Report from Sri Lanka – Part 4

DJ Mitchell concludes his trip to Sri Lanka, working with Sarvodaya, an organization working to end the civil war there.

“Note: Peace events cost money. At the million-person Spiritual Gathering, Sarvodaya will provide transportation, food, lodging (in tents), and sanitation for many more people than the city’s infrastructure is prepared to handle. I have not yet received an estimate of the cost. For the Initiative for a People’s Constitution, Sarvodaya will train 20 facilitators and hold 250 village-level gatherings, at a cost of about $41,000. Those who wish to can make tax deductible contributions to Sarvodaya U.S.A. via Paypal.

I reach the bus stand at 6:00 am. Nothing is open, not even a place for “short eats.” I’m running low on both rupees and food—I had two spoonfuls of peanut butter for breakfast, and am down to my last Clif bar. I hope the bus stops for lunch.

At six there are no soldiers in the streets, but by dawn they begin to appear. Clusters of them gather near the bus stand. I see two tractors pulling soldier-filled trailers.”

“The 6:30 bus finally gets underway by 7:00. The bus is a good one, with a solid feel and powerful engine. The seats are even somewhat comfortable, even though they are designed for someone half my size. The driver turns on music, but I can barely hear it over the roar of the engine and the rattle of the chassis.

We traverse the city, and I am struck by the number of foreign NGOs that have set up shop here since the tsunami. There are dozens of them, perhaps even hundreds. Their sign boards are in English, French, Italian, and German. I wonder what they all do, and whether they are doing it well.

Outside the city, I watch as groups of soldiers patrol the roads, some standing guard while others check for mines along the shoulders. The roadside Hindu temples are adorned with joyful gods, all representations of the One God. I look at the mine-sweeping solders and wonder if God is joyful now. It’s hard to picture that here in Batti.

There is destruction along the road, but I’m told it has nothing to do with the Army-LTTE fighting, or the LTTE-Karuna fighting. These buildings were destroyed during the Tamil-Muslim riots of 2002. The East is multi-ethnic, and members of all groups have been displaced by the violence—and the tsunami. Ongoing poverty and competition for land have increased tensions between the various groups. Even now, I’m told, the abundance of weapons in the east has allowed Muslim youth to arm themselves. How long will it be, I wonder, before they too enter the fray?

As we bump along the road that rims the lagoon, I find myself glad to be headed back to Moratuwa. I have a fondness for Batti, but being here is exhausting. I say a silent prayer for the people of Batticaloa.

I watch the jungle roll past, dotted with occasional small settlements that are outnumbered by army positions. I begin to reflect on what I have learned. The complexity of the situation is much greater than I had realized. With the current conditions, violence can be expected to increase. This will require additional planning on our part if Sarvodaya is to make a difference before things get worse.

Sometimes it seems as though the situation is so complex that it defies solution. There are people who have given up peace work in despair. But this is what I do: I analyze, I break it down, and I plan. I know that when I sit down with Vinya and we start digesting the information I’ve gathered, it will begin to make sense. There will be actions we can take to move toward our goal: a lasting peace that is fair to all Sri Lankans.
A movie scene occurs to me, from “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” and the title character’s confrontation with the Comanche Chief Ten Bears:

Josey: […] The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.
Ten Bears: And your word of death?
Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles. I’m here for either one.
Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.
Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.

I wish it was that simple. Or maybe it is that simple. We can learn live in peace with our enemies, or we can die fighting. Our children can die fighting. Martin Luther King said that the choice is no longer between nonviolence and violence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence. Here in Sri Lanka, at least, it appears that the cost of war exceeds its benefit. And somehow, in this time of increased conflict, I sense that there is also an increased chance for peace. That seems a bit ironic.

On the way in, I’d noticed a billboard for a cell phone company that showed a beautiful female model smiling and brandishing her finger like a pistol. The slogan, for its prepaid minutes plan, was, “It’s loaded.” The billboard bothered me because it represented the degree to which the culture of violence had infiltrated society.

It occurs to me, thinking about it two days later, that I presume that the militarization of society opposes the transformation we seek. But perhaps I’m caught in the same zero-sum thinking as the combatants: If “they” are gaining, “we” must be losing. It isn’t true for the combatants, and it is probably not true for peace workers either.

In 1998, I’d had to clear ten checkpoints to get out of the east. On this trip, there was only one, at Welikanda as we crossed into Polonnaruwa. I dutifully took my bag, got off the bus, and waited in line. I had my passport ready, but the soldiers waved me through without looking at it.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. It was 300 km (180 mi), it took 9 hours, and no, we didn’t stop for lunch.

Soon I will be traveling home, back to my other life: my wife, my home, and tax season. The work I do here fulfills me in a way I have longed for all my life. But I cannot live here. I have another life to live, and though I regret there is much here I will not see through to completion, I look forward to returning home.

I don’t know if my work has changed Sri Lanka. I don’t know if my work can change Sri Lanka. But I know it has changed me. And that, I have come to believe, is the only thing I have a right to expect.”

[tags] Sarvodaya [/tags]

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