Footprints: Post-war reconciliation

Updated September 04, 2016

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Ex-LTTE member Ranjini in her home in Selva Nagar, Kilinochchi.—Photo by writer
Ex-LTTE member Ranjini in her home in Selva Nagar, Kilinochchi.—Photo by writer

RANJINI, 46, is a one-time Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam commander and a widow. She lives in rural Kilinochchi, once a stronghold of the LTTE, with her 10-year-old daughter and runs a poultry farm. Her husband was one of the hundreds categorised as ‘disappeared’ after he surrendered in the last stages of the war in 2009.

It is peacetime and there should be no enemies. The memories of death and destruction are, however, her constant enemies. She has little opportunity to reconcile with the Sinhalese. Ranjini wants her daughter to study well and learn as many languages as possible — English, Sinhalese and even a foreign language. She can only speak Tamil. She shifts between hope and despair.

Ranjini recounts the deaths of her father and brother during the 30-year civil war, when the Tamil Tigers fought for a separate north-eastern state. She winces at the pain of shrapnel still in her body.

Her daughter, seated next to her, has the look of a wise adult. Then three years old, she had found bread, water and the attention of medical authorities for her mother as she lay in a pool of blood in the hospital’s garden compound. This was the immediate post-war horror of mid-May 2009.

Having joined the LTTE in 1987, Ranjini left the movement in 2000 and married LTTE cadre Sudhan in 2001 who surrendered to the government military just before the end of the war in 2009. To date, she has no news of her husband. He is assumed to be dead. How, no one knows.

Ranjini spent a year at a rehabilitation camp in Vavuniya, a large town in the Northern Province. One aim of the rehabilitation was reconciliation. At every mention of the word ‘reconciliation’, she sighs.

Today, she shoulders her responsibilities to her daughter alone. Her one relief is that her house has been built with the assistance of well-wishers. There are vociferous Tamil politicians and human rights activists who live in the same district as her but who have never made any attempt to see her. As an LTTE commander, she once would have had Tamil politicians waiting for hours to meet her. Today, she would be lucky if she gets to see them even after repeated visits.

“We have to reconcile with everything, that once we were thought of highly here in the north, as freedom fighters and that we are now… nothing. We have to reconcile that we were thought of as ‘terrorists’ by the Sinhalese and that maybe some of them still do,” she says. In Colombo, retired judge of the high court Maxwell Paranagama, who is chairman of the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints regarding Missing Persons (PCICMP), contemplates this matter of reconciliation.

“Disappeared. Civilians have gone missing during the war. Yes, we need reconciliation… And we have to find if these missing people are alive,” he muses, almost to himself, and then insists he has done his best as chairman of the PCICMP — now disbanded to make way for the controversial Office for Missing Persons, which is to be established despite protests from former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters. The PCICMP was disbanded on July 15, about two years after having been appointed in August 2013 by the then president Rajapaksa.

Over 20,000 complaints of missing persons have been filed by Tamil civilians in the Northern and Eastern provinces, with around 4,000 of them categorised as repetitions. Between 4,000 and 5,000 complaints have been filed pertaining to missing military persons. According to Justice Paranagama, only around 14 Tamil civilians have been traced, in foreign countries or outside the north-east, through the special investigation team working with the commission.

“I have, as a human being, sympathised and empathised with the people who filed these cases. In the final report we handed over last month to President Maithripala Sirisena, I have recommended that the lands occupied by the military in the north-east be returned to the people,” he says.

He feels that Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation process will be truly meaningful only when the government holistically attends to the fundamental livelihood and housing concerns of the Tamil people. “The Tamil civilians have suffered unimaginable trauma. They have lost their loved ones, their houses, their lands, their capacity to earn. It is all these that should be restored, along with facilitating means of interaction with non-Tamils from other regions. Politicians should take initiatives where Tamils feel they are a core part of Sri Lanka and identify as Sri Lankans,” he says.

Meanwhile, for years, artists such as veteran Sri Lankan film-maker and playwright Dharmasiri Bandaranayake have been at the forefront of behind-the-scenes reconciliation work that involves working in the mediums of literature, drama and film to foster understanding and empathy between Sri Lanka’s communities.

His latest contribution is the role he is playing in taking the voices of those directly involved in the war, such as former LTTE militants, to the civilians of Colombo.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2016