Doves Don’t Rise from Ashes of a Phoenix: The War of Sri Lanka

Writer: Abiran Raveenthiran; Canada

May 18th, 2019 – Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day. This day marks a decade since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War. For 26 years, the civilians dreamt of peace in the darkest of nights in the belief that there will soon be the brightest of days.

Peace, a concept of societal friendship and harmony that we strive to aim to achieve. Peace, an ideal that I was brought up believing that my country nurtured and cultivated. Peace, a paradise that our ancestors fought for us to enjoy the fruits of. Peace, a state in which no blood is shed, but hatred is brewed. Peace, a fleeting dream that our outstretched hands so desperately reach to grasp despite knowing it may never be so.

My friends know this line more than others as I often state it proudly or even jokingly as the situation presented itself. “I am a son of two worlds; Canada and Sri Lanka.” They gave me lenses to see the world differently. They gave me experiences that I would not trade for; however, much money you offered me. They sculpted who I was in the past, who I am today and who I will be tomorrow. For that, I am eternally grateful. Except, when I am not.

Sri Lanka is a tropical island just off of India and shares many similarities with its well-known neighbors. It’s beautiful rainforests, endless beaches, rolling hills of tea plantations and extortionary cuisine has lured a number of tourists in the last decade. Although, there is more than meets the eye. Sri Lanka, tired and weary, ended a 26-year war that left it as it would never be. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and a long list of cultures fight for 65km2 of land with roughly a 22 million population. Unfortunately, “our side” did not win, but all sides were just happy the war was done. There was the possibility of freedom or the possibility of something much worse. Yet, there was a tiny glimmer of happiness that it was done. From its ashes, a new Sri Lanka would birth. My parents often talk of their lives in this fertile landscape laying roots for their experiences and memories. The glimmer in their eyes then vanish as memories of the war drove them from the only land they ever knew. This was a view that would shape my views. The other view is Canada. It’s a place where people say sorry way too much, say “aboot” and have an odd coffee chain on every block called Tim Hortons, according to the world. Undeniably it is that, but also a cultural mosaic where we pridefully represent our ancestor’s motherland with our new shared land.

In 2003, I remember sitting in my Grade 3 class and felt my first glimmer of Canadian pride. It was learning about the Canadian peacekeeping missions. I can’t promise you I completely understood them at the time. In my eyes, my country was flying in like a dove and protecting what was right and just from those that were innately bad. There are many things to be proud about for Canada, but I wish I could go back in time and tell the younger me that this wasn’t one of those times.

The Sri Lankan Civil War stirred by racial differences and pressures that spiraled into 26 years of warfare. In 2009, it was at its peak with the Buddhist-majority government and Tamil Tiger Freedom Fighters were neck and neck. The tide was turning in a way that it could have been anyone’s win. The Tamils that fled their homeland for peace decided to take a stand and try to give their land that same possibility of peace. Peaceful protests erupted in various countries. I participated in the Canadian and USA ones. I always thought back to Canada’s peacekeeping missions and truly believed that Canada would take a stand. Some country would take a stand. Any country would take a stand. There was no stand made.

The Sri Lankan government called for a No Fire Zone. It was an area where the civilians were given the promise of safety so long as they remained within parameters. As the army closed in on the Tamil Tigers, the area grew smaller and smaller. The No Fire Zone was an area being fired upon. Many civilians were still attacked, raped, and killed in this zone as the army did with the rest of the country. There were reports of the Tigers also killing civilians that attempted to flee the zone in the middle of the fight. Without being able to stay and being able to flee up to 70,000 civilians died in a matter of weeks. The army proudly beheaded the leader of the Tamil Tigers and held it like a trophy. At what cost did they earn the trophy? Seventy thousand lives, not to mention causalities on both sides, for one. The war ended with more than just a sour taste in our mouths. Yet, there was still hope for a better future. The protests had the world’s eyes were on Sri Lanka. Budge too much, and there were many that would need to answer for their war crimes. Not budge enough, and they would have the same fate.

Somehow, ten years flew by. In these years, there were hate crimes as any country that had just gotten out of a religion-driven civil war. The difference was Sri Lanka was changing. It evolved into this tourist landscape that many of my non-Sri Lankan friends and acquaintances suddenly knew. There was a time when people asked where I was from; I would respond, “Sri Lanka.” The confused look pushed me to follow up with “Under India.” The need for that was slowly dying, yet, out of habit, I still find myself responding with that in one fluid response. Facebook sends me 10-year memory reminders of posts I made regarding the end of the war and the protests. My only thoughts were that from the ashes a new Sri Lanka was born anew and for the better. Maybe I would be able to go back and have a taste of these memories my parents had of it.

These possible thoughts were put to bed on Easter Sunday morning. I woke up to hear that Sri Lanka was shaken with organized suicide bombing attacks with over 150 dead. I flip through television channels to find a news station that covered the events for longer than 10 minutes before turning to their next news story of some politician hugging another. It was BBC World News that we watched. The numbers slowly increased from 150 to 200 to 250 throughout the day. The eventual realization that this was targeted to the Catholic and Christian population set in with churches and hotels taking the majority of the damages. Sri Lanka may have looked beautiful on the outside, but under the façade for the world, the hatred amongst the groups festered like an infected wound.

In this time, there was only one thing more disappointing than one of my own country – the rest of the world. I still remember jumping from channel to channel to scavenge for news on what had become of the situation. After a fire that nearly burned through an iconic religious building, Notre Dame cathedral received nearly $1 billion to help rebuild and restore this historic building. Sri Lankan Easter Bombings raised roughly $50 thousand. I acknowledge the historical and religious importance of the cathedral, but at the end of the day, a building can always be rebuilt. But, what of a life? Have we really devalued lives so low?

I sit here as May 18th, 2019 approaches. Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, named after the village where up to 70,000 civilians lost their lives near the end of the war. Toronto’s John Tory has made it Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day. A day in memory for those that had fallen to help those live in peace. This event has managed to tarnish the 10th anniversary of peace.

Peace, a concept of societal friendship and harmony that we strive to aim to achieve – broken. Peace, an ideal that I was brought up believing that my country nurtured and cultivated – never came. Peace, a paradise that our ancestors fought for us to enjoy the fruits of – bombed. Peace, a state in which no blood is shed, but hatred is brewed – bloodstained and uncorked. Peace, a fleeting dream that our outstretched hands so desperately reach to grasp despite knowing it may never be so.

Wait. Wait one second. Does this dream need to be out of our reach? Instead of letting Sri Lanka rise out of its own ashes, it’s time for doves to fly down and protect it. Maybe it is time to put those on the stand for the actions they have committed. Maybe it is time to set aside out religions and beliefs enough to acknowledge differences and accept a world mosaic. Maybe it is time to increase the value of human life for what it is genuinely worth, priceless. Maybe it is time for a change.

Peace, a dream that we grasp tightly in the darkest of nights in the belief that there will soon be the brightest of days.

You can check out Abiran Raveenthiran and this work with Lemon Theory on the team page:

https://www.lemontheory.com/team-lemon

Sarah McKinnon