Former BBC correspondent Frances Harrison, whose book on the survivors of the Sri Lankan war comes at a time when the UN has confessed to having failed in Sri Lanka, warns of similar conflict, and one directed at the entire world, if festering issues are not resolved in the island nation
Still counting the dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War
On November 14, the United Nations released the report of an internal review panel, indicting the organisation for failing to play its part in protecting Tamil civilians during the final phase of the Eelam war in 2009.
The panel, led by former UN official Charles Petrie, points out that while government sources claim the casualty figure was well below 10,000, credible information puts the figure at over 70,000.
Ironically, on May 19, 2009, when the Sri Lankan government claimed victory over the LTTE, President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated: “Our troops went to this operation carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, hostages on their shoulders, and the love of their children in their hearts.”
The Petrie report further says: “The UN repeatedly condemned the LTTE for serious international human rights and humanitarian law violations but largely avoided mention of the government’s responsibility. Senior UN officials said this was because information could not be verified. In fact, information had been verified to a good standard; indeed UN statements on LTTE violations, including the killing of civilians and holding civilians hostage, were based on information verified in the same manner. Numerous UN communications said that civilians were being killed in artillery shelling, but they failed to mention that reports most often indicated the shelling in question was from government forces.”
Amid the controversy over Sri Lanka being the UN’s second Rwanda in terms of the enormity of genocide, comes the book, Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, by Frances Harrison, BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka between 2000 and 2004.
Harrison talks about the human cost of the war, focusing on the final months of the battle between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. And while she admits that the sufferings of the soldiers and the Sinhalese population are subject enough for another book, she tells the stories of the Tamil survivors who managed to escape the war alive. All of them are settled abroad and met Harrison over the two years she took to write the book since 2010.
Calling it an account of the victory from the perspective of the defeated, Harrison admits that some of the survivors were terrorists, but not all. She believes their story matters, because Sri Lanka is no longer just a country whose people did bad things to each other—it’s an unexpected piece of the jigsaw of the discourse on global terrorism.
The book has 11 accounts from people as diverse as UN aid workers, doctors, journalists, a nun, a teacher, a rebel mother, a shopkeeper, etc. All stories have a common thread of unimaginable horror running through them, with stark, vivid descriptions of the atrocities the survivors witnessed, and themselves suffered. Each story is complemented with corresponding figures and dates in detail.
Interestingly, when Harrison herself was on the island, it was relatively peaceful—with a fragile ceasefire holding out—and she confesses to have even reported on tourism and cricket, completely unaware of what lay ahead.
When questioned on the media’s role during the final phase of the war, when atrocities were at a peak, she defends her professional community, saying that the media had no access to the war zone and had to rely on UN and government reports, which we now know were severely diluted.
As for being vindicated by the Charles Petrie report, which was leaked in the media just days before the book was out, Harrison wishes the report had been made public earlier, as it would have given her book an entirely different spin, and the stamp of authoritative approval.
At the same time, she hopes the UN learns lessons from Sri Lanka to use in Syria and other conflict areas, which it failed to do in the island nation despite similar atrocities in Rwanda.
However, she completely dodges a question on the Indian Peacekeeping Force, refusing to be drawn in, saying she was in school when it happened and it would not be appropriate to comment even on the political correctness of the decision to send Indian forces to Sri Lanka.
But what she feels strongly about is the unresolved status of the Sri Lankan conflict, warning that the festering wounds might lead to another conflict, if not in this generation, but years later. “All the people I met during the course of research for the book do not want anything to do with arms any more. They say they lived through the war and the bloodshed, but cannot imagine going back to a similar situation, let alone supporting or creating one,” she says. “But then the humiliation, the feeling of being abandoned, the anger and the sense of injustice lives on. And, if it does erupt in the form of a conflict, even if generations later, it will not be directed at the Sri Lankan authorities alone, but at the world at large—for having betrayed them and failing to come to their rescue,” she adds.