Kannata graveyard, no flash. See with long exposure.
originally published in the Sunday Leader
Thousands of Sri Lankans have died. It is not the number the warzone doctors quoted under LTTE duress (tens of thousands) nor is it the number they quoted in government custody (300). It is something far worse, which is unknown. There is real human suffering behind the fake numbers and it goes largely unmourned.
Every person I’ve met in a northern hospital or camp has had a death in the family. Worse, many fates are completely unknown. I met a man carrying the Department of Agriculture ID of his missing daughter in hopes that someone could help. A Sinhala/Tamil translator in Zone 4 repeats the well-worn name of his wife.
The Numbers Game
These names are not numbers to make one side or another look bad. They are human beings. They have died for whatever reason or greater cause, but we should be able to mourn them as human beings. Many people are too quick to justify or blame without first mourning the fact. People have died in this war. Many cannot be found. They are missed.
Whether the total number is 300 or 20,000 is largely irrelevant to those trying to mourn a beloved mother, father, daughter or son. The number is only really relevant for those trying to make a point. For bitter diasporals the numbers are a weapon to lob at the government, just as the living were human shields. Those that cheered the hostage takers now claim the victims. It is a perverse logic and incredibly cruel.
State Of Denial
Meanwhile the government is actually helping the living, but won’t acknowledge the dead. In his victory speech Mahinda Rajapakse said ‘it is truly a miracle to go to a battlefield where civilians have been turned into human bombs, and carry on the battle without shedding the blood of civilians’. This simply isn’t true. I have seen civilian blood. Meanwhile the warzone doctors (in police custody) claim 300 civilian deaths. This isn’t true either, I could certainly find more than 300 names.
This terrorist war has been largely about media perceptions and I understand the government’s motivation. The LTTE held these people as human shields to save their own hides. Even now their supporters use them as camera fodder for a nihilistic cause. This media narrative is hard to untwist, so the government seems to be trying to twist back harder.
However, thousands of people actually are dead, independent of any political narrative. They’re just not here any more. The exact numbers are impossible to piece together, but certainly thousands are gone. Just ask around the camps. Their families mourn not a number but a life, one special number among the many. We can at least acknowledge that.
This doesn’t mean that some grand total needs to be posted, I don’t think one is available. But we at least need to acknowledge the scale. Saying that zero or 300 people died is just insulting. There are far more people than that mourning. We can say that many died, and that the nation mourns them.
As Sri Lankans we should acknowledge these deaths not to seek punishment but to move forward in unity. I say this independent of any political narrative or particular cause. I say this not to blame or shame or promote anyone or anything. I simply say it as a Sri Lankan and as someone who has met families that are mourning, alone. What they are feeling is real. We can at least acknowledge it and offer compassion. Thousands of Sri Lankans have died. I offer my deepest condolences to their families.