About the Book
Nirupama Subramanian a journalist who spent seven years reporting the vicious face-off between Sri Lanka’s government and the separatist LTTE, criss-crossed the towns and villages of a beautiful but ravaged island to uncover these ‘little histories’ as she calls them--of children forcibly recruited into Tiger training camp, of parents waiting for mass graves to reveal their bleak secrets; of people fleeing their homes in war zones only to become prisoners in refugee camps: of the families of the missing who still wait and hope: of women in the maid-trade bonded in virtual slavery in foreign lands.
Woven into these narratives are the larger stories-of a President Chandrika Kumaratunga. elected with a massive mandate for peace but trapped in a war so intense that she was unable to make good her promise; and of Tiger supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran, trapped too, but in a cage fashioned out of his own egoism and ruthlessness-one he never dare leave.
As Sri Lanka searches for an elusive peace read this book to understand the price that Sri Lankans have paid for a war that has raged for over twenty years.
About the Author
Nirupama Subramanian is a journalist who has covered Sri Lanka for seven years. From 1996 to 2002. she was based in Colombo as correspondent for the Indian Express and later the Hindu.
She is now Special Correspondent of the Hindu in Chennai.
In 1994, Sri Lanka was in the throes of momentous political changes. The country was trying to shake off its old skin, over which war and violence had formed a multilayered crust. Chandrika Kumararunga, a member of the Bandaranaike political dynasty, swept into power that year as the leader of a new coalition called the People’s Alliance (PA). She was elected president on her promise to end the strife that had devastated Sri Lanka since the early 1980s.
The task was not easy. In the island’s north-east, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a guerilla organization with the capabilities of a conventional army and a reputation for terrorism using suicide bombers, had been waging a relentless war against the Sri Lankan state since 1983. Its goal was to carve out a separate state in the north-east for the country’s minority Tamils, historically oppressed by the Sinhalese majority.
The rest of the country was recovering from a bout of savage violence arising from an armed insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People’s Liberation Front, from 1989 until the end of 1990. The JVP was a party founded on Marxist principles that grew by fanning the flames of nationalism among the Sinhalese. The trigger for the insurrection had come with the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord aimed at resolving Sri Lanka’s Tamil question. Indian troops were sent to Sri Lanka to help impose this Accord.
The Sri Lankan government came down heavily on the insurrection. The violence unleashed by both the Jvp and the government killed an estimated 40,000 young men and women. The violence had affected Kumaratunga personally. Her husband Vijaya, a popular film actor-turned-politician, was gunned down, in 1989, by suspected insurrectionists, apparently for supporting the Accord. It was not her first personal experience of assassination. In 1959, her father, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, was shot dead two years after his election as prime minister of Sri Lanka.
In 1994, people believed Kumaratunga was uniquely placed to heal the wounds of both Tamil and Sinhalese and gave her a massive mandate in the presidential election. Within weeks of taking up office, true to her promise, Kumaratunga offered the Tigers a ceasefire and talks on a political solution that would resolve Tamil grievances without breaking up the country.
In April 1995, my editors at India Today-I was then the news magazine’s Madras (now Chennai)-based correspondent-asked me to travel to Sri Lanka to write about the three-month-old ceasefire and the prospects it held for permanent peace in Sri Lanka. By then, Sri Lanka was no longer a big story for the Indian media. Indian involvement had ended messily in 1990. Soon after arriving in 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)-the official name for the 100,000-strong contingent of Indian soldiers-was drawn into a war with the Tigers who had at first accepted the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord but later opposed it. Over a thousand Indian soldiers were killed and nearly 3000 wounded in action in Sri Lanka.
Despite the losses, the Indian army had kept the Tigers on the run. In 1989, desperate for a breather, the Tigers turned to the Sri Lankan government with an offer for talks. The condition was that the Indians had to leave. The Sri Lankan government, under fire from the Jvp for the Accord, and facing widespread Sinhalese opposition to it and to the presence of Indian trOOps on Sri Lankan territory, made the expedient decision of taking up the offer made by the Tigers. When the Sri Lankan government asked India to withdraw its troops to enable talks with the Tigers, the Indian government, under attack at home for sending Indian soldiers into someone else’s war, agreed.
Within months of the departure of Indian troops in March 1990, the Tigers were back at war with the Sri Lankan government.
India watched with aloof interest. With Indian troops no longer involved, the Indian media too lost interest. Kumaratunga rekindled some of that interest. Under her, it seemed Sri Lanka. might finaly find a happy ending to its tragic story.
For India, there was another point of interest. The man with whom Kumaratunga was talking peace-the leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran-was at the top of the long list of Tigers and their sympathizers accused in the assassination in May 19" 1 of Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister of India between 1984 and 19E 9, and the principal architect of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
But the story of imminent peace changed dramatically even before I began my assignment. On 19 April 1995, the day before I was due to fly to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, the Tigers broke the ceasefire by bombing two Sri Lankan navy ships. The country was plunged into another war, its third since 1987. This time, the fighting would last six years. It would be Sri Lank is longest and most fiercely fought war.
After that visit, I shuttled to Sri Lanka several times for India Today, until eventually moving to Colombo to be based there as the correspondent for the Indian Express newspaper in November 1996, and from May 2000 for the Hindu newspaper. In all I covered Sri Lanka for seven years, a period that coincided with t le end of one peace process and the beginning of another. Where I finally left in June 2002, the wheel had turned full circ. e. Kumaratunga’s government had been voted out. She still remained president, re-elected for a second six-year term in 1999. But the United National Party (UNP) she had defeated in 1994 was back in government. Its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was the prime minister, having led his party to victory in the December 2001 parliamentary elections on the promise to end the war with t le Tigers, just as Kumaratunga had done seven years before in February 2002, the new government signed a ceasefire with t le Tigers. Peace talks between the two sides began later that year.
This book is about those seven years in Sri Lanka. War is t le dominant theme of this book as it was through those seven years, specifically, it is the story of those years from the point of view of the people most affected by the events of that time-the people of Sri Lanka.
In his book war is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, the veteran New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges speaks of most war coverage as not adequately portraying the horrors of war. He talks of the ‘seduction of the machine of war, all-powerful, all- absorbing’. Perhaps it was the government censorship of war coverage in Sri Lanka, perhaps it was my diffidence about breaking those rules. The fact is I did not get anywhere close to the actual fighting. I now believe that to have helped me get a better perspective on the conflict. In order to compensate for what I saw then as a huge gap in my reporting, I travelled incessantly to those parts of the north-east to which journalists had access, and in southern Sri Lanka.
That is how I met the people in this book: soldiers and their widows; army deserters; the families of the disappeared; mothers of child soldiers; children who escaped from training camps; people displaced by the war; people living amidst war; a government official whose job demanded walking the fine line between the government and the Tigers; the only psychiatrist in Sri Lanka’s north-east; a counter-insurgent; a child monk; women training to work as housemaids in rich homes abroad; the distraught father of a woman who was killed in a suicide bombing; people who thought they had escaped the war but realized they had become virtual prisoners in their refugee camps.
In years to come, historians will doubtless deal with the period in their own way. But orthodox histories usually look at events from above, painting broad brush strokes that do not take into account the lives of ordinary people who are affected by those events, and how, in turn, they influence the march of history. As a reporter who witnessed those turbulent years, I found the narratives of the Sri Lankans who lived through them crucial for an understanding of the way in which events have taken shape in the country since the mid-1990s right up to the present.
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