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INDICTMENT AGAINST SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka's Genocidal War '08
WAR. The word itself spells fear…but living in the United States, we are generally far removed from the real aspects of war and its impact, especially on children. I am 20 years old and when I told my parents that I was taking a year off from college to go and work in our native Sri Lanka, they were both proud and fearful for my safety.
Sri Lanka is a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. At about 65,000 square kilometers it is about the size of West Virginia. The population of the island is about 21 million, 75% of whom are Sinhalese and about 15% of whom are Tamil. The Sinhalese are primarily Buddhist and the Tamils are basically Hindu. Stress between these two groups has existed for centuries but erupted into all out civil war in 1983. We are Tamils…but this story is about children of war…because children do not make war or declare war or fight wars…they simply suffer from the outcome.
I could barely make out her eyes across from me, as the darkness smothered us both. But I could feel her dark pupils burning into mine, asking me to reassure her that we would survive this attack. One of her hands found their usual place enveloped in mine, and I gently squeezed it to calm her. I wished I could talk to her, to tell her that our school was too small to be a target of the bomber jets, and that we would be safe. But talking was out of the question, since it was believed that the jets and the reconnaissance planes could detect talking underground and would then know the locations of our bunkers, thus making it easier for them to attack with as many casualties as possible.
So we crouched down in the bunker in silence. We would alternately sit on our flip-flops to avoid dirtying our clothing, and stand huddled in the bunker that was eerily reminiscent of a grave. It was just tall enough that we could bend over halfway without brushing against the tree trunks making up the roof of this make-to shelter. But as the bomber planes flew overhead more and more frequently, forcing us to disrupt our classes to run into the bunkers, the bunker seemed more and more like a grave.
We knew of the bombing last August of the Sencholai Children’s Home, in which 54 schoolgirls were killed and over a hundred severely wounded when 16 bombs were dropped on the girls as they were preparing for school. I visited this home a week after it was bombed and saw the bloodstains at the well, where some of the girls had been washing their faces to get ready for the day’s classes. The walls of the girls’ hostel and assembly hall were riddled with shell pieces, and I shuddered to think of the fear and shock that must have gripped them in their last moments. They had been listening to music on the radio that morning, August 14, and so had not even heard the warning murmur of the jets as they approached for their attack. They had no warning as the jets descended and dropped their deadly cargo over schoolgirls only a few years younger than me. UNICEF’s Executive Director Ann Veneman said “These children are innocent victims of violence…we call on all parties to…ensure children and the places where they live, study and play are protected from harm”. Perhaps this was too little and certainly too late for these 54 dead girls and dozens more whose lives were forever changed by this single act of war against innocent children.
After this it became very difficult to get children to attend school. They were so afraid their school would be the next target for the bombers. There was clearly no hesitation in targeting innocent children, so it was believed that if children stayed home and refrained from gathering in known targets such as schools, they might reach their twentieth birthday.
Their logic was frighteningly rational. Though it was counter-intuitive, children were safer staying at home. The probability truly was smaller that children would be killed if they stayed home from school. This was the same counter-intuitive yet accurate logic that kept sick people away from hospitals.
After the bombing of the Kilinochchi General Hospital, people realized hospitals too were a target. People were uncomfortable going into a hospital, knowing it could be bombed at any time. The red cross prominently displayed on the roof of any hospital only made it easier to attack.
This is the twisted logic that plagues the innocent children caught in the throes of war.
I lived in this war zone for the past year, trying to teach English to students there amidst this chaos and suffering. These people have been living in a war zone for the past 25 years, as the war continues between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Despite a four-year ceasefire on paper, virtually the entire lives of these children have been consumed by fear and uncertainty of war. How does one comfort them? How does one give them hope when the bombers scream overhead and the explosions rock the shelters? I wondered if this is what it was like in other war zones…children huddled in fear, tears glistening in their eyes, yet hoping for a better future while the adults go about their “war”.
The harsh realities of warfare made teaching English difficult, to say the least. As a Tamil girl who was born and bred in America, I was rather naïve and thus righteously shocked to witness the real life impact of warfare on innocent children. But this was nothing new or shocking to the residents and students of the region. They were saddened, of course, to hear of ten-year olds killed in the bombings or to see the embargo imposed on medicine and school supplies, but far from shocked.
These children did not know of a life in which you can study freely and walk around without worrying that you may be detained for questioning, torture or death. They did not know of the ability of laws to protect people, where you can petition courts if you are denied education or employment opportunities based on your ethnicity. All they know is fear and they live with it every moment of every day.
Thus, I was shocked. And they were simply saddened.
This dichotomy of reactions is what has prompted me to speak out against the injustice visited upon children that I witnessed in Sri Lanka. And to hope others here will join me in doing the same. In saying indiscriminate warfare against unarmed, innocent children is and will not be tolerated. That all children in Sri Lanka, regardless of their ethnicity, should have the right to live and grow in peace to study freely and live freely.
As one of my fellow teachers reflected upon his students as a generation without hope, I considered the veracity of his description. I saw the faces of the students who stayed after class, sometimes asking me for additional English practice and sometimes asking me about people in America and my life here. When I looked into their eyes, I could always see fear, but sometimes, also, jealousy, sadness. Sometimes I could see they wished they could study without being interrupted by bomber jets flying overhead. Without knowing their opportunities for higher education and employment were slim to none.
But as I looked further into their open, trusting eyes, I knew they were not hopeless. They may have been born into a hopeless situation, but they still had hope.
They desperately clutched onto the hope that one day their lives would change, and that they would be able to live and study there as freely as I described others could in the United States. Just then the bombers flew overhead and we ran back to the shelters to huddle together while the grounds shook again.