LETTER TO A STRANGER: JAFFNA, SRI LANKA
BY HASANTHIKA SIRISENA
I met you in a village that was once the seat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and now, after their defeat, the headquarters of the Sri Lankan Army. I was touring the former battle zone, and you served as my guide. We had arrived in Jaffna because during the war this region of the country had been closed to all of us—it had been at once terrifying and unreal. We were taking this journey to prove to ourselves that the twenty-five year fight was really over.
I heard about the accusations before I met you. Accusations of war crimes: civilian bombings, rape. I had decided in Colombo that what they said about the army must be true. Why not? The war in its final push had been particularly brutal; armies commit atrocities. And though the accusations weren’t against you, specifically, I couldn’t help but think of them as you sat and watched me eat lunch—the idiyappam and kiri hodi you had so generously provided.
You were a major, and unlike the macho, slightly arrogant comrade who accompanied you, you seemed sad. You were dark-skinned, handsome, voluble, and though you must have been at least ten years younger, you let my friends and me flirt with you—you weren’t overt, just a gentleman politely escorting a group of women two decades older. How grateful you must have felt that your mission that day was to deal with us—five well-off professionals from Colombo—and not to manage distraught Tamil villagers or detonate mines.
By sad, I don’t mean sorrowful or despairing. No. I mean the look that people get after a long trial: the way the skin around the eyes becomes thin, nearly transparent. The slight squint, as if always peering into bright light. I’ve noticed that expression on many faces in Colombo. The practiced bonhomie slips to reveal a glimpse of pain; laughter attenuates. Seneca once claimed to his brother: “Atqui vivere, Lucili, militare est.” To live, Lucili, is to battle. The word militare isn’t figurative. It is the expression of a man who has lived through never-ending war.
You escorted us through the remains of the village and showed us the dam the Tigers had built. You showed us the hydroelectric plant, now nothing more than metal and concrete falling to rubble. You led us across ground baked hard by the Jaffna sun. The air whiffed of diesel and rust. You pointed out a fallen water tower, shattered and exposed like the ribcage of a carcass left to rot. We stood beside its fractured metal girder as you snapped our pictures. You wanted to prove to us that you’d fought not guerillas in a jungle, living in tents, with makeshift rifles, but another army, an implacable force. The truth is neither you nor the village—with its school-aged boys playing cricket, its buildings fading gently in dry air—appeared particularly evil.
The second soldier made me realize you weren’t unusual. I met him two days later. He was a military engineer—reed-thin, light-skinned, middle aged. When I did the calculation I realized he’d lived his entire adult life in the military. He stood, in his meticulously maintained dress uniform, outside the Tiger leader’s underground bunker, giving us the dimensions and explaining how it was built. He spoke only in English—the soldiers standing behind him would not have understood much—to show he was one of us: well-educated, upper-class, urbane. It surprised me, this soldier’s need to impress us.
As he talked, tiny slivers of light, bright stars in the murky darkness, pierced the jungle canopy. He pointed out a memorial—one concrete wall, the rest iron lattice-work—where the bodies of Liberation Tiger martyrs were displayed in order to be honored. The gate was fashioned in the shape of the Northern part of Sri Lanka—the borders of the state for which they’d waged war: Tamil Eelam. We stood in silence, mourning for what was lost, relieved that what they had fought for had never come to be.
Later, we met him at his bungalow, dressed in civilian clothes: a polo shirt and slacks. He sat with us and, as his servants served the tea, gossiped with my friends about mutual acquaintances in Colombo. When I went to wash my hands in his private bathroom I was shocked by how pristine it was—as if every tile had been scrubbed just that morning. He had neatly lined his few toiletries on the ledge of his sink, the labels facing forward, most likely in the order he used them. His particularity, the humanness of it, made me want to weep. I thought of you and realized I would only see a fraction of what the war had cost you both. I also knew neither of you would ever betray your comrades and confess an individual loss.
You were country first. You were army. Then, long after, you were scarred and alone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hasanthika Sirisena is the winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Her debut short story collection, The Other One, was released in March.
Photo by Andrew Rowat