Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience, from Larson Publications (2016)
My colleague Gaithri Fernando, a Sri Lankan psychologist based in Los Angeles, moved fluidly between worlds, shifting from Sinhala to English and back again, translating the words and gestures of this beautiful and haunting country. There was no way I could turn down her invitation to collaborate on a project with communities affected by the civil war and the tsunami. Emma, my friend in Kabul, loved this place; she’d have called me mad to let the chance slip by. A door opens, she once said; you either walk through it or you don’t. She loved taking chances, discovering the unknown.
Of course I signed on.
Admittedly, I didn’t know at the time that the civil war would break out again just as I was leaving the US, that gruesome killings would again send chills through the country only a few years after a peace treaty had finally been signed. Still, I figured that after the wanton violence of Iraq, Sri Lanka wouldn’t seem as sinister.
I was wrong about that. The violence here had a sinister nature all its own.
A few weeks before I arrived, a Tamil family of four had been stabbed to death, disemboweled, and hung from the ceiling of their home in the northern city of Jaffna. The newspapers all carried the same gruesome photo, but the stories explaining it differed wildly. The Tamil papers described the incident as further evidence of government brutality, the state-sanctioned slaughter of an innocent family. Meanwhile, the pro-government Sinhalese papers called the murders yet another example of the terrorist tactics of the Tamil Tigers, suggesting that the Tigers killed the family as punishment for being government informants.
Most Sri Lankans I met had no idea who was behind the killings. Truth is tough to come by in the country, and it’s not something the media strive particularly hard to uncover. Partly that’s just bias, devout loyalty to one or another ethnic group.
It’s also fear.
Truthtelling in Sri Lanka is a hazardous business. In 2014, five years after the war ended, the country still ranked 165th out of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index.[i] That made it a more dangerous place to report the news than Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. You have to find the concept of a free press really fucking distasteful, be willing to threaten, imprison, and kill an awful lot of journalists to score a rating that low.
One of the most gifted war photographers I know, Gemunu Amarasinghe, captured the carnage when the Sri Lankan air force bombed a Tamil hospital during the final push of the war in 2009. The government denied that the hospital had been hit, but Gemunu’s pictures showed otherwise. The night they were published, the Associated Press had to fly him out of the country.
And one of the most courageous journalists I’ve met, Lasantha Wickrematunge, knew his fate long before it played out on the streets of Colombo. The editor of The Sunday Leader, he’d insisted on an even-handed approach to covering the war. He’d criticized both sides, the government and the Tigers, for their brutality, their willingness to target civilians, and their reluctance to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. That kind of balanced critique was traitorous in the eyes of the government, a death sentence, and Lasantha knew it. He wrote his own obituary days before two men on motorcycles shot him in the head.[ii]
Questioned about Lasantha’s death in an interview with the BBC, Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, had a good laugh. “Who is this Lasantha?” he asked sarcastically. “He’s somebody who was writing for a tabloid. I’m not concerned about that. Why is everybody so concerned about one man?” He laughed again, an odd, high-pitched sound that barely concealed his rage at being questioned about the murder.
It was one of the most chilling sounds I’ve ever heard. The human equivalent of a cobra coming uncoiled, spreading its hood, dying to strike.
Before I met up with Gaithri in Colombo, I spent a week on the southern coast relaxing and getting my bearings. I found a cheap hotel just off the Galle Road, steps from the beach. I rented a motorbike, and spent the days visiting the seaside towns that looked out over the Indian Ocean.
The peace accord had recently collapsed and the country was at war with itself once again. During the brief respite, people on the island had breathed a cautious sigh of relief. After two decades of civil war, the fighting seemed finally to have come to an end. An end to the abductions and torture and heads publicly displayed on poles, an end to suicide bombings and explosions on buses and trains, an end to massacres in mosques and markets, to death squads and media censorship, to getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and catching a bullet or a piece of shrapnel meant for someone else.
And then the waves hit. December 26, 2004. The Boxing Day Tsunami.
It struck the eastern side of the island first, then the southwest.
For all the newspaper and magazine stories I’d read, the photographs and videos I had seen, I really had no idea just how destructive the tsunami was until I got to Sri Lanka. I rode along the Galle Road past villages still in ruins, skeletons of houses dotting the shoreline. Nineteen months after the massive waves hit the island, killing some 35,000 people and destroying 80,000 homes, there were few signs of any meaningful reconstruction. Thousands of displaced families were still living in tents or shacks, or languishing in overcrowded camps, some of them built on swampland. Billions of dollars in aid money were tied up in power struggles between the government and the Tigers. 180,000 livelihoods had been lost in a single night, and the power brokers at the top of the food chain were still bickering over who would control the relief funds.
I stopped in a village near Unawanatuna, and walked through the ruins of what had once been a small neighborhood. There were bits of cement, concrete, and wood lying in piles, the lifeless remains of houses that once stood just meters from the sea. I came to a wall standing by itself on a small plot of land. Nearby were the remnants a bedroom, fragments of a kitchen, a staircase leading to a second floor that no longer existed. It was an eerie, unsettling sight. Not just because of the destruction, but because one shouldn’t be able to see so readily into the remains of a home, the deeply personal spaces that once contained the privacy of family life.
Back at the hotel, I parked the motorbike and wandered down to the internet cafe across the way. A young man with a friendly smile waved me over. We’d seen each in the cafe before, but never spoken. He introduced himself as Sampath, and invited me to sit and share a glass or two of lemon gin. He was a sweet guy, a photographer, couldn’t have been more than thirty years old. Told me he was Sinhalese and had married a Tamil woman. That shouldn’t matter, but in his view it ended up getting her killed and turning him into a widower.
Sampath said he and his wife were expecting a child some years ago, and during her last month of pregnancy she traveled north to see her parents in Jaffna. He said the Tigers decided to send a warning message about Tamils marrying Sinhalese, so they tied his wife to a sign post and cut open her belly, killing both her and the unborn child. He described this graphically, motioning with his hands to make sure I understood the gruesome nature of the murder. As he spoke, he looked into my eyes with an unsettling intensity, to be sure I was listening. Then he gazed into the distance behind me, as if pulled into the terrible imagery he’d just described.
I found myself feeling thankful for the numbing effect the gin was having on my brain. I didn’t want to picture the scene he’d painted, and the gin kept things blurry.
Sampath continued with his story. Said he still woke up every night from nightmares about the child he never had the chance to see, his only “memory” an image of his butchered wife and the fetus she carried. The images won’t stop, he said; it didn’t matter whether he was awake or asleep. It’d been 12 years, and the gruesome pictures just wouldn’t go away.
I uttered some words of empathy, but he talked right past them, didn’t even seem to hear me.
After the killing, he hit bottom. Wandered up to Goa, a former Portuguese colony that’s become a hippy and Techno scene on the northwest coast of India, where he became addicted to anything that would numb the pain, dull the memories. He eventually found his way into a rehab center back in Sri Lanka, in the beautiful mountain city of Kandy. It was in Kandy that he met Golda Meir’s grandson (Golda was the first prime minister of Israel), who invited him to come to Israel and spend some time on a kibbutz. A chance to connect with the land, and with himself.
He got his life together there, came back to Sri Lanka and started a photography business. It was really taking off, he said. Business was good and he was feeling hopeful about the future for the first time in years.
One night in December of 2004 he was shooting a wedding at The Lighthouse, a ritzy hotel on the south coast, just off the Galle Road. He’d gone home to sleep, but had left his gear in the hotel rather than carry it on his motorcycle.
The tsunami hit that night, and the water destroyed everything, all of his equipment. Sisyphus and the boulder. A life rebuilt, taken down again by a series of massive waves.
We sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the sound of the waves breaking against the beach.
He smiled, in a genuine way that caught me by surprise—who could smile after what he’d been through, the story he’d just told? But he said you have to keep smiling and see the glass as half full. It’s the only way to survive. He’d gotten a new camera, and had landed several gigs already. You’ve got to stay positive, he said.
“It’s just those nightmares. If I could just stop those horrible images from entering my dreams, I’d be okay.”
Lying in bed later that night, I listened to the waves outside my window. The sounds of the sea have always been calming to me, a primal response to the rhythm of water. But this night, the ocean made me uneasy, its destructive power barely hidden beneath the gentle sound of the waves. I couldn’t stop thinking about the evening’s conversation, about the cruelty and terrible losses my friend in the café had endured. I’m not exactly sure how we come to terms with the effects of evil on our lives. A natural disaster isn’t malicious; a tsunami doesn’t intentionally cause harm, it simply happens, indifferent to the destruction it creates and the despair it leaves in its wake. But to experience the death of a loved one killed with absolute intentionality, to be left with images of brutality and suffering, I wonder at times whether there can only be an imperfect healing, a coming to terms that leaves a thin scar over wounds that will always be tender.
And yet, so many survivors of traumatic violence do seem to find ways of seeing the glass of life as half full. I continue to marvel at this will to not just survive, but to really live, to build anew, to regain one’s faith in the better side of human nature. I’ve seen it everywhere my work has taken me. It’s inspirational, like watching a flower grow out of concrete, or break through the surface of snow. At times it feels like witnessing something quietly profound, a kind of inner grace that springs from somewhere just beyond my comprehension.
[i]. World Press Freedom Index 2014. http://rsf.org/index2014/en-asia.php
[ii]. To read Lasantha’s final editorial in which he foretells his own murder, see The Sunday Leader, January 11, 2009. http://www.thesundayleader.lk/20090111/editorial-.htm