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November 23, 2014 / subramanyam

This Divided Island

Ananthy, a mother of 3 works in Kilinochchi district secretariat.  Her daughters study in Jaffna and stay with her sister.  On most of the days Ananthy finishes her work quickly and travels for 60 KM to meet her daughters in Jaffna and tries to spend a night with them.  The next morning she catches the 6.30 bus in Jaffna and is back to her work on time. When she is not in office or not travelling to Jaffna she writes. She writes letters, files appeals and badgers the government for news about her husband Elilan.  Elilan was one Tigers’ chief operatives who surrendered to the army in the last days of the Tamil war and had not been heard of since.  Ananthy, the fighter would not give up , she believes that her husband is alive and wants to know his whereabouts under any circumstances.  The govt on its part maintains stoic silence about a person who surrendered to them .

Some 343 KM away  a resident of Colombo was fighting a similar war.  Sandhya is fighting for her  journalist-cartoonist  husband Prageeth. He picked up the cudgels against the government, wrote against them and then  disappeared one night.  She had been filing appeals after appeals but was not getting any results. After having made 20+ rounds to the local courts Sandhya is a tired and battered woman now.

However, the reason behind the tears of Ananthy, Sandhya and many other men and women of the island nation refuses to disappear.  It makes its obstinate presence in the mind of every citizen of the nation.  The 30 year old war and the final battles that took place in 2009 changed the face of SriLanka forever.  The stories of this war, the reasons for it, the repercussions of it and the aftermath have been wonderfully captured and presented by Samanth Subramanian in his work “This Divided Island“.  Here is the blurb of the book.

In the summer of 2009, the leader of the dreaded Tamil Tiger guerrillas was killed, bringing to a bloody end the stubborn and

The Cover Page

The Cover Page

complicated civil war in Sri Lanka. For nearly thirty years, the war’s fingers had reached everywhere: into the bustle of Colombo, the Buddhist monasteries scattered across the island, the soft hills of central Sri Lanka, the curves of the eastern coast near Batticaloa and Trincomalee and the stark, hot north. With its genius for brutality, the war left few places and fewer people, untouched.

What happens to the texture of life in a country that endures such bitter conflict? What happens to the country’s soul? Samanth Subramanian gives us an extraordinary account of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed. Taking us to the ghosts of summers past and to other battles from other times, he draws out the story of Sri Lanka today-an exhausted, disturbed society, still hot from the embers of the war. Through travels and conversations, he examines how people reconcile themselves to violence, how religion and state conspire, how the powerful become cruel and how victory can be put to the task of reshaping memory and burying histories.

This Divided Island is a harrowing and humane investigation of a country still inflamed.

How do wars affect people ? How do the survivors feel? What are the origins of the conflict?  Why did people pick the arms in Sri Lanka?  How did both parties react ? What was the misguided zeal that led to all this and how did  the common people like you and me feel as they were engulfed in a conflict for 30 years?   All these things are wonderfully depicted in the book.  This book was written after humongous amount of research and gives us the stories of the people who actually experienced and are experiencing the pain left by the scars of the war.

 Ananthy and Sandhya were mere two examples I quoted from Samanth Subramaniam’s  book.  In the book he gives us the perspectives of the Tamils, the Sinhalese, Monks, pastors, priests, army men, journalists, mechanics and many other people from all walks of life who saw the war and were affected by it.  He makes us travel all around Sri Lanka and makes us witness the situations first hand.  He gives us the stories of real people and adds his perspectives to them. To me that is the USP of the book.

The book is divided into 4 parts.  The Terror, The North, The Faith and the End Games.

In the first module, “The Terror”  we get to know  about the historical origins of the conflict and what drove Tamils to pick the arms.  What were the mistakes of the majority leaning governments of Sri Lanka. What did they do to minorities? What were the mistakes that these governments committed ?  Were there people who opposed the govt then? Were there any Sinhalese who sympathized with the  Tamil cause? How did Tamils at large and the Tamils in the army react to this ? What drove the Tamils towards the armed struggle ? All these points were very well shown in this section.

Many Tigers did surrender. How ever most of them are missing till date. Were the channel 4 videos true ?  Here we see the angushed parents who are protesting.

Many Tigers did surrender. How ever most of them are missing till date. Were the channel 4 videos true ? Here we see the angushed parents who are protesting.

The North”  gives us the stories of Jaffna and people who live there. To the uninitiated, Jaffna is the area that is heavily populated by the Tamils and it was here that Tigers’ movement started.   LTTE had its head quarters in Kilinochchi which is mere 60 KM away from Jaffna.  It was the assassination of Alfred Duraiappah, the then mayor of Jaffna that actually was turning point in the SriLankan Civil war.  Velupillay  Prabhakaran earned his stripes here and went on to be the founder of LTTE and remained as the  supreme leader for the Tamils for the next 30 years.  Tigers controlled Jaffna and the adjoining areas for good amount of time.  Did the people like them? What do many of the people there feel about them?  were they really happy ?  Samanth tries to break some of the stereotypes we have about Tamils and LTTE in this section.

 It would be interesting to know the amount of role the peace-loving Buddhism and its monks had to play in the war. “The Faith”  speaks about the role of religion in the conflict.  Perspectives from MahaVamsa (the book that traces the lineage of Sinhalese Kings and speaks about their deeds) and the contemporary monks of Sri Lanka are presented side by side and we realize the similarities and differences of both the ages.  The way the radical monks oversaw some of the most heinous crimes was also well depicted.  In an instance we see that a mosque is demolished and we see the way the monks behave then.  We can’t but feel enraged about the deeds of the so-called peace-loving people.  Then the systematic destruction of Tamil culture there was also well depicted.

The end to the thirty year old civil war came in May 2009.  A few months later the channel 4 videos and photographs came out.  They gave mind numbing, gruesome evidence about the gross human right violations that the Sri Lankan army committed.  Sri

The Author -- Samanth Subramanian

The Author — Samanth Subramanian

Lankan Army might deny it,  but it can never be free from clutches of the irrefutable evidence against them.  “End Games” captures all this in a poignant manner.  Our eyes would go moist when we hear that 350,000 people had the stay in an area less than 3 square kilometers.  An army was shelling at them, another was using them as a human shield, there was sea on one side and a beast that would consume them on other.  Living in bunkers, buying rice and Dal at Rs 1000 a kg, these people suffered some of the toughest times the world has ever seen.  The killer shells spared none, families vanquished and the blood of innocent people draped the earth red.  The stories that the survivors say and the perspectives the author offers at these unfathomable losses are indeed heart wrenching. For example in the 315th page of the book, as we finish reading about a man who lost his son and his arm to the final days of war, we hear the author say these words. “In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off.  Even hitting the rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”  My mind switched off after reading this sentence.  It took me sometime before I was back and read the next paragraph of the book.   The stories, the incidents where the kids still believe that their fathers would return will bring out tears out of every eye.

I would also like to compliment the author for the excellent english he uses throughout the book, I was finding a new word in every  page and was really amazed by author’s control and usage of the language.  This clubbed with the poignancy of  the prose made me take unnaturally long time to complete a book that had less than 330 pages in it.

One must appreciate Samanth Subramanian for the hard work and the research that went into this book, he travelled all over Sri Lanka and went across the globe to the US, the UK and Canada to meet the families of the Tamils who were displaced by the war.  He brings out the true motives and the ethnic cleansing that Sri Lankan forces tried to do.  He brings to light the crimes of  the victors and the troubles of the vanquished.  At the very same time he also brings to light the crimes committed by the LTTE.  he shows how LTTE lost its own people, its own Tamils by forcing conscription and killing anyone who opposed them.  LTTE  was ruthless in killing all other forms of Tamil leadership and  this in a way contributed to the final showdown that eliminated LTTE from the face of the world. In a way the protector and predator of Tamils extracted the same blood at times.  As we see the true stories of the Tamils who were caught between both the parties and lost everything they had, we can’t but feel frustrated as we can do so little to their cause.

Do buy the book and read it, it tells us the importance of a meaningful dialogue over war. Every war has victor and a vanquished who would be remembered by all.  Far from these two parties would be the commoners who like their losses would go unnamed and unremembered.  Do read the book.

References : I picked up the images from various internet sources.

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