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Silenced in Sri Lanka

Writers who cannot be named to protect their safety weigh in on a crisis.

Ethnic Tamil civilians board a military vehicle to go to a camp for internally displaced people after being checked by the military in Vishvamadu, a town recently captured by Sri Lankan soldiers battling to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Feb. 7, 2009. (Stringer/Reuters)

As Sri Lanka's decades-long war approaches what is expected to be a gruesome conclusion, the world largely looks elsewhere. This can be blamed on the lack of what we call ground truth coming out of the country. The government has suppressed journalists, some of whom have been killed and others have disappeared. In the country's capital, Colombo, there is silence about the fighting and the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the northeast part of the island.

Several writers now in Sri Lanka agreed to send GlobalPost some ground truth, if we agreed to protect their identities. Here is their take on what it's like there now:

An American

Around the world people are protesting the situation in Sri Lanka: after decades of civil war, at least 100,000 Tamil civilians, and maybe triple that, are caught between the Tamil Tigers, who refuse to let them travel freely, and the Sri Lankan government, which refuses to stop firing at them. Elsewhere, people protest. They may not know the nuances of the situation, but they are not quiet. They feel free to speak.

In Sri Lanka, though, I see only a few brave voices of protest or dissent. Around Independence Day, on Feb. 4, people walked or drove past increased security details at major landmarks like the Galle Face, shopping centers, or government buildings. Even now that the holiday has passed, checkpoints and silence seem routine. The police motion to vehicles, and their drivers pull over. Passengers take out identity cards and passports. Apartments are searched and their occupants registered. And people whisper. Those who speak at normal volume tend to agree with those in power. Journalists begin to flee.

Sri Lankan newspapers and television channels don't seem to be running the disturbing images of the north that you can see in other countries, or other channels — footage of patients in hospitals that have been bombed, children with amputations, trapped and innocent civilians.

We may be about to see a large-scale and complicated killing of people from a minority group that has historically faced discrimination in Sri Lanka, and most people here, even people of that ethnicity, will not protest loudly or publicly. They don't think they can do so and remain safe. You could walk around the capital city of Colombo and not know, not really, what is going on in the north. People who object might talk about it in corners, with known friends, under their breath — and then change the subject. The government, the Tigers, and their respective extremist supporters have damned Sri Lanka with a fearful silence. And so: genocide, quietly?

A citizen journalist

Motorcycles that follow close behind are fear. The letter box at the junction is fear. The ringing of a telephone is fear. Each email is fear. We channel surf fear. We listen to it on jingles. In the nervous laughter of journalists. Words which no longer appear, people who have disappeared. The firecrackers lit celebrate terror against terror. Editors culled by sharp instruments jabbed to their necks. A vicious defense secretary who goes for the jugular. A racist Army Commander who believes Sri Lanka belongs to his people. Everything, everyone consumed by war. An economy crumbling, rendering grotesque the nightlife bling in Colombo.

How can one capture life under a brutal regime? How can one capture the hate for the Tamil Tigers consuming our democracy, our identity, our self-respect, our hope? How do we communicate the loss of peace amidst the tumescent battle cries? How do we grieve, when to cry is traitorous? To be a patriot then, we need to inure ourselves from reality. The willing suspension of disbelief. A fiction, compelling, all consuming, all day, all night. We need to live many lives with many faces. We need to survive the daily compromises. No recipe here — each day brings its own madness.

Sri Lanka is home, loved first. Loved the most. It is dying in front of us. We are dying in this beautiful, bountiful land of the Buddha. Help us find ourselves again.

A visitor to the Hill Country

The bus approaches the army checkpoint. The conductor asks everyone, except the elderly, children, and pregnant women, to get down and form a line in front of the army officer.