Journalist-author Frances Harrison tells ANJANA RAJAN her book on the human suffering engendered by Sri Lanka’s “hidden war” is written with the belief that if people know, they will care
Light and shade form the nature of life. One man’s blessing may be another’s hell. Celebratory firecrackers to some can sound like gunfire and shelling. So it is that, as midnight strikes to herald the start of 2013, some in our highly networked world will be rejoicing and partying, while others continue to mourn, unnoticed. And so it is that while much of the world thinks that Sri Lanka’s civil war is over and it is busy reconstructing a torn society, another reality — largely unseen and unheeded — exists for the people of the island nation.
Former journalist Frances Harrison’s recently published book, “Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War” (Portobello Books), looks at this human tragedy that played out — its aftermath still continuing — away from the media glare. It focuses on last months of the war during 2009 when the Sri Lankan government —seemingly throwing all diplomatic caution to the winds — gradually expelled all foreign media and aid workers as it closed in on the shrinking bastion of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern part of the country and brought the war to an official and appallingly bloody end.
While her work is an indictment of Sri Lanka’s government and army, it does not spare the Tigers, who used civilians as human shields, and it leaves entirely exposed the United Nations, which was content to look on while its member States favoured other causes and its aid workers were ordered out of the country.
Harrison’s devastating account of the sufferings of Sri Lanka’s civilian Tamil population during the war’s final chapter makes horrifying reading. But any reader aware of the concept of propaganda would have realised even before — when media houses and countries across the world were accepting the Sri Lankan government sponsored bulletins of the war — that the stories she has now brought into print were bound to be in existence, since one-sided news can never be the whole truth.
Harrison, who came to New Delhi for the launch of her book, was BBC’s resident correspondent in Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2004. She had chances, which not all journalists did, to meet the rebels. She covered the peace process mediated by Norway, and in December 2004 toured the island in the wake of the tsunami that killed some 30,000 people. In her book she mentions how she and others could not even imagine that the traumatised survivors would in the coming years be witness to even worse carnage. She has been posted in South East Asia and Iran too. “Still Counting the Dead” was written while she was a visiting research fellow at Oxford University.
Although she went across the world collecting information and meeting survivors and refugees, Harrison did not go back to Sri Lanka after the war. “Probably I didn’t want to put people at risk,” she says in a reference to the dangers of being seen as an Eelam sympathiser in Sri Lanka today. Since she would be “very visible”, she did not want to put additional pressure on people who had already been through so much.
With the world all too ready to accept Sri Lanka’s assertions that it was safeguarding human rights, she feels this was a story that “didn’t get properly told in 2009.” However, the “luxury of going back to a story,” as she points out, rarely comes to a journalist.
Still, it seems ironic that journalists often put between the covers of a book information that by definition ought to have made it to news columns or channels. Harrison says a major reason for countries not officially wanting to speak out in support of Tamil human rights could be “the whole proscribed issue.” The LTTE being recognised and proscribed as a terrorist organisation by about 32 countries “obviously has a huge impact on everybody.” However, it is also true that Sri Lanka is “not the Middle East,” and “it doesn’t involve oil.” There is a lot of ignorance, she notes, with people not understanding the issues and asking questions like “are the Tigers Muslim?” Besides, she says, “it’s finished,” and there are “plenty of new wars.” All in all, “there wasn’t enough public outrage.”
Reeling from the descriptions in the book — apparently targeted shells from the country’s air force falling on convoys of refugees, traumatised survivors recounting how they waded through corpse littered rivers, a doctor haunted by the 150 desperate patients he abandoned under a tree on his last day, though he and his team must have saved some 20,000 before them, a woman who miscarried on the beach, for whom the upside of the brief pregnancy was having sanitary napkins available to dress wounds — one wants to ask what could make the world just stand by?
She counters, “Why are they not bothered now? We’ve had two U.N. reports, and now we’ve had the Petrie reports.” Remarking “That’s pretty solid stuff,” she notes, “It still doesn’t really resonate.” While she feels “Sri Lanka was Ban Ki Moon’s Rwanda moment,” she concedes the UN Secretary General could not take action with no country backing him at all.
It was a failure of journalists too. “Gaza got a lot more coverage,” she points out. Some individuals and groups did try to bring the other side of the news to the forefront. “The amount of video on the Internet, shot in the war zone… There’s so much if you actually look at it.” Harrison mentions that Channel 4 did use a lot of it. Still, “it just didn’t make any impact.”
Issues like reliance on public relations companies and news agencies, the sound byte culture, etc. that plague journalism the world over were at play here too. “There are all these problems, but you’d think with social media you’d get round it.” What drives her, says Harrison, is what some would call naivety. “I guess I’m naïve, but I feel if people know, they’ll care.”
Maybe not many will care, maybe not enough. But the potential dangers of continuing not to know are far greater. Because, as Harrison points out, it was not just countries like Russia and China that would have pressured the UN to avoid a resolution censuring Sri Lanka’s human rights violations. “Not only them, I think a lot of Western countries thought the LTTE is better silenced.” And today some consider the “Sri Lankan option” as a model worth studying to deal with terrorism.
But if the strategic importance of other countries closed to the media, like, say, Iran, makes the Western press try harder to get at the news in those areas, the failure of Indian journalists to probe Sri Lanka’s “hidden war” is that much more stark. “Sri Lanka is a neighbour. It is surprising that an Indian journalist has not done it (the kind of investigation Harrison has done). There are thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils sitting in Chennai, with their stories….”
There are numerous gaps in information, she says, like how many went to India, how many visas were issued post-2009. “I hope that Indian journalists will take up the baton, in a sense.”
The Sri Lankan government’s reaction to Frances Harrison’s book is “toned down — nothing heavy by their standards,” she says.
“The kind of stuff you get is ‘you’re making money out of dead bodies,’ or, ‘You’re in the pay of the LTTE…’.”
She’s had “more trouble from the Tamil diaspora groups”. Some feel the book has “depoliticised the struggle.”
Dixie, the UN worker who was forced to evacuate in 2008, later resigned in frustration, and was even stopped from speaking out about his experiences, is writing a graphic novel, says Harrison. “It will bring in a different audience.”
Besides, people are writing poetry, fiction, and a play is being written based on the book.