Signs of Hope and A Call to Repentance
On a recent pastoral visit to Mannar and Kebettigollawa we were greatly distressed at the deadly violence that has been unleashed against fellow Sinhalese and Tamils living on either side of the A9 road. Many innocent, unarmed civilians have been killed, injured and displaced, not by accident but by fellow Sri Lankans.
The elderly villager at the kade in Kebettigollawa spoke for both communities when in his parting words he urged us to tell their story clearly to the people of this country. We were commissioned to speak.
Deaths of Civilians and the Trauma
The incidents after the claymore mine attack on a troops bus in December 2005 led to at least 5 civilian deaths and the incidents of 15-17 June 2006 saw six civilians killed; an elderly lady in the attack on the church at Pesalai, and five fishermen on the beach near Pesalai.
The claymore mine attack of June killed 64 civilians, of whom 15 were children from the villages surrounding Kebettigollawa, and of whom 44 were from one village, Yakawewa.
In Mankulam we saw the panic on the faces of women and children as they fled the sound of shooting not too far off. People fear reprisals following armed skirmishes because this has been their experience. At Kebettigollawa children in particular have been traumatized by the claymore mine attack and the events surrounding this incident. Hearing stories of the killers and seeing the corpses which had been set out in a school, had we were told, badly affected school attendance.
Perpetrators of violence and Controls
Both these communities are more than aware of the deadly repercussions of living in the wrong place or belonging to the wrong community in times of brutal hostilities. They know the identity of the killers. So do the political and military leaders and people of this country. It is those who carry arms to protect all and those who carry arms on behalf of their interpretation of the Tamil cause that have also used these arms against unarmed civilians.
The President's public notice on the behaviour of the armed forces in discharging their duty is welcome and timely. But it requires monitoring and action in instances of default. Trincomalee and Allaipiddy are still fresh in the memory of the people and can only be appeased through prompt and impartial investigation and justice. If local conditions prevent this process, impartial and competent Sri Lankans living abroad, or Asians from immediate neighbouring countries, may be willing and able to assist in these investigations. If it is to be taken seriously by all and also have an impact on the future, the notice must not merely remain an intention. It must have retrospective effect, if it is to have continuing credibility.
The Afflicted and the Abled
A fundamental issue that confronts the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Police is to defend sovereignty by defending both territory and people. To convey through various signals that territory is more important than some communities is counter-productive from a military as well as a long term political perspective. The clearest way to address this is to act according to existing law and prescribed codes and to hear civilian grievance from time to time. Otherwise entire communities will be marginalized. There were complaints from both Kebettigollawa and Mannar that those responsible did not hear the fears, grievances and 'instincts' of civilians enough.
The people testified however that the post violence period saw a marked improvement in dialogue and trust. In a few incidents in Mannar, the perpetrators were promptly dealt with, with deliberate protection for civilians. In Kebettigollawa there was some satisfaction that the security needs of the border villagers were now being addressed. The afflicted are endowed with an unshakeable sense of integrity. They are quick and grateful to offer appreciation when it is due.
The prudence of setting up new Military Guard Posts in residential areas is another issue that needs to be addressed. We saw two such guard posts in the Hospital and the Stadium in Mannar; both very public places. This also applies to the proximity of Forward Defence Lines to border villages. Given the provocative intention and nature of armed confrontations, this trend requires immediate review in relation to International Codes of Military conduct. If not tense cross fire situations will continue to have serious repercussions on civilian life and property.
In fact a recent confrontation near the Stadium led to spill over aggression in a nearby Church premises where the La Sallean Brothers run a home for boys. The Brothers were threatened at gunpoint and a teacher who went to the protection of his students was beaten up. The situation could have got out of hand if not for the timely intervention of a Senior Officer. To date no action has been taken against the persons who can be identified.
The Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Police must react in armed confrontation in a disciplined and professional way. Civilian safety, regardless of ethnicity or region, is an absolutely non-negotiable factor. There are still numerous able officers and disciplined men and women who are capable of creating this culture in the forces. To ignore these acts and atrocities is to slight them all and crush their morale.
Dignity not War
Not once amongst both Tamils and Sinhalese, did we hear a call for revenge or war. Instead there was a clear, strong yearning for a return to dignity, justice and peace. But here too there is a rugged wisdom of the sea and the fields. People are aware of the odds.
There is a strong conviction that our political leaders have failed the country repeatedly. The moral strength and political will of Politicians and the LTTE to stop the killings and work for peace was seriously questioned. There is deep suspicion that they either do not want peace or cannot make it happen. Consequently there were repeated reminders that their (and our) destiny is in the hands of the wrong people, who will slowly destroy us all.
At a kade opposite the Divisional Secretary's Office at Kebettigollawa two men suggested that nothing positive will be possible till the moral strength of the people impacts on the political will of both the Government and the LTTE.
People's Potential and Hope for Peace
Kebettigollawa and Mannar are divided by the A9 road that links Killinochchi with Colombo. In their wounded weariness, these communities paradoxically offer us a contextual model for peace. All they ask for is to be allowed to enjoy their communities, fish and farm to earn an honest living, raise and educate their children and practice their religion and culture free from violence and intimidation. They are amazingly content and selfless. They are far too integrated and detached to crave for anything more material.
Many wait for Killinochchi and Colombo to work the miracle that will bring peace when somehow the true potential across the road is forgotten.
The day the victims of violence stand up and speak with one voice and for each other, forgiving their perpetrators and calling for justice and peace for all, peace will take on a new face and begin a new journey. The true power of their concerted voices need to be discovered. We must pray and work ceaselessly for the emergence of leaders of such communities who will withstand the several threats and obstacles to work together for peace. It is those living at the border, the edge, both geographically and metaphorically, who will one day lead us into peace.
Till then, the four roads meeting at a common junction slightly north of Medawachchiya will remind us of the Cross the innocent carry for the greed and sins of others.
The Rt Revd Duleep de Chickera,
Bishop of Colombo,