Monday, 27 October 2014

Still Counting the Dead

One of the problems with books on conflict reporting are in understanding the impartiality of the author. If the author belongs to one of the groups involved, they risk being biased towards their own people. But, being a complete outsider also has its own limitations -- trying to be neutral, the author may fail to relate with the conditions of the affected people.

'Still Counting the Dead' is a reportage on the last days of the Sri Lanka - LTTE civil war based on experiences of some of the Tamil survivors -- both civilians and rebels. Frances Harrison, the book’s author, is neither a complete outsider nor belong to one of the affected groups. Harrison's experience as a BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka between 2000 and 2004 and the work she had done in the Tsunami affected areas of coastal Sri Lanka has given her a first hand experience of interacting with Tamils and watching the rebel Tigers in their own backyard.

Harrison limits the scope of the book to, " account of victory from the perspective of the defeated." Having said that, Harrison does not take anything away from what the Sinhalese soldiers and civilians also had to experience during the war. She acknowledges their suffering at the hands of the Tigers. But, for her, to report any Sinhalese's suffering is beyond the purview of the book.

The survivors interviewed in the book, come from different walks of life: an UN aid worker, a Tamil Journalist, a front line LTTE fighter, a Doctor, a Nun, a shopkeeper and many more. Though not all of these survivors were part of 'The Movement' -- a term used by locals for the LTTE, it becomes obvious, during the course of the read, that the day to day life of these survivors were entwined with the rebels irrespective of whether they support the movement or not.  

The LTTE, unlike other terrorist organizations, was not just armed rebels. For almost two decades, they had been the de facto administrators of the rebel controlled regions. As Harrison puts it, “the civilians had little choice but to work in the Tiger's banks, cooperative shops, agricultural institutes, colleges and law courts. It didn't mean they were fighters who'd undergone military training”. They were literally running a state within a state and even had an “immigration” post which decided who could enter and leave their region. This entanglement had transformed the region like a wheat field with tares. And what happened at the end of the war was like what Joshua had said in the Gospel according to Biff  “you can't pull out the tares without destroying the grain.”

The last stages of the war had scarred the lives of many Tamil civilians. Almost everyone who were interviewed mentioned how they and many more like them lost their properties, livelihood and had to be on a constant move for fear of losing their life. Bunkers became not only their new homes but also their place to defecate and their place to leave the dead unburied. With the number of injured outnumbering the available facilities and with insufficient surgical supplies, doctors operated without anaesthesia and sometimes had to amputate with butcher knives. The injured mother who died while her baby was still feeding; the doctors who performed a caesarean delivery on the road; a baby trying to feed from its mother who was probably dead -- incidents like these may be difficult to come to terms with for someone who has never witnessed a war, but they seem to be a common sight in a war zone.

The ubiquitous claim among these stories is the unforgiving attack of the army. These survivors believe that the civilians had been targeted intentionally. The aid worker, in his story, describes heavy attacks on civilian areas in spite of transmitting their locations to the military. Similarly, a doctor interviewed for the book also claims that the hospitals were under constant attack. The attacks on the medical facilities were so consistent that eventually the doctors decided not to disclose their locations in order to prevent further attacks. A similar claim is made on the military declared safe zones as well. The survivors say in the book that the military would drop pamphlets from the air providing the locations of no-fire zones and asking civilians to move there. And as soon as they relocate and settle in these safe zones they would be attacked.

Many Tamils have suffered not only from the attacking army, but also from their own people – the Tigers. The LTTE had been notorious for using child and under-age soldiers. In the peak of the war, when the Tigers casualties were high, it appears that the forcible recruitment of children had increased. One of the front line LTTE soldiers interviewed in the book denies that the recruits were under-age, but accepts “ [recruits] been forced to join and spent their whole time complaining”. In another story, a teenage sniper described to one of the interviewees how her mother used to hide her in a travelling bag to protect her from the LTTE recruits. These forcible recruitments had created animosity between the civilians and the LTTE.

The incident, where an angry Tamil woman, whose nephew was forcibly taken over by the LTTE, being ready to handover the Tigers to the army surmises that the LTTE may not mean the same any more to many Tamils like her.

Besides forcible recruitment, the LTTE is also accused of exercising control over the movement of civilians from the war zone. According to the nun interviewed in the book, the rebels had a working “immigration” system and one had to get a pass that will allow them to travel in and out of the rebel area from a Tiger who also doubled up as an immigration officer. In addition to this, there are claims that the LTTE attacked their own people who attempted to flee the war zone. Though some of the interviewees deny that the Tigers shot at fleeing civilians, they did accept that civilians were intimidated and forced to stay in the war zone. The rebel's justification for this action is that as long as there are civilians in the war zone there is hope that the international community might intervene.

It is one thing to be a good samaritan when things are normal, but it is a total challenge to retain this character in times of adversity. Exploitation is a common behaviour when the demands for basic necessities shoot up and war zones are no exception. As much as there were incidents of people using the conditions to sell food and other products many times their original price, there were also stories of honourable and brave deeds. People shared their last remaining food and crowded bunkers; hid teenagers from rebel recruiters; declared unknown people as relatives to prevent the army from detaining them as terrorists. Kind acts like these only had saved some of the survivors Harrison had spoken to.

If the war was terrible, neither its end nor the surrender of Tamils to the military gave them relief. The experiences, narrated by the interviewees, in the various camps set up for the people coming out of the rebel region appears to be as worse as the war itself. There are alleged reports of rape, abuse and torture in many of these camps. Thanks to some of the corrupt soldiers in these camps, few fortunate Tamils have managed to pay these guards off and escape from them. Even long after the war was over, Tamils have experienced extortion, custodial rapes, disappearances and tortures in the name of identifying former Tigers.  'The Wife', one of the stories in the book, narrates such horrific experiences of a Tamil's wife who was once part of the movement.

For various reasons, including geopolitical one, the international community and Sri Lanka's neighbours like India failed to take stringent actions to protect the civilians. There were also some strange decisions by United Nations, like asking the aid workers to evacuate the region at a time when their presence was most needed. Though the reason for this is cited as the region becoming too dangerous for the aid workers to stay, critics see this as an action taken by Sri Lankan government to avoid outside witnesses. Moreover, the presence of foreign aid workers in the war zone means the military may not be able to go on a full throttled attack. Whatever may be the reason, it is apparent that the international community has let down yet another group of civilians. Harrison acknowledges this throughout the book and has dedicated a separate chapter rightly titled - 'The War the United Nations Lost'.

Though I sympathise with these survivors, I cannot refrain questioning how much of these stories are true to a tee. Harrison also expresses a similar sentiment and accepts that she cannot prove every single detail of the account, in spite of all her attempts to find the truth. I completely agree, when Harrison says “... there never will be an agreed account of what actually took place in those final months of war – Sri Lankan history will continue to be written differently according to your ethnic group or political bias.” 'Still counting the Dead' should be read keeping this in mind.

Apart from reporting the stories of these survivors to the world, the key thing to take from the book lies in its conclusion. The need of the hour is to acknowledge the truth from both sides. Though the Sri Lankan inquiry finally acknowledged that the casualties were significant and hospitals were shelled, the report overlooked targeting civilians and sexual violence. Similarly, the Tamils and their diaspora who had been supporting the war financially all these years, should start recognizing LTTE's war crimes and their attacks on Tamil and Sinhalese civilians.

It is only around the time when Velupillai Prabhakaran was born, the Sri Lankan government had introduced policies that started alienating Tamils. This along with the standardization policy introduced in the 1970's are cited as a reason for the rise of Prabhakaran and formation of an organization that eventually became the LTTE. Harrison fears there is a possibility for this to reoccur in the future.

If the trauma caused by the 2009 war is not addressed sincerely, then it could result in the rise of another insurgent movement. This may not be in the near future, but there is a younger generation growing up listening to the horrors of the recent war, just like Prabhakaran did when he was growing up. This sounds to me as a legitimate concern. If not for anything else, at least to prevent the rise of another Prabhakaran and yet another civil war, the parties concerned should start addressing not only the wrongdoings of this war but also the cause of the war itself.

To quote an aid worker from the book , “The war is not over in Sri Lanka; you don't solve these kinds of problems on the battlefield.”