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Remembrance Day: Manifold Recollections

2020 May 18

 

The 18th of May is a day of solemn commemoration as it marks the end of the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka. For the eleventh consecutive year, our nation falls silent in remembrance of all the fallen comrades who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty and all civilians, both Sinhalese and Tamil, who lost their lives and their families to the war.

 

Lest we forget

On the 18th of May 2009, the weapons and artilleries of both parties, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, fell silent after twenty-six years of warfare. The day marked an end to the Sri Lankan civil war. Every year since, Sri Lankans mark this day as a time for solemn and prayerful remembrance for the lives lost and sacrifices made to bring peace to our motherland. Having pledged to achieve post-war reconciliation, the Sri Lankan government decided to mark May 18th as “Remembrance day” to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty and remember the lives of ordinary civilians that were lost to the war. 

 

A time for reflection

In an effort to showcase diverse narratives and a 360 view of the reality of the conflict, Pulse spoke to a few people on their reflections. This article is put together with the stories and experiences of those who were willing to share their recollections. 

Here’s what they had to share…

 

“The country is indebted to all our soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice…” 

– Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, 18th Commander of the Sri Lankan Army under whose command the Sri Lankan Army ended the 26-year Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009.

 

“When I took over as Commander, I said that I will not hand over the war to the next Army Commander. I said that I will finish it. In fact, our people thought that we would never see an end to the war. But in the final stages, for two years and nine months, 365 days of the year and 24 hours every day, we fought non-stop. We never gave up.

I also appointed Commanders as per their capabilities, not based on seniority. The sheer dedication of the soldiers was very important. There were soldiers who laid the supreme sacrifice. Under my command, 5200 war heroes gave up their lives for the sake of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our motherland. 

The country is indebted to not just the soldiers but also their families and their loved ones because they too made a lot of sacrifices. If not for the encouragement given by them, the men would not have gone to war with complete confidence.”

Commenting on the present COVID-19 pandemic, Fonseka pointed out that everyone in the security-related field, in addition to doctors and healthcare workers “are involved in yet another battle. They have always kept our flag flying high. This time too, I am sure that they will protect the interests of the country and ensure the safety of the people. I wish them good luck.”

 

“Even though media is the most important tool for reconciliation, it was not being used…” 

– Thiru Kumar Premakumar, social activist and founder of International Youth Alliance for Peace, a youth-led organization working on peace and reconciliation

 

My family and I were displaced due to the war in the 90s. My first memory of being personally pushed into the conflict was when I was just fifteen years old. I stepped out to buy some things for my mother. The police stopped me and started questioning who I am and where I am from. That very moment, I realized that I am a minority. For a boy of 15 years, being identified as a koti (tiger) was heartbreaking. The only question that I had was, ‘why am I being dragged into something I had no idea about?’ Later on, we decided to go back to Jaffna and the Vanni to take a look at our place, during the time of the peace talks. We had to go through thirteen checkpoints. At this point, I realized that there was this whole other part of the country that was living a completely different lifestyle, under a very militarized culture. 

After the war ended and through my work in activism and trying to connect young people from different backgrounds, I realized there was a divide in the media. The media is the most important tool for reconciliation, but that was not being used. Instead, it was being used as a tool to divide the communities. 

As a person who can understand both Sinhala and Tamil, I realized that Tamils and Sinhalese were fed two separate narratives, especially on days like Remembrance Day. For the Sinhalese communities, it was mostly about the forces and how it is seen as a ‘victory day.’ Similarly, if you look at the Tamil media, it narrates a completely different picture of people mourning and crying for those lost. But the truth is that, these lost lives are on both sides. Here, the Sri Lankan media, both Tamil and Sinhala mediums, have a responsibility to close this divide. They should unite and portray the message of reconciliation and peace. This Remembrance Day is a good time to take this step to connect stories from both sides, as one country and one people.”

 

“As a Montessori teacher, I always tried to put on a brave face and make my children feel safe…”

– Mrs Rtd Lieutenant Commander Kaushalya Opatha, who served in the navy as a Montessori teacher and also did her other duties during the war. 

“I joined the Navy in 1994 as a Montessori teacher to the acting Sub-Lieutenant of the Volunteer Force. I served for eight years in Trincomalee as a teacher to the children of the Navy soldiers in the area. The LTTE attacked the base in which the Montessori was located in 2000. After that, we had to cover the Montessori with sandbags because it was near the parade ground, where mortars would often fall. Frankly, the children weren’t scared because we didn’t indicate any fear or the reality of the war in any way. But they could hear noises and they knew that their parents are fighting in the war. But we tried our best to put on a brave face and hide the fear that we all felt.

An incident that I won’t forget is when one of my kids were going on leave with his parents from Trinco, a Clemo (bomb) hit the bus and I lost him. That incident really affected me because as a young officer I felt like they were my own kids.”

 

“I feel privileged and fortunate to be a Sri Lankan and to be able to experience peace in our country as we speak…”

– Dinushini Witharanage, who was raised in Colombo during the war

 

I remember as a child growing up with the civil war in the country. There is one incident in particular that I will never forget. I was walking home after school and I remember missing a bomb blast by a few minutes. It was a very traumatic experience. Back then, it seemed normal to experience scenarios like this on a daily basis. It was almost normal to live life on the edge and I feel privileged to be a Sri Lankan to be able to experience peace as we speak right now.”

 

“It is important that we keep this love and affection among all the ethnicities…”

– Lochana Velauthan, Senior Accountant who has witnessed attacks while living in Colombo during the war

 

“On Remembrance Day, we remember all the precious lives that we lost during the wartime. I have witnessed [attacks that took place in] 1977, 1983 and the Central Bank bombing. In 1983, I was barely sixteen when we were travelling from Kotahena to Colpetty when a blast took place. I will never forget the driver who was a Sinhalese, who drove us safely through burning vehicles and took us to safety. Later, my office was in the same vicinity of the Central Bank bombing. I witnessed how people had to jump out of the fire. 

However, through it all, I have learned that I cannot take hatred out of anybody. I have had so many Sinhalese friends who I met after 25 years and [their friendship] has been very precious. It is important that we keep this love and affection among all the ethnicities and stay together as members of one humanity.”

 

“If one of us cracked an idea before coming to work in the morning, we would text it to each other, in case one of us didn’t make it.”

– Ralston Joseph, a creative consultant who worked as a young copywriter close to a high-risk area in Colombo during the war

 

“My memory of the war, especially during my years at school, is hazy. Although I did not live close to the theatre of war, we still had a lot of bombs going off. Strangely, what I do remember are the final years of the war when I left school and started working. I understood the war and its consequences much better only after it had ended. 

I recollect this memory from when I was working during the final years of the war. It was my second job in advertising. I was a young copywriter at an agency that was located very close to the Prime Minister’s office and Piththala junction, where a bomb had previously gone off. My office was very close to many areas that were under threat at that time. So my business partner who was an art director, and I used to work in a team to crack ideas for clients and brands. You’ve probably heard of stories where parents did not travel together in order to safeguard the children during the wartime. My story is far less serious but somewhat similar! When we cracked an idea before going to work in the morning, we would message each other with the idea that one of us had come up with, in case one of us doesn’t make it to work.

Now, when I think about it, it sounds very childish and frivolous, but at that time we were serious. That was our ‘parents-travelling-separately-to-safeguard-the-child’ experience, in our own young and ambitious way!”

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Remembrance Day reminds us to pause and reflect on the horrors of war while also taking the time to acknowledge the pain and sacrifices it took to achieve the peace we enjoy today. Many people around the world continue to suffer in war-torn areas even today. While it is important to remember the decades-long war that Sri Lanka had to endure, may this day also serve as a reminder that we can all be agents of peace and harmony in our own capacities and collectively work towards achieving a safer, sensitive and peaceful world. 

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