Preamble to a proposal for a war memorial
June 2006 The Nation newspaper, in its ‘Eye’ section had a two page
spread on war memorials. I was at the time the Deputy Editor (Features)
and I remember inserting two illustrations to decorate the pages. The
first was a cemetery set up by the LTTE.
The second was a blank space, duly boxed, to acknowledge all the
20,000 young men and women who were killed in the 1971 insurrection and
the 60,000 who perished in the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya of 1988-89.
In the first, tellingly, the birthdays and date of death had been
omitted, for the LTTE had sent thousands of children to death. That’s
something the pro-Eelam sections of the Tamil Diaspora don’t talk about
even though it is their money that helped those innocent children hurry
into the Great Beyond.
The decision to insert that photograph was to acknowledge the fact
that even those who died fighting the cause of a myth-mongering
megalomaniac were nevertheless citizens of this country, needlessly
Statue of war hero Gamini Kularatne who sacrificed his life in
pass battle. File photo
Today, more than four years later, we are in a post-war situation.
Pro-Eelam sections of the Tamil Diaspora can rest easy that their
brethren are not getting killed, even if they are upset that the end of
the war also means that Sinhalese and Muslims (and yes, non-LTTE Tamils)
are not dying in their hundreds.
Yesterday was the moment of the tyrant, the rule of dread, the wails
of orphans, sighs of widows, landscapes being scarred, scars being
opened and re-opened, economies from household to national being
devastated, temples being desecrated. Yesterday was made of waiting. It
was made of wait dripping to shoulder-shrug to grin-and-bare.
Yesterday saw the consecration of helplessness, attended by the lie
Yesterday belonged to quacks calling themselves historians and
political analysts and pundits pampered by dubious dollars pontificating
on all things under the sun, conferring legitimacy to a terrorist,
twisting wild-claim into birth-right.
Today we are terror-free and voices of Prabhakaran’s lackeys quickly
moved from shout to whine and whine to silence. Yesterday we held our
breath, expecting an explosion any moment. Today we are a breathing
Yesterday was made of wounds. Today, we must seek healing.
Today I remembered those two photographs because there are things we
should not forget. History is written by the victor, this is true.
However, even a cursory reading of arguably the greatest and in many
ways most rigorous chronicle, the Mahawamsa, would reveal that there are
other ways of writing history, where blemish is called blemish and the
fallen celebrated for that which is worthy of celebration. Today, in
this moment of reconciliation, even as claim remains unsubstantiated and
grievance (mis-articulated by way of exaggeration) un-redressed, there
are things that need to be acknowledged.
Wars are about all kinds of things. Ideologies. Claims. Disputes.
Wars generate death. Destruction. Displacement. Wars are not happy
things. They bring out the worst in human beings. War is an excellent
residence for cruelty. Wars nevertheless bring out the best in the human
being as well. Bravery. Sacrifice. Heroism. None of these can be
monopolized by one party to the conflict. Just as much as we cannot
condone cruelty so too can we not forget heroism.
Those who fight each other are not one in objective. War’s end allow
for retraction, admission of guilt and forgiveness on account of all
kinds of errors, especially those that are not sourced to ideology and
War’s end can of course result in a putting-behind and moving ahead
on account of changed circumstances, but that’s something that should
not be taken as given. Still, I believe that a different kind of embrace
is possible and indeed desirable.
Both victor and vanquished share the will to live and fear of death,
both share the fact of indulging and suffering cruelty, both are one in
heroism. Close to a hundred thousand citizens of this country perished
over the past 30 years in a needless war. They were all children of this
land, sons and daughters of mothers and fathers who would never have
envisaged the babies they cradled would suffer the fate they did.
They all died in vain. The true monument of reconciliation should
occur in her. The true embrace should be the clasp of heartbeat with
heartbeat only made possible by recognition of common humanity.
Takes time. Until then let us grieve our dead and mark our grievance
with a monument to all our citizens who died, whichever side they fought
on whatever political signature was etched on the bullet that ensured
Let there be a war memorial etched with all names, a grand mix of
identity, so we can remind ourselves that our past, bloody and
tear-filled, was made of an inextricable weaving of lives, so too should
our future be; made of ourselves and one another, in our common humanity
and common destiny as children born on this island who will have to live
and live together, breathe and breathe together, now and always.