Friday, April 1, 2016

More inquiry into the firebombing of Tamil homes in Bandarawela in 1981

It was 1981. Just under two years before so-called "Black July" of which we read only the most ingratiatingly brief reports e.g. "On night four the rioting spread to..." So let's start by saying the "hostilities" hadn't started yet. They were a ways away. Way far away. 

Janet remembers you told us that a Tamil family's home had been firebombed before yours. Her memory is better. Mine went out through my dropped jaw as you spoke. So. A family was attacked before and that's how you knew it was coming to you, is it? I'll ask again clearly, because the subject matter is undeniably murky. A Tamil home in the town of Bandarawela had been firebombed. So you, a Tamil family living in Bandarawela, expected your home would also be firebombed soon. Right? Is there anything you'd like to add, delete, or change? Does this make sense so far?

So let me get this straight. It's as if the first firebombing (was it the first or were there others?) led in a logical sequence, a sequence that was "expected" and in that way "OK" (???)  or at least logical in a certain way, for the next and next and next and next and the next firebombing. A spate of firebombings. A spate of citizen-inspired firebombings. I like using "citizen" there because I'm assuming it wasn't upcountry Tamils who had been stripped of their citizenship who were attacking you. Right? Stop me if I'm wrong. Also I like using "citizen" because a "citizen inspired" action is kind of like a patriotic action. A patriotic thing to do! Shoving a Molotov cocktail into your neighbor's home. Nice way to get across your message. Which was a patriotic message right? Please leave? Or not please but just "Leave." 

Can you fancy that? Can you explain that? Who was saying it to whom? Who was saying leave and who was doing the leaving. I dint want to jump to conclusions. I'm a foreigner. I wasn't in this country. I don't understand who's who. I don't get the so-called "ethnic divide." So do you mind that I'm asking? I know it doesn't make any sense but...huh? Why? Why were you supposed to leave? Who were you? What had you done? Were your kids bad in school maybe beating up on the other kids so your house had to be firebombed? Was your wife too attractive and maybe showed off her jewelry too much so your house had to be firebombed? Were you like, too successful or worked too hard? So. Firebombing you and yours? What about the other families who got it? All of their kids too rough and all of their wives too pretty and all of their jobs too high power? Really? All of you? So, just, get outta town? Sorry I'm only a Harvard Ph.D. so I don't get it. Can you explain please? Also, I'm hearing the most interesting things when I talk about this or read what I've written to other people. Which other people? You guess. One tells me, "you have to listen to both sides of the story. There were a lot of problems in this country and no one was guilt free." She's my age, old, and she left this country after she worked as a nurse and physical therapist in a military hospital. For sure she saw lots of Sinhalese soldiers with their arms and legs blown off. Ugly shit. Course there's two sides to that story. She's a healer so she knows empathy from the bottom of her heart. She takes pain and changes it to gladness. She knows there are two sides to every story and she tells me so. 

Another person tells me, looking me squarely in the eye, ardently in the eye, sincerely in the eye, intelligently in the eye, clearly, meaningfully, empathetically in the eye. He has shown his empathy and his compassionate nature just a moment ago by putting his right hand on my left forearm to comfort me or to say, "I'm here, it's OK." You see. I think I've gone too far by crying (dammit did you have to cry when you read your shit about a family being firebombed?! A family with three young kids?! Control yourself man!!). He's young and he's very smart and as he looks me in the eye he tells me in a voice I've never heard and in a voice I've never heard him use cuz usually he is so full of fun and a pleasure to know. Now his focus is singular. Looking at me now. Eyes locked in a steady stare. That voice. A repetition of something he's heard? A recital of something he's practiced? A memorization of something he's been taught? It is so uncharacteristic. So impersonal. So. Almost. Patriotic. "Sam, there is no family in this country, no person in this country, who was not touched by the conflict" (oh part of his family is from Bandarawela I am so sorry so so sorry you had to hear this!) "Everyone, Sam, was affected in some way." 

Bravo young friend. You have told me the earnest truth the honest truth the homiest truth. There is no lie in that because you are one of the honestest earnestest people I've ever met. Such a nice person and so empathetic. It's no lie. No one was left untouched. That's a fact. But I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry. Really I'm sorry. I'm sorry to be professorish. The fact is that we have to get beneath the facts. That's what I'm trying to do. And I know you're smart enough to do it too. So. Let go of the facts, can we?

So that's why I'm so interested in these firebombings in Bandarawela. Firebombings that never got written up nowhere. They were acts of patriotism pure and simple and come on, bad shit gets reported not patriotic shit. So should I look in a newspaper you think? You think there are microfilms I should go find? You think there are police reports from Bandarawela I should track down to document these homegrown patriotic incidents? You think there's record of them in Sinhala language or English language papers or in police reports or in a single blessed photograph somewhere in this haystack of haystacks of an island? Maybe I will leave the finding to you or someone younger or more ambitious for a project or someone who wants to put together the so-called pieces of a puzzle in a given way like corroborating evidence through media searches. I'm into that. I accept that as a way of doing things. I know I'm always wrong or setting myself up for wrongness by taking people's word at face value. Telling me the tale of your family home and how it was firebombed on August 13, 1981 could be a damn lie you've made up. It's the kind of a lie any two faced bugger could make up, looking to place guilt, looking to get reparations, looking to entrap, looking to seek vengeance. Dude tells me his house was firebombed August 13, 1981. Three AM. I should be able to corroborate it. Because if I can't it might be a lie. And these people lie! How crooked they are and how full of spite and how foul and how prone to, no expert at, making propaganda, twisting the truth for their means, making a lie out of the truth and bringing others (us, if you are one of the ones I'm talking about) to task unfairly. Unfair I say! Show me corroborating evidence, something written up in the papers, before I accept a word of it. 

Because. Or that is. But. There is one truth or rather two we all can agree on. We can agree can't we? That's what gentlemen (sorry ladies) do. They agree. Or they agree to disagree. So let's agree to agree. 1) you have to know both sides of a story before you can pass judgement (Just saying "both" here to keep it simple. Lots of stories have more than two "sides" or even no "sides" at all, which makes our usual ways of thinking not so simple so for the sake of simplicity and to make our way to a just agreement or just to get to an agreement or to just throw up our hands and agree let's say:) you've gotta know both sides of a story. And the second thing is, just to be fair, just to set an even playing field, cuz isn't that what we need for reconciliation? Isn't that how we need to discuss things? Isn't that how gentlemen agree to discuss things? Isn't this the most compassionate way, the most empathetic way, anyway? The second thing is: no one on this island was unaffected by the conflict. Hurrah! Hurrah not for that. It wasn't nice for anyone but. Hurrah for looking at it fairly, squarely. No one was left unaffected. 

So. Let's look a little closer. After all the title here is "more inquiry." Shouldn't we inquire? Even if we don't use newspaper clippings? 

So. Question. What set off this action? Did somebody say something not nice? Was a child bullied, a housewife insulted, a hardworking man in work clothes or a fat lazy man in a huge sarama insulted or belittled? What triggered this. Come on man something must have made these people firebomb your house. Because there are two sides to every story. We've heard your side. Let's hear the other. 

While we're waiting to hear the other side, something I sincerely wish for and I'm sure you do too because you could apologize then for making these simple patriotic country folk throw firebombs, let's discuss a little more. A Molotov cocktail. That's dangerous. Not just burning curtains or broken TV sets. Could be dismemberment or burnt bodies. These came later of course, in 1983, at the beginning of the hostilities. The "official" beginning of the hostilities. The beginning of the "official" hostilities. We've all seen the picture of one of the first nights of the hostilities. It's a picture taken in Borella. It's in Wikipedia so I won't describe it here. I'll let you look there.

But the picture and the dates and the violence and the fires and the mobs and the hiding and the burning and the breaking in and the voter rolls and the soldiers and Galle Road and Welikande Prison and Wellawatta and how the riots "spread" and the encouragement of the government, these are just fourteen of the truths of the Black July pogroms. We need to go deeper. Like to 1981. Who expected this? A fifteenth truth? Six hundred more?

Fine. Shall we go on? First, how much after the "first" firebombing, (this is in 1981, in Bandarawela) was "your" firebombing? This sentence structure kind of suggests doesn't it that firebombing is acceptable, expected, the normal course of things in some context like saying "your" accident or "your" surgery or "your" chemo. You don't own the firebombing may I say? It is the firebombers, younger back then, who may joyfully take that ownership and insert it into their karma packet or whatever they count on for their Next Life. By the way it occurs to me that they may be old enough now to be desperately seeking "Merit." How about finding them or them finding you and bringing on the merit by opening a discussion. What an idea. Certainly and for sure these older gents (now) would not be tried for war crimes. A nice long discussion would give them a chance to get things off their chest and maybe as is their wont they might bow before you, deeply, deeply prostrate themselves before you and await your head pat, "nice boy." Why not give this a try? Could any of the firebombers be any of the nice gents who came in from Gampaha by bus the other night to light the Poya lamp at the police station Ponsala in Batticaloa? I know these guys might not, probably weren't the firebombers. What an awful accusation. Even suggestion of an accusation. But I do know one truth. And it's a real truth. Not the suggestion of a truth. That is: no one on this island was left untouched by the conflict. These gents might have been untouched by the firebombing of your home in Bandarawela and I suspect they were untouched. 1) because it was before the hostilities. 2) it was not written up anywhere so they never heard about it 3) it was patriotic. And patriotic things grow the country and make it a better place. They strengthen the society and make it more cohesive. 

OK you are ridiculing me because these gents from Gampaha are from a totally different part of the country. There I go trying to make a federal case when there isn't one. I know I know. I know enough Sri Lankan geography to know that Gampaha is not Bandarawela. But maybe the gents moved from Uva Province in the meantime. You did. 

So. The first firebombing and then yours, maybe not the second but maybe one of many along a sequence of firebombings. Begins to make sense doesn't it? It's 1981. Firebombing is cool, all the rage in Uva Province. Firebomb your Tamil neighbors and get rid of them. Send them back to their stupid Eelam that will never be or, scare them bad enough they go all the way back to their stinking India. Worth a try. So. On topic. Where was "your" firebombing in the sequence? Second? Third? Fourth? Fifth? Tenth family to be firebombed? Were you the last family to be firebombed? Were you the last family to leave? Had you thought you could stay? What made you think that?

Second, and it's fair game I think because you're a family man and you were the father then of three small children: what were they fed that afternoon? Were they fed in haste? Did you know you'd have to pack them up and take them away that night? But. I'm getting way ahead of myself. How was lunch? What was dinner? Something stick to your ribs in case they wouldn't be eating for a few days? It's a ways to Batticaloa from Uva Province. Was it raining? How did the weather work its way into your plans? It's a little bit complex to pack up three kids and flee with them. Even to go camping. Even to go shopping. Hey. I'm a dad myself. How did you do it? No. Getting ahead of myself again here. Simple. How did you prepare? In other words, what was their last meal in Bandarawela? What was yours? Was it eaten in silence? Was the radio going? How did it feel to get ready to flee? You kind of knew your house was gonna be firebombed that night. Did you know you'd be fleeing? Or. Really. Did it just suddenly occur to you?

Now a broader question, kind of a "radio-history" question and maybe unfair. Maybe all my questions are unfair. So ignore them if you want to. These aren't questions I could ask you in an "interview" so I have to imagine you're here reading this and understanding the convoluted English, the sarcastic English, the invented English I'm using. Because this topic is too hot for a person to person interview and it's too hot and too upsetting for "proper" English. And one other thing. I want to make this so you or maybe not you but someone reading this, someone not Tamil or Sinhalese or Jewish but maybe someone who's Tamil or Sinhalese or Jewish or even someone else, maybe someone who's seen a movie or read a book or who's just curious could fill in the blanks. Could answer these questions. Could imagine what's behind the questions. The thing that counts is what happened August 13, 1981. The rest as they say, is....

So. This. Did you ever consider yourself in a broader arc of history? Did you see yourself connected with other cornered, disconnected, disenfranchised, displaced, denigrated, persecuted people? I'm just curious because I heard this once from some Polish Jews, Warsaw Jews, educated Warsaw Jews some thirty years after the war. Did you ever look at yourself in the mirror and think, maybe I deserve this. Maybe I did do something to make this happen. Maybe there is something about me. Just wondering. How deep does this shame go? Because no one is unaffected by these things. Even the victims get affected in strange ways. Just imagine!

Also. Did it occur to you that you belonged to some awful wave of history, some slimy tortured branch of a slimy tortured part of history. Did you have hindsight? Foresight? How? You may scratch this paragraph if you don't like existential questions. Really. I'm not sure I'm being fair here. After all. You were a young parent. You had to protect your family and get them the fuck outta there. Could be you didn't have the chance to "think" about "history." But really. Where did this place you in Sri Lankan "history?"  And where did you place this series of events in the context of Sri Lankan history? Where do you place it now that you've had about 40 years to look back on it?

Next. The clothes you packed for your kids. Something warm? Some toys? Stuffed animals? Dolls? They were little. Did you drag them out that night or the next day or the next? What did you tell them? Did you tell them anything? Did your hair stand on end? Did your hair go white? Did you or your wife experience indigestion? Did you feel strong or weak inside? Did any particular words or phrases stick with you. Truths like "every story has two sides" or "everyone is affected by things like this." Or were you not thinking at all just fleeing. Had you filled your car with petrol for this eventuality? Did you leave things in safekeeping with friends or relatives in preparation for this eventuality? Had you written a will? Did people write wills in Bandarawela in those days? I know you hate this question. But what did your mother say? I know you told me she didn't say much later during "the hostilities" because she was "well looked after by her children and spent most of her time reading her Bible." But what did she say in this moment? Was she crying or ordering you around? Was she screaming or whispering or instructing or telling you "I told you so."

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