by William Dalrymple, ‘The Guardian,’ UK, March 9, 2015
As a young foreign correspondent posted to South Asia in the late 1980s, I spent a lot of time in the Sri Lankan jungle, covering the longest-running civil war in the region. It was a constantly surprising conflict where Tamil Hindus – and occasionally even Christians – were the suicide bombers, Muslims tended to be non-violent onlookers and the Buddhist Singhalese majority operated a violent “gestapo”, which succeeded in keeping the minority communities in a constant state of terror.
The most fascinating part of the assignment was always trying to track down theTamil Tigers. Hauled over at gunpoint at Tiger checkposts, I would always take the opportunity to chat to the severely doctrinaire and often very young cadres, and grew to be both fascinated and repelled by this most disciplined and ruthless of South Asian guerrilla forces, each of whom wore a cyanide phial around their necks in case they were captured.
On one occasion, I succeeded in talking my way into one of the Tigers’ jungle camps and interviewed one of their most senior military commanders who went by the nom de guerre of Castro. As he told of the 50-mile marches through the monsoon jungle, the moonlit crossing of lagoon and the silent belly crawling as the guerrillas surrounded Sri Lankan army camps, I was aware of a growing sense of deja vu. Hadn’t I seen a film of this somewhere? He smiled: “Our camps are all equipped with videos. War films are shown three times a week and are compulsory. We often consult Predator and Rambo before planning ambushes. None of us are trained soldiers. We’ve learned all we know from these films.”
Later, he showed me the Tigers’ video library. They had complete sets of Rambo,Rocky and James Bond; all the Schwarzeneggers, including Conan the Barbarian; most of the Vietnam films; and no less than three versions of The Magnificent Seven. It was wonderful: real freedom fighters earnestly studying Sylvester Stallone to see how it’s done: from Hanoi to Sri Lanka via Hollywood; an entire civil war – tens of thousands killed, maimed and wounded – inspired by imported Hollywood heroics.
Yet there was nothing comical about what resulted from such attacks. The Tigers were capable of great brutality, carrying out many more suicide attacks in the 90s than any Muslim group, and assaulting rival Tamils as pitilessly as they attacked Singhalese institutions. “They ambushed soldiers and assassinated politicians,” writes Samanth Subramanian in his brilliant memoir, “but they also killed monks and pilgrims in the majestic Buddhist shrine of Anuradhapura, shot up Sinhalese women and children across the country, and blew up aeroplanes and trains.”
The Sri Lankan civil war dragged on for 26 years. Yet for such an important war, which at one point saw the Tigers drive out the might of the Indian army and then follow up by assassinating the person who sent them, Rajiv Gandhi, the conflict has generated remarkably little good writing or reportage. It has now, however, produced a remarkable book by one of India’s most talented young writers of non-fiction.
As readers of Subramanian’s wonderful debut, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, already know, he is witty and urbane. What This Divided Islandshows, however, is that he is also capable of journalistic persistence and occasional moments of real bravery. For this is a much darker book than Following Fish, and here he exposes the horrors of the Sri Lankan conflict with a forensic clarity, integrity and dogged diligence that reminded me at times of Philip Gourevitch’s extraordinary book about the genocide in Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.
Subramanian opens his story in Colombo by telling of the Sinhalese majoritarianism that sparked the conflict. With 11 million Sinhalese and only 3 million Tamils, the advent of democracy led to the subjection of the minority: in 1956 Sinhala was made the state’s official language and the Tamils found that their language was banned from government offices and road signs; to gain access to any serious jobs, Tamils now found they had to pass a Sinhala proficiency test. At the same time, prime land in the north was gradually parcelled out and colonised by Buddhists, at the expense of its Hindu owners. Early Tamil attempts at non-violent protest were brutally put down by the Special Task Force, a kind of Buddhist UVF, and massive anti-Tamil riots, leaving Hindu homes and restaurants smouldering across the island. It was at this time that Sinhala rioters pioneered “necklacing”, burning alive with a rubber tyre, before the ANC perfected it.
Subramaniam ranges wide and far to find his witnesses: in West Harrow, north-west London, he finds Raghavan, one of the founders of the Tigers and follower of the group’s charismatic but ruthlessly violent leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. He fills in the early days of the Tigers, long before Prabhakaran became what Subramanian describes as “the despot of a banana republic which did not yet exist”. In Toronto, home to a large Jaffna Tamil diaspora, and from where much of the Tigers’ finance used to come, Subramanian tracks down senior Tamil officers who were squeezed out of the Sri Lankan army as sectarian divisions grew. Finally, he heads to Jaffna, the now wrecked would-be capital of the putative independent Tamil state, Eelam, to tell the chilling tale of the Tigers’ last stand.
After 9/11, insurgent groups found fewer sympathisers and, realising that the Tigers were now isolated politically, the Sri Lankan government, backed by Iran and China, moved in for the kill. By 2009, the remaining Tigers and large numbers of civilians were trapped without shelter, at the far north of the Jaffna peninsula. Up to then, maybe as many as 50,000 had been killed over three decades. According to conservative UN figures, almost as many again – around 40,000 innocent civilians – died in the Sri Lankan army’s final rain of phosphorus shells, many of which seem to have been deliberately aimed at UN refugee camps. More died in the appalling tidal wave of extrajudicial killings and death squad murders that followed the Tigers’ defeat, as much of the country’s Tamil population was herded into internment camps accompanied by widespread torture, rape and abuse.
This Divided Island – balanced, observant, good-natured, discursive and frequently witty – is a searingly angry and deeply moving portrayal of the agonies of this conflict, especially by the innocent Tamils caught in the middle of two ruthless forces. The final section of the book talks about the attempts of the Sri Lankan military to erase all reminders of the war: houses, camps, villages and graveyards associated with the Tigers have all been bulldozed. This is a major work, containing oral testimonies from all sides of the conflict, and will stand as a fine literary monument against the government’s attempt at imposed forgetfulness.