A View from the War Zone

Since 1983, a state of war has existed between the government of Sri Lanka and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The deadly tsunami of December 2004 brought a temporary halt in the action, but violence has escalated during the past summer. A veteran observer visits refugee camps where people await a resolution to a civil war that has spanned more than two decades.

I just got back from the war zone.

Ten refugee camps in four days. Unending checkpoints, military convoys, and government soldiers stationed about every 50 feet. The stench and squalor of refugee camps during the day, and artillery fire rattling my bedroom windows at night.

I gave up a weekend at the beach for this trip.

My trip to the Sri Lankan northern and eastern war zone was uneventful, in that I got there and back without any additional holes in my body. Although I visited 10 refugee camps, there were many, many more for me to visit.

I could tell you stories that would have you angry, despairing or hopeless. Equally, I could tell you stories of personal heroism, self-sacrifice, and expressions of hope in the face of hopelessness.

Two stories strike me as illustrative of my visit to the war zone:

A Small Victim of War

I was in my seventh or eighth refugee camp. This was in a government held area in Trincomalee, and the refugee camp was set up on a temporary basis in a Roman Catholic school. I had walked the grounds, talked to the officials, spoke to a few residents, and was heading out of the compound. As I was leaving, a woman carrying a small baby caught my eye. The baby (I guessed to be about six months old) seemed very happy and full of life. I stopped and asked the woman the age of her child.

The woman said, "this child is about six months old; this isn't my child, this baby belongs to my sister. She was killed in the shelling of Muttur. She's dead, along with her two other children. Only the baby survived."

"This baby's father is in Jaffna. He might be in a refugee camp there. He might be dead. If he's alive, he cannot return home because the roads are blocked. He doesn't know that his wife is dead, his children are dead, his house is destroyed, and all he has left in the world is this baby."

I'm not aware of expressions or emotions that are up to the task of expressing the kind of regret and sorrow that I was feeling at that time.

It doesn't matter whether a government shell or an Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) shell flattened this baby's house and killed her family. President Rajapakse would say that the LTTE's attack on Muttur was the cause of this baby's plight. Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, would blame the government. In a paradoxical way, they're both right.

Both sides are criminally responsible for setting the forces in motion that led to this atrocity. Everyone who believes that violence can achieve something other than death and destruction shares the responsibility for the death of this baby's family.

What's the life of one baby matter, in the grand scheme of things, with over 100,000 internally displaced persons wandering this island, looking for the shelter and security that neither the government nor the LTTE can provide? This baby isn't (yet) Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim. This baby doesn't care whether there is a separate Tamil homeland, a federal system or a unitary government. This baby, and over 100,000 of her fellow citizens, are more concerned about whether they will have food to eat, water to drink, and a dry roof over their heads. They are concerned about whether the latest incoming shell will destroy what little life they have at present.

Those who advocate a continuation of the war, or adopt a hard-line toward the peace talks, are usually nowhere near the war zone. According to the survey work of Sarvodaya's "mobile leaders", the hardness of attitude is in direct relationship to the person's distance from the war. According to the preliminary results of our survey, 60% of the Sinhalese in the far southern regions believe that the government should expand the war and seek a military victory over LTTE.

That number shrinks to less than 8% for the Sinhalese who actually live in the war zone. Those who don't know the horror of war want a military victory. Those who do know want peace.

This reminds me of the Americans who, thousands of miles away from the Iraqi battlefronts, called for our military "victory" in a society we do not understand, a war we can never "win."

First, We Are Human Beings. Let Us Start With That.

In one of the earlier refugee camps, I spoke with a man who had opened a small bicycle repair shop within the camp. (Some of the refugee camps are so long-standing, they've created their own economic and social life, a gross distortion of life on the "outside". Small vegetable sellers, food preparers and other economic activities can be found within the confines of some of the older refugee camps.)

When I asked Mr. Bike Repair his opinions about the war, he was equally scornful of the positions of both sides. "Both sides cause problems for us," he said very directly. (This sentiment was expressed repeatedly throughout my visit, by virtually everyone I interviewed.) He went on to catalog the almost casual violence and disrespect for human life and dignity that the refugees experience from both sides, on an almost daily basis.

I usually end my interviews by asking the participant what he or she believed would solve the present conflict. Most participants from the refugee camps did not answer that question, or said that their present conditions did not allow them to think about the future.

Mr. Bike Repair was different. He grew thoughtful for a few moments, staring into space at either remembered pain or a vision of a better future. He then said, "First, we are human beings. Let us start with that. Our ethnic group, our religion, our party... these things are not as important as the fact that we are all human beings. If we remember that we are human beings, we can then solve our problems. If we forget this, the problems will never go away." This is the kind of simple, elegant wisdom that comes from the village level. It is a statement without bitterness or hatred. His home and livelihood was destroyed, but he was not seeking to destroy others.

I was reminded of the fact that the resolution to this conflict lies not in the conflicting parties, the political operatives, the military leaders or anyone else... the resolution of this conflict lies in the people. 

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