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A War and Its Witnesses

The tragic story of the Sri Lankan conflict, told through three protagonists.

Written by Kusal Perera |
February 7, 2015 2:01:21 am

Book; The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s  Civil War
Author: Rohini Mohan
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 353
Price: Rs 499

The three-decade-long armed conflict with Tamil rebels, who fought for a separate Tamil state, was militarily brought to an end by Sri Lankan forces in May 2009, crushing and eliminating the LTTE. It is a long story, a complex and complicated one too. Commonly called a “war without witnesses”, it drew people from across the world as they attempted to understand the bloody events that ended in human tragedy. While Channel 4 recorded the disturbing tragedy in images, others have turned their curiosity into lucidly written accounts.

For readers outside Sri Lanka, Indian journalist Rohini Mohan captures the armed ethnic conflict with all its political and human contradictions. She does this through the personal narratives of three characters. Mugil is a young woman from Jaffna peninsula, who after a passionate and dedicated stint with the Tamil Tigers, deserts them during the final days of the war. Sarva is a Tamil of mixed parentage, who becomes an accomplice of the Tigers. He leaves the movement well before the war is over, but falls into the hands of state intelligence sleuths. And the third is Sarva’s mother Indra, a high-caste Tamil from conservative Jaffna, whose fierce struggle to secure the release of her son ends in Sarva’s leaving Lanka for refuge in London.

Mohan tries to capture the tragedy not just as it plays out in the war zone, but beyond as it envelops the lives of Tamil people, wherever they were. There is the aftermath too, as she describes the struggle of the Vanni and the North to remake a new life from what is left of the war.

The book allows the reader access to Tamil, Muslim and supremacist Sinhala mindsets, and shows how the military, the police and intelligence agencies ruthlessly cracked down on suspects of “terror” during the war, and any perception of threat in the post-war years.

She also tells a story of how the three characters, diverse as they are in lifestyles, social status and social values, are attracted and become committed to live with the LTTE, which was neither democratic nor rational. The fight for a Tamil state created a common platform that accepted even tragedy as means to a liberated future.

Sarva tells his interviewer in Cardiff, “Initially, they took me by force. But because they gave me some lectures on their ideology, I was attracted to that.” It’s that profoundly patriotic ideology about a country of their own that the youth were drawn to. It’s that fiery Tamil nationalism that compels Mugil to defy her mother and join the LTTE as a teenager. It’s such ideological passion that turns her into a role model for other teenagers. It’s with almost the same pride  that a displaced elderly woman, standing amid the bleeding and the near-dead, tells Mugil, as she is about to desert the LTTE: “Jeyam Namade! Victory will be ours”. That robust nationalism failed the Tamil people in a savage war.

Tracing the history of Tamil nationalism, Mohan misses important issues and makes a few misinterpretations too. Her statement that in 1972 the Republican Constitution declared the Sinhalese as original inhabitants of Sri Lanka is a gross error. To date, no Constitution includes such declarations. In the postscript, ‘A brief history of the Sri Lankan war’, she has for some reason missed the fact that there would not have been any professionally armed Tamil group, nor the Tamil Tigers, to wage this war, if the Indira Gandhi government in the early 1980s did not train, arm and fund Tamil militancy.

But for those curious about the history of post-independent Sri Lanka up to and after the war, leading into a new era of anti-Muslim violence, this is a good read. Most important is Mohan’s subtle and nuanced exposure of the inhumanity of both the Sinhala state and the LTTE, when it came to wresting power over the people.

Kusal Perera is a journalist based in Sri Lanka.

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