer the consequences with generational ramifications and it is these people who should be the first priority in any post conflict work. This is the challenge facing Sri Lanka now.
Remarkably though, looking at the stories, you are struck by the humanity that is shown in the desire for a just and peaceful future. The views show a shared history and a shared hope for the future. There is no sense of recrimination or revenge, but just a quiet noble desire to move ahead and provide a better future for their children. In these stories are lessons that many of us working on these issues need to be taught or at least reminded of.
The narrative of women is often lost in conflict and is virtually nonexistent for mothers. Yet as guardians of memory through stories and pictures and gatekeepers to the next generations, Her Stories LK provide a vital glimpse into what Sri Lanka could look like. When you hear this phrase “We are Brothers and Sisters from one mother” repeated across the country, you understand, that if these people who have every reason to be hateful and vindictive having lived through the conflict, can be hopeful, then the rest of us perhaps need to listen more.
Her Voices LK offers a space for many of us living comfortably outside Sri Lanka, untouched by the harsh realities on the ground and unscathed by the conflicts that were fought, to actually come to some platform of commonality. Many of us living outside Sri Lanka, have taken our own positions in this debate against the ‘other’, yet very few of us understand who the ‘other’ is and what their expectations are. We are quick to judge and dismiss. This space shows us the true expectations for the country and its next generations as told to us in the stories of our mothers and it is vital that we who live abroad are able to take some time to listen to these stories. Yes the stories are sad, but they are also full of strength, resilience and hope. Ultimately it is about just wanting to live their lives and make it better for their children. This is something that we need to think about.
Her Stories LK will be exhibiting their work at the Oval from the 17th – 19th May, in the run up to the T20 match between Sri Lanka and England. Given the significance of the 18th of May which is the official end of the conflict in Sri Lanka when normally emotions run high especially in the wake of a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, the exhibition offers an opportunity to pause and reflect. For those intending to protest against the team or against the protesters, it also offers an opportunity to hear first hand of the conflict and the struggle to record eye witness accounts. It is serendipitous that a week after Mother’s day, we are hearing the real voices of mothers affected by the conflict in Sri Lanka. To be true to the concept of peace, equality and justice in Sri Lanka, the least we can do is at least pause and use the opportunity to listen to ‘Her Stories’. Ultimately it might help us to reflect on what the greater good is for the country.