Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

In the Memories of the Massacred

by Roy Ratnavel, May 12, 2012

Dunes of emotions dominate our psyche somewhere between howling anger and stunned silence. We give up understanding. We find ourselves picking through the wreckage. Not even the lapse of time has numbed how truly horrible it was. The massacre of May 2009 remains a key moment in the shared history of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Tamils killed by Sri Lankan armed forces May 2009

It has been three years since May 18, 2009. That’s the day Tamil Diaspora’s world stopped spinning. Over time, it has resumed its rotation, sluggishly at first. We are in the early phase of grieving; we have the rawness at our fingertips. It is almost primal in our every thought and movement as we attempt to rise each day and put one step in front of another.

Dunes of emotions dominate our psyche somewhere between howling anger and stunned silence. We give up understanding. We find ourselves picking through the wreckage. Not even the lapse of time has numbed how truly horrible it was. The massacre of May 2009 remains a key moment in the shared history of Sri Lankan Tamils.

We don’t think of it as an isolated individual event without connection with rest of the world. There is no such thing in this interconnected world that we live in. Ultimately we understand how people can be prepared by governments and organizations to use horrific violence outside of the realm of civilized behaviour. It’s ironic, in war everybody is killing but there are rules even for killing and should be. Tamils know Sri Lanka never played by the rules.

We know. We are the survivors of Sri Lankan tyranny. During the conflict, we made our way to far away friendlier nations, leaving behind the country of our birth, Sri Lanka, soaked with the blood of our parents, siblings, sons, daughters and large extended families.

We are a whole generation of men, women and children, bound by a common fate of survivor’s guilt. It was truly a new era and required a new and promised land. As new immigrants we paid our dues to our respective new countries. We found work, paid taxes and accepted our civic responsibilities and started all over again.

Many birthdays have come and gone but there were no candles, cake or the obligatory family gathering, the wishes for the proverbial long life span — just reflection. Just forced smiles as we suppressed our true feelings — a reflection of the past that we haven’t quiet let go. Like emotion in slow motion, where the past trauma lingers on what is lost and shines a bright light to illuminate what is left — a deep scar. These simple life events have immeasurably highlights the dual lives led by us in our respective adopted lands. We wonder if it has to — if there is a way to marry our two different worlds of experience without pain, without struggle, without conflict.

It is often said that all immigrant stories have similarities, but there is a tremendous dividing line between those who came with sponsors already in the country and those who came here as refugees. Many Tamils fell into the latter category; there was no friend or family waiting for them. Only collateral was the strong back to make a living and the promise of peace and personal security in the new country.

Decades later, there could be only one thing, one malignant thought we never could really excise. When our guards were down for just an instant, we finally caught a glimpse of what must lie at the core of our being, but ever present, lingering, irritating and perpetually in need of containment.

Despite this, we are the “lucky ones.” Over the past 30 years, many thousands sacrificed themselves. With no other avenue of meaningful political expression open to them and with their lives became more and more unbearable, they made the ultimate sacrifice to make their voice heard in Colombo, and to try influence opinion outside Sri Lanka, with the aim of pressuring Colombo into changing its policies towards Tamils. Colombo’s response has been to characterize this as acts of terrorism.

Tamils really believe — when it comes to Sri Lanka, there is phenomenon of people being over exposed and under educated. They are confronted with images and media sensationalism from conflicted sources. But they really don't know the history behind it. We believe that history of Sri Lanka since the independence in 1948 has to be taught in a very careful and a contextualized way to bring perpetrators to justice. Why? Well the easy answer is that we don’t want history to repeat itself. It offends our sense of decency.

Tamils know Sri Lanka’s evil cannot be undone. UK’s Chanel 4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ has confirmed to us our long held belief that Sri Lanka is a terror state with anti-Tamil tendencies. It was hard for us to watch the documentary. It unleashed within us a feeling of shame — shame not because we were the perpetrators but shame because we were once citizens of the same country that perpetrated this crime. We felt uncomfortable and uneasy — that’s good. If we ever feel comfortable, if we ever feel easy, then something deeply and profoundly moral within our own humanity has been shattered and lost.

We all died a little each time when these mass killings occurred. But the massacre of 2009 in Sri Lanka remind us yet again that hatred is not confined to a particular community, religion or political ideology and the tarring of entire community for reprehensible actions of fanatics is unfair. Perhaps Tamils can use what happened in Sri Lanka to look within our own hearts, and ensure our words and actions always contribute to a better life for those we left behind.

Our memories stretch back to a time whenmany Tamils in Sri Lanka were being written up in the black book of redundancy. Back then, everybody knew somebody who had died in the war or suffered in the hands of Sri Lanka and knew the brevity of life. It is marvellous to us how far we had traveled to choose life, instead of certain death, by remaining in Sri Lanka. History may one day record that Tamil people of this epoch were persecuted. I don’t know if that is for sure or not, because history has a way of denying the truth. Perhaps this is the price or curse of post 9/11 age —  to witness and then turn a blind eye to a country like Sri Lanka’s blatant disregard for life and its unfitness to face either its future, or its past mistakes. But I do wonder, what will tomorrow’s generation say of Sri Lanka today?

When the history books are written about Sri Lanka, they may reflect that President Mahinda Rajapakse and his entire goon squad lost hold of the country on their watch. This decline in the country’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its survival. It seems there is no humane way to destroy a country.

Recently passed U.S.-initiated, Canada-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at United Nations Human Rights Council is refreshinly a step in the right direction. Understandably Tamils are elated. However, it is the begining of solving a problem, not the end. We need to keep in mind that it is a watered down version and mix of geopolitics and war crimes is one of the major challenges facing the international community. 

Tamils in Sri Lanka deserve to be heard by the international community as the pendulum of oppression has clearly moved against them. We hope the world won’t wait until the Museum of Human Rights curates a history of the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka to tell the their story.

Human history shows that the winners of wars are those who sound their barbaric pronouncements over the rooftops of the world, while the losers are the ones who cannot express themselves without apology. Diaspora Tamils should resist the temptation to subject ourselves to the latter.

Our new approach — nimble tactics, simple ideas that echo unapologetic messages, a willingness of leadership that can challenge the status quo and false sense of nostalgia — can energize even the most disillusioned Tamils. We must come together as a bereaved family and with many other bereaved families who did not choose to be on this journey. Each day we wake to the same reality. Yet carrying on with our freedom struggle has become our new vocation. But we should remind ourselves there has to be a balance between ideals and pragmatism.

We are alive, we generated new life in new land, thorough all this we tried to divert our gaze from the horror our families endured so the next generation could escape its morbid grasp. But memories of the massacred is enough to overwhelm our tortured past.

I often reflect back on my father, who was killed in the ancestral town of Point-Pedro, Sri Lanka by a single bullet 24 years ago. Though now as a father with a son of my own, with my family “protected” in Canada, my father’s memory could not be totally submerged, surfacing constantly and playing on an endless-loop in my subconscious mind like a prediction that never comes true, invading my dreams and my private thoughts.

He passed away when I was a teenager, and I remember struggling to understand what death meant in my lived experience. I couldn't understand the afterlife. How can I understand forever? There is nothing worse in life than to sit there and be a victim of a process that is outside of your control. I am just one of many Tamils who carry this burden.

I wish I could tell my father that finally, in my forties, I have the riches of my own family such as I never imagined possible growing up during the war in Sri Lanka. I wish I could tell him about the tear in our family fabric since his demise. But even though he isn’t here for me to share the joy and pain, I feel the warmth of his presence every time something good happens in my life.

It has been three years since the massacre, and many other memories have been formed since. But May 18, 2009 stands out: a moment in time so different from the rest of our experiences — leaving a huge void. Tamils have come to understand deaths and their profound significance in our life; we can’t let those moments go unlived. We should give up resenting them and embrace life and resurrect hope — hope for humanity. These are some of the mundane miracles that bring smile as they happen, and hold us close to the root of what living is all about.

With time, many of us will find peace with the past while knowing all that came at the price of so many years of turbulence and the extraction of so many lives — many of them died before they even knew that they were Tamils. In keeping with such collective constant agony, our own “forced smiles” consists of visible pain, considered a common fate of Tamil survivors of Sri Lankan tyranny — to be “in the memories of the massacred.”



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