I‘ve always known Eesan as a cool guy who loves to crack jokes and cheer up people around him. He never hesitates in telling you the truth but always makes sure that the person he’s addressing doesn’t gets hurt by his remarks. He’s got the magic to say the truth in such a style that leaves you convinced rather than unsettled or upset.
He comes from a country that, like many other places on the globe, is most fortunate and yet very unfortunate at the same time. A country that nature has bestowed many favours upon, yet the people of the country remain under-privileged. An island that can simply be labeled as a tropical paradise, yet burns like hell fuelled by years of bloodshed, infighting and injustices.
“Oh Moign! Why do you insist on knowing the plight of Sri Lankans in common and us Tamils in particular? I’m sure you know better than me,” exclaimed the 29-year-old Lincoln-based technician. He added that what’s going on in Sri Lanka is nothing new and the world is probably not interested in learning their plight and stopping the war. Keetheswaran Alagiah, known as Eesan among his friends, was trying to balance irony with his warm, friendly nature. He couldn’t refuse my request to explain to me his views about the conflict and give some eye-witness accounts he has come across during the past several months from his friends and relatives back in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is blessed with abundant natural beauty but decades long civil war has left the island reeling. (Photo – Ismith2808)
“I grew up with a strong desire for peace, though it was barely imaginable given the fact that both the warring sides never cared about us, civilians, and used us as pawns in their battle,” he complained. Eesan, one of the millions of Tamils growing up in Sri Lanka during the 1990s, saw a mix of everything. Dazed by the natural beauty the island had to offer, they could never get their heads around why the majority Singhala government and minority Tamil separatist movement have locked their horns and are trying to kill each other. “Me and my friends were baffled. We never saw any difference between a Tamil and Singhala or a Muslim and a Christian. For us, the differences lay on the playground and we tackled it with sportsman spirit. We were always united and refused to buy the political mantra of hatred and revenge,” reminisced Eesan with a broad smile on his face. I held my breath when his smile disappeared suddenly.
Thousands of civilians have fled their homes after coming under intense Sri Lankan air force bombardment meant to flush out LTTE fighters from the area.
“We friends were like dove birds, Moign. Our song was of peace and our flight was high of any bigotry or prejudice. We really believed in peace,” Eesan spoke hurriedly and then he paused.
“Do you still believe in peace?” I asked him only to find him lost in some memories.
“Good question, good question,” he muttered. “I’m hearing about aerial bombardment and heavy shelling all the time which is aimed at civilian population stuck in the rebel (LTTE) controlled areas at the moment. The scale of casualties dazes me and the horrific tales that my relatives narrate leave my blood boiling,” Eesan added with bitterness apparent in his tone and sadness wide written on his face.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has been accused by human rights groups of committing war crimes and ethnic cleansing of the minority Tamil group in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
He was very critical of Sri Lankan government’s claims that they’re fighting in the interests of Tamil people and not for the Singhala majority alone. “Sri Lankan President is fooling the people not only in his country but around the world that they’re trying to achieve peace by crushing Tamil Tigers once and for all. What he’s forgetting…no no no…what’s he’s ignoring is that he is indiscriminately crushing Tamil civilians in the course of the fighting with no regard for basic human rights. Will this give peace to the island?” the 29 year old questioned me with a firm tone.
Tamil refugees scavenge after fire broke out in a Tamil refugee camp in Vavuniya, northeast Sri Lanka, February 28, 2009. The fire broke out in one of the refugee camps in Vavuniya housing displaced Tamil people escaping from the fighting between the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army. (Photo – Reuters)
Asked to describe the conditions in the refugee camps set up by the Sri Lankan armed forces, he had just two words to define them. “Appalling and shameful. Thats it!” Unsurprised, I was still eager to know what he has been told by his relatives trapped in the war zone. “First of all, the set up of the camps is deliberately chaotic. The fleeing civilians are kept in crowded places surrounded by barbed wires and under constant surveillance by the soldiers. There is very little to eat and the refugees are treated as if they are terrorists,” Eesan confided while adding that they left their homes with just their lives and the clothes on their bodies.
Refugees complain that they are not able to leave the camps, a temporary measure the government says will continue until they can weed out the rebels’ infiltrators hiding among civilians. (Photo – Reuters)
Being critical of the state actors, the usually cool minded man from Vavuniya in Sri Lanka seemed to have lost his temper when I asked him about foreign interference in his country’s affairs. “I’m extremely disappointed by the way our neighboring countries are involved in the conflict. I’ve got really harsh words for the Indian government. Its with their blessings the Sri Lankan military has initiated such an atrocious campaign,” Eesan revealed with rage and contempt clear on his face. He was really bitter about New Delhi’s involvement since day one in this conflict.
“Some countries have a nose which is bigger than their eyesight, this is what that gets them into trouble,” he added while referring to India.
Sri Lanka has urged its neighbors, especially India, to help defeat Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) once and for all. Sources within Sri Lankan army say Indian military advisers are on the field providing valuable military assistance and intelligence. (Photo – Reuters)
“They have never learnt a lesson from history. The Indians sent their troops in late 1980s in the name of peacekeeping mission but got involved in fighting only to withdraw when their prime minister was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber. Promising never to interfere again and help international mediators negotiate a fair deal, they always sided with Colombo as their interests always laid in a war-torn Sri Lanka. After all, they had to sell their arms and services of their military advisers somewhere?”
Indian troops were withdrawn in haste from Sri Lanka after coming under LTTE militants attacks in early 1990s. Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.
Eesan was telling me one tale after the other about the sufferings of people trapped in the war zone, some of them his relatives and acquaintances. Many of them sounded classic examples of bestiality that is usually carried out by the prevailing armies while entering the ‘conquered’ areas. One such tale struck me with shock and disgust. The village of Vellaaveli that came under the control of the Sri Lankan army was vacated immediately and all the male residents were rounded off and taken to a nearby temple for identification. With only women and elderly left behind, a 14 year old girl became the target of sexual savagery and was raped in front of her mother. Police are still unable to arrest the culprits due to their connections with the Sri Lankan military.
Tamil women have complained of harassment committed by Sri Lankan troops in villages and refugee camps. (Photo – Trokilinochchi)
Eesan’s claims of blatant violation of human rights and acts of atrocities that tantamount to war crimes were not ringing hollow. I was aware of what Amnesty International said about the Sri Lankan government in its 2008 report that lambasted the poor human rights record of Colombo. The report cited numerous cases of disappearances across the country including the kidnapping and murders of high profile politicians and journalists. In June 2008, Sri Lankan security forces drove several hundred Tamils from Colombo and stopped throwing out thousands more when the Supreme Court intervened and issued an immediate halt to forceful evictions.
Being a journalist, I’m always concerned for the safety of my colleagues around the world regardless of their professional affiliation. This year more than 12 journalists have lost their lives across the world including an influential Sri Lankan journalist killed in mysterious circumstances. Lasantha Wickrematunge, a 51-year-old prominent lawyer-turned-journalist was also the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader. A critic of the government’s heavy-handed tactics and stifling freedom of press in the country in the name of national security, Mr. Wickrematunge had already expressed fears of his assassination weeks before the incident took place.
Dozens of journalists have been brutally killed by unknown people in Sri Lanka during the last couple of years. The government has failed to bring the killers to justice. (Photo – Free Media Movement)
Eesan, on this issue, had a lot to say. He pointed my attention to the fact that the government is controlling the media with impunity. He complained that while a full-fledge military campaign is going on in the north east of the country, viewers of the national and private television news channels see a ‘sanitized’ version of news where ‘everything is alright’ and ‘victory is imminent’. “People are no fools. They have an idea of what’s going on there but the censorship is so severe that even the international media is unaware of the scale of losses on each side (military, insurgents and civilians). Journalists are not allowed to report and are kept hundreds of miles away from the war zone. All reports indicating the toll of civilian casualties are blocked,” he added.
The Sri Lanka born British national revealed that many of his relatives including an aunt is now trapped in the war zone after she recently fled her home in Vanni area. “What I’m telling you is 100% authentic. I get a chance to speak to my relatives frequently. They don’t openly talk about the conditions in the government controlled areas fearing reprisals. They’re extremely unhappy with the way Sri Lankan military has treated them,” a bitter Eesan described.
Gauging his mood, I put my next question to confront him. “Do you support LTTE in this situation and hope they make a comeback so that Tamil people’s lives are saved?” I asked bluntly. I have always known his views about terrorism and found him an anti-LTTE figure but there was a slight chance of him being softening up so I wanted to explore it. I wasn’t so surprised to find him sympathizing with the LTTE.
Hundreds of Tamil politicians opposed to the violent uprising have been assassinated by the LTTE since its rise in 1983.
“I know that the LTTE have done a lot of harm to the Tamil cause,” Eesan said after sighing a deep breath. “Tamil people’s legitimate political and social rights were usurped by the some extremist elements of the Singhala majority from late 1950s. The situation worsened in 1970s when there were riots across the island and thousands of Tamils lost their lives and properties. The government instead of saving the aggrieved Tamils sided with the Singhala extremists and which fanned the riots,” Eesan explained articulately. He added that LTTE was the voice of the Tamil extremists who lost their faith in country’s political system and abandoned pacifism in favor of militancy.
“Regardless of the debate that Tamil Tigers are a disciplined insurgent movement and ran an effective breakaway state, initiating many welfare programs for Tamils. I was never impressed by their militant ideology,” Eesan said reluctantly. I noted that despite his previous views against violence and war, the recent Sri Lankan military offensive that has claimed hundreds of innocent civilian lives has somehow hardened him. “If you would have asked me this question before Sri Lankan aggression, my answer would have been ‘No’ to war and violence and ‘Yes’ to peace. Now I sympathize with anyone who is fighting for the rights of the Tamils.”
LTTE is one of the most potent militant organisations in the world that has waged a deadly secessionist campaign over the last three decades, losing more than 17,000 combatants in its struggle against the Sri Lankan military. (Photo – kloie picot)
Raising his hand in the air, Eesan said the following with determination evident in his eyes: “Moign, mark my words. The Sri Lankan government thinks that they will make peace by crushing the LTTE. I’m not sure if LTTE will be crushed or not but the dignity of the Tamil people is badly trampled. If my parents taught me the right lessons of history, I’m sure that we have never surrendered our rights and determination to be a prosperous, powerful but peaceful nation on earth.”
After a round of chilling soft drinks brought from his freezer, I settled on asking him my final question though hung up with several other queries on my mind. Asked about the future of Tamils in Sri Lanka after the seemingly defeat of the LTTE, Eesan eloquently narrated his vision for times ahead. “Let me tell you Moign, this (military victory) is not the end of the solution. It can never ever be the part of the solution either. The solution lies in giving Tamil people their right to self rule and authority. We want equal political, social and economic rights like any other nation on the face of this earth. Problems didn’t started when the LTTE was born. LTTE was born as a result of the systematic discriminating policies adopted by the Sri Lankan government. Give us our rights as equal citizens of the country and pave the way for a prosperous and promising future for the coming generations of this island. Guns will make this vision only complicated and victory ever elusive.” I wondered why extremists on both sides have a different vision for their nation…