After three successive days of numbness, fear, anxiety, trauma, devastating sadness and anger I pen these thoughts. I do not have any ‘rational’ explanation for the horror that we are experiencing. I do however feel compelled to explain how I feel. In that effort, I hope I can contribute to the several conversations that are unfolding in response to the so called ‘Easter Sunday attacks’ in Sri Lanka.
As I moved from denial to acceptance of the carnage that took place, I began to sense that we were all caught up once again in that terrible cycle. We hear some terrible news and begin to contact our loved ones. In the numbness and shock that follows we get drawn to the news, to social media and spend the day and much of the night going through the vicious cycle. Part of you reminds you that this is familiar, that this is similar to what you did when the constitutional crisis happened, that this is what you did when the attacks took place in Digana, that this is what you did when the tsunami hit, and you can keep going back in time.
At some level you also realise that this is similar to what your mother or your father or neighbour did in the previous generation and in the one before. You look at your children partly wondering what you should tell them and how, but also partly wondering what they will do, when their turn comes. You feel survivor’s guilt, in the full knowledge that there is no rational explanation for why you or your family members were spared. You realise that there is no rational explanation as to why you get to put your child to sleep while another mother has to identify the dead body of the child she has birthed. Hearing bits and pieces of the news about the attacks, my son asks me, ‘Amma, but why would someone do that?’ I mumble a response. I feel numb realising that my heritage of horror will soon be his to bear too.
Almost as if this unfolding horror is not enough, a political horror has begun to unfold. We are told by those who hold governmental power that there was information on the possibility of such attacks. I remember being shown that letter which was released to social media as soon as the attacks occurred. I dismissed it immediately assuming that someone was circulating ‘fake news’ in bad faith. But as the events unfolded we are told that it was in fact the truth. How are we supposed to process that? How are we expected to come to terms with the knowledge that our government had enough information to act on, but had not? How can we accept the attitude with which these statements were made?
But then, you begin to remember; you remember the stories that your mother or another family member has told you, about the 83 riots. About how the government at the time did not respond for three days. About the insurrection and the response of the government to the insurrection and about how there was minimal accountability for that violence and for the deaths. You remember the stories that you heard about the war – so many stories about the war, and how we are still struggling to have some level of accountability for it. You sit back and face the bitter truth all over again – this has been our political reality, our bitter political reality across generations.
A few weeks ago, we watched the Prime Minister of New Zealand responding with empathy and a deep sense of responsibility to the attacks in Christchurch. Despite the horror and tragedy that unfolded there, I watched the way she gave leadership to the process of grieving and how she mobilised her government to take preventative measures. In that dark hour, in her leadership, I found hope.
In Sri Lanka, I find hope in the way in which many of our people have responded. Whether in donating blood, in reaching out to one religious community or another in expressing solidarity, whether in empathising with the immediate victims, people are doing what they can. I know that doctors, hospital staff, police officers, members of the armed forces, ambulance drivers serve the nation at these moments of tragedy in utterly selfless ways. You remember the way in which many Sri Lankans responded to the tsunami, how they respond when floods hit. You recall the many stories of how neighbours protected their Tamil friends during the 83 riots. And you know in your heart that if you look in the right places, you will find hope. But at the same time, it is no secret that we have, among us, those who hold extreme views. Some of them are voicing their opinions now, in anger and in confusion. Some others are acting on these opinions. All of us – hurting, confused Sri Lankans – are in need of leadership. We need national leadership that will help us to do more for our society as we go through this tragedy. If we are harbouring extremist views, we need a national leadership that will help us to overcome those views. But we are faced with the bitter reality that we do not have that kind of leadership.
Many Sri Lankans are trying their best at this time to bring communities together and prevent further violence or harm. You see individuals doing this on social media, you see organizations publishing statements, you see inter-religious meetings etc. But the information that is now coming in points to a gruesome reality. The efforts required to combat the security threat that we are faced with is beyond our individual or collective efforts. It requires, among other things, a competent government that is committed to upholding democratic values. In many ways, this threat seems to me like the financial crisis of 2008, and the impact of climate change that we have experienced in Sri Lanka. Metaphorically, it reminds me of the deaths caused by the Meethotamulla garbage dump. ‘Man-made’ disasters that impact at an unprecedented scale. These disasters assume new levels of complexity, posing new questions to us and compelling us to search for new answers. These disasters are at least in part due to social, economic, cultural, religious issues that have either been ignored or actively compounded. They come back as demons to destroy our lives in random and horrific ways. These ‘events’ result in death, destruction that could have been prevented or at the very least minimised. According to the information that is coming in, this time around in Sri Lanka, it has a global dimension to it.
Looking specifically at religious ‘extremism’ in Sri Lanka, one cannot ignore our fractured political past and how it shapes our present realities. One cannot ignore how the Constitution and the law both in substance in and practice has often been part of the problem. Today the compounded effect of these local, national, regional, global realities is leaving its marks in our land. We see it and we feel it in the trauma of a father grieving the loss of his entire family, in the mother burying her daughter, in a community that watches backhoes pouring earth over rows of coffins in a mass grave and in our collective sense of despair.
There are many dangers to deal with in facing our future. How do we grieve and come to terms with what we are experiencing? What do we do with our political elite? How do we address the security threat? How do we sustain our hope? So many questions, and so many anxieties. History tell us that horrific experiences and tragedies are also the birthing grounds of new visions for humanity and training in resilience for many. Sri Lanka is in desperate need of both.