This was originally published in the Sunday Leader
I’m writing this on the way back from Menik Farm. The roads are good. They’re digging new drains. There seems to be enough medicine. People are growing vegetables and sewing clothes. Behind that, however, there is a weariness in people’s eyes and a constant refrain on their lips. These people don’t want charity anymore. They want to be free.
Freedom. You and I take it for granted everyday. I took some kids to the park, bought them ice cream and let them run around. I was hanging around Haputale, climbing rocks, taking photographs and eating lunch in the clouds. The same day a young IDP I know celebrated his birthday in the camps. He’s five years old. What does that kid have to do with anything?
You can’t build your happiness on other people’s misery. Someone told me that and I can’t get the words out of my head. I have dreams of some global zombification that I’m somehow complicit in. I see people I know ashen and hemorrhaging, I look down and there’s blood on my hands. I wake up afraid.
I live in a country where it seems OK to detain men, women and children by the thousands. Where suspects are regularly killed in police custody. I watched a Channel 4 video of soldiers executing naked, bound men in cold blood. I don’t know if the tape is real, but I fear that is reality.
Of course, I can’t really know. The local media can’t see through blackened eyes and rose-tinted glasses. The international media is driven more by an audience that isn’t here and has already made up their minds. Reading the news feels more like picking sides than making up my mind.
However, walking through Menik Farm, I know what I see. This is not emergency relief anymore. People no longer look relieved to get medical treatment and a meal. Everyone just wants to go home, or at least to stay with relatives. They don’t need charity anymore, they need the freedom to rebuild their lives with dignity.
I think the time has come to let our people go. To the government’s credit, they have begun releasing people to Jaffna, Trincomallee, Batticaloa, etc. This needs to be made systematic and it needs to happen fast. It may not be possible for them to return to their homes, but people should be able to choose to stay with relatives or stay in the camps.
I think this is now a moral concern. Many of the arguments have been practical (demining, terrorism, etc), but at some point you have to look this thing in the eye. We are keeping children as prisoners. We are keeping families apart. We are ‘clearing’ camps by ‘removing’ people without trial or appeal. This may seem effective at securing the country, but there is a weight of injustice we cannot understand or predict.
I always felt bad when I visited the camps, but I could at least see that things were getting better. That things were getting to a point where people were healthy and safe. Now that has been achieved, and the armed forces, government and doctors should be thanked for that. Now when I go, however, things are pretty much the same and resentments are hardening.
People are not cattle and they cannot be fed and medicated indefinitely. At some point they need freedom. Sadly, these people cannot speak for themselves, so I feel obliged to tell you what I’ve seen. It may not be the best for my security in Colombo, it may go wrong, but I can no longer look these people in the eye and tell them to wait. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Most of all, I cannot bear to see the children. When I see children anywhere it now reminds me. I know how hard it is to get a kid to eat and go to the bathroom and stay out of trouble and I don’t know how you do it in a camp. I don’t know how you do it without the support of family and the ability to make a living.
While this five year old in the camp was celebrating his birthday, I was in Haputale having unrelated cake. I was driving through the clouds, seeing the world and feeling as free as I could be. Some things are wrong and some things are right. This just feels wrong. We need to let our people go.