Whatever people may tell you, whatever clichés are spouted in novels and TV broadcasts, silence isn’t deafening. It is, in fact, painfully empty, your ears searching for even the slightest morsel of sound to register. In its vacuum comes a roar like a 747 on take-off, before you look up to see a fruit bat shoot off from a nearby branch. A door slamming in that house down the road is a rifle crack, making you jump for a second before you realise no one lies bleeding.
And so it was, a week past, a few minutes beyond the city wide army curfew holding us prisoner in our very homes. To be fair, the terrorists kept us prisoner in far more palpable ways – in our minds and in our hearts and in our actions. But there was no choice… The dog needed a walk, and her clock pays little heed to military imposed hours or barricaded days. It was apparent in the way she strolled so casually along, sniffing the odd patch of grass and snuffling at the errant cat. This night I wished she’d not got that white tip on her tail, the semblance of white socks on her legs. Because tonight in the moon-streaked darkness they shone like strobe lights for any who lurked to see.
And so we walked. Or crept, I should say, sticking to the shadows as I did and scanning for shadowed nooks where I could crouch if a patrol happened by. I didn’t know what would ensue if I were caught outside during curfew, but I figured it couldn’t be good. The diesel rumble and bounce of lights that had me sidestep behind an errant tree turned down another lane at the last moment, a glint of shiny black paint marking a ministerial security detail rather than the expected military jeep. Twenty harrowing minutes later, having satisfied her canine urges and attended to her needs, the dog and its owner returned home. I was practically vibrating as I triple-locked the front door and let go my breath.
Regular days – irregular, actually, as there was nothing regular or normal about the week that followed those Easter Sunday suicide bombs that decimated hundreds of innocents in the space of 30 minutes – went painfully slowly. Every trip out of the house was a ride fraught with fear: fear of being in supermarkets where scores shopped for rations, fear of being caught on the road behind a van or motorcycle or car packed with explosives, fear of loved ones not returning home from a simple errand.
While darkness was scary, daytime was eerily uncomfortable. Streets were deserted, shops were shuttered, and checkpoints were everywhere. It was the LTTE war all over again, without the perverse comfort of knowing the enemy. It was a senseless act, an act which rationale no one could grasp, an event so unexpected by the public that safety and security dissolved into a smoke-filled ether, carrying with it the hope of peace.
And sadly, it was all too familiar. Because it was 9/11 writ South Asian, against a backdrop of blue oceans and under a tropical sun rather than the shadows of skyscrapers. I had been there, those 18 years ago, and I was there once again.
I wrote some time ago about first moving to Sri Lanka, and being asked why Americans make such a big deal about 9/11 when so many parts of this world are war-torn. Sri Lanka, after all, had a three-decade long civil war, with tens of thousands more casualties than we suffered in NYC and DC. My response was, “Because.” An excerpt:
“Because that Tuesday morning in New York, sleeping late after an all-night cram session for an afternoon class, I awoke to a ringing cell phone. A friend in California, when I answered, said, ‘A plane crashed into the World Trade Center’.
“What started as a what-on-earth conversation, both of us incredulous that a pilot could be so lousy as to hit the tallest building in our city, changed five minutes later. Together in voice but separated by thousands of miles, we watched in horror as the second airliner exploded through the second tower.
“What we felt was sheer and utter fear. First, for my sister, who was supposed to be filing briefs in the courthouse two blocks from the Towers. And once we reached her and found her in midtown, shaken but safe, our fear turned grotesquely, incalculably worse. It changed, tumbling and expanding, growing from a cloud of rubble-borne dust into something solid, something crackling, something writhing wraithlike and cracking with scales. It changed. It morphed. It grew until it had no further room to expand, and then exploded like those buildings and the freedom we hold so dear.
“And became terror.
“Because for the first time in our collective history, America was attacked on its own soil. Because our refuge, our lives, our homes, must by necessity now be contained within a fortress of mistrust and wariness and complete and utter devastation.
“Because for the first time, the freedom and safety and security of our land was shaken to its very core.
“Because we mourned at the graves of our friends, and families, and neighbours, and even those we had never once met.
“Because they were us. Brown, yellow, white, black, red, purple, gay, straight, republican, democrat, woman, man, or child, east coaster or west coaster or midlander, we were all the same that excruciating day. We were Americans, and we were no longer safe.
“Some ask why we called it the ‘War on Terror’ rather than the ‘War on Terrorism’.
“Because the men who shattered our world for that one day were not terrorists. They were not soldiers or freedom fighters or moral crusaders. They were cowards whose existence was a blight on our humanity.
“They brought terror to our families and friends and fellow Americans.
“And we don’t ever forget. We remember. We recall. We re-feel every minute of that day every time it passes 11:59.59 on September 10th.”
So, too, shall Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans remember this horrific, unprovoked, unnecessary carnage of 21 April. So, too, shall we remember the hideous mob attacks on Muslims in the three weeks since. We shall remember those who failed our people, those who attacked them with no reason or rationale. They, too, are cowards who chose the basest means to strike fear into our minds. We must, and we shall, hold them accountable and bring their supporters to justice.
And we, as Sri Lankans, shall remain, grow, become stronger and better and more determined. We must learn from the lessons of 9/11 and the terror attack in Paris and elsewhere. In America, we eventually chose to pick ourselves and our fellow Americans up from the ground, brushed the ash from so many eyes, and rebuilt our world, if not our deepest souls.
Sri Lanka must do the same. Sri Lanka must bring its communities together, no matter what race or creed. Because these attacks were not against Christians or tourists. These mobs were not against Muslims. They were against each and every one of us, and their damage to our mindsets and our morals and our sense of belonging is real – for Sinhalese, and Tamil, and Muslim, and Burgher, and every other ethnic and religious group.
We must show them that attacking a single of our citizens is attacking us all.
We must hold hands in solidarity against terror. We must learn the lessons of that September morning in 2001.
And we must rebuild every day.
So it never happens again.