A grief observed: The body count (still) mounts

Friday, 14 January 2022 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA – driven though we may be by multiplex contingencies like never before, shall we forget the common humanity that connects and challenges us, as an island race? 


I love the beach. There is no other place like it. Sea! Sand! Sun! It is where – in our southern summer that has never quite faded, despite the cold north winds of geopolitics – ‘the seed of Adam’ plays, as the poet says.

Children adore its guarantee of a good time. Some women I know swear by its suitability as an exercise track. If you’re willing to manoeuvre past the shady spots and equally dark characters, that is! Lovers meet... and part... at the water’s edge...

And yet, it can be a deadly arena for a plethora of nefarious activities. And the shadowy underbelly of society who run – or are run – by drug, prostitution and other criminal rings. And now, of late, as in those abysmal yesteryears we would all rather forget (and have, indeed, forgotten or chosen to forget), it is a place of death being freshly discovered.

Just this week, three dead bodies featured in a macabre triad of grisly crime scenes of no little mystery and much horror – even to our resilient islanders hardened by war, nature’s ravages and COVID-19. One of these washed ashore at Wellawatte. Another of its compatriots in death bobbed about in the shallow reef-guarded sea off Bambalapitiya. A third was fished out of a canal inland. 

The shock factor in such grisly happenings is usually sharp and short-lived, after the sensation of half a day or so and/or a news cycle passes. Press flies buzz and hover in the first flush of the grisly discoveries. Police soon enough profess puzzlement as to the perpetrators and their possible motives. People stop to gape and gawk, moved by human pathos as much as the dramatic element – and then move on, in every sense of the words.

But these dead have – or had – names. And faces that were known, if not loved, or at least liked, or loathed. As well as being creatures of such stellar carbon that were unique in terms of no other being occupying their place under a cruel cosmic sun. It is neither sweet nor fitting that any such flesh and blood should become flotsam as they float down to a sunless sea. Whether law-abiding citizens, suicides or expendables in someone’s ongoing war.


A sea of troubles

Yet, these are hard and uncertain times. Sri Lanka as a nation – and as a people – faces the prospect of penury as perhaps never before. 

On the national front, there is paralysing servicing of international sovereign debt. The prospect of bankruptcy at being unable to pay interest tranches due, without risking the bottom of our reserves falling out. Much less mitigate capital borrowings with a metaphorical ‘haircut’ or other instruments of debt restructuring, without having to eat serious political humble pie.  And then an attendant foreign exchange nosedive and its sister, the currency crisis, drowned by refusing to float the rupee – while flooding an inflationary milieu with printed notes – add insult to injury. 

There is the poor cousin of political theatre. Dependent on sovereign drawing rights, being masqueraded by canny politicos and their henchmen as aid or grants. Or worse, as hard-won earnings. 

Also, the rich uncles and aunties at the IMF and The World Bank being studiously ignored by the clan. Because asking for help may mean bowing to their wishes to streamline our family’s finances.

On the personal front, one does not have to labour the point beyond pointing to sadly lengthening queues; sorry prices turning pathetic, as they skyrocket into the stratosphere by ‘traditional new year’s’ time; and sundry ignominies such as exploding gas cylinders – if and when they are available! 

But if you still have liquid milk in your fridge and mixed fried rice at the very least in your treats (or more gourmet goodies to which you’ve grown attached and their calories attached to you), you could count yourself far more fortunate maybe than the farmers who were brought to their knees. 

With the threat of being dragged at gunpoint to their paddy fields if they did not accept the wisdom of their political masters’ agricultural policy. And staring down the barrel at hunger for their kith and kin, and the looming prospect of famine for their country. 

I wish I was exaggerating. But being grindingly on the verge of bankruptcy has a wonderful way of clearing one’s sinuses and sharpening one’s sense of smell. I do not love the odour of wet firewood of a morning coffee, tea or misery?

Yes, we all have our problems, don’t we, dears? 

No time to stand and stare?

So, shall we hitch up our skirts and gun the motor of the vehicle we’re still lucky to own and be able to fill up every week, and drive past the gory spectacles? Singing the praises of the architects of the Port City that we see shining like a bright beacon on the horizon of our future prosperity? Or stop a while longer and pause to muse and perhaps grieve a little more, nodding to the reality that in the midst of life, some of us are in death more than others are? 

Let me admit I’m tempted to take the first option. Because I, for one, have had it up to here, with oh-such-bad-news vibes all around me – and I would like to be left to my own strategic devices for a while please, to save up and shore up for an increasingly uncertain future. Thank you, sir.

Yet, there is a still small voice, which insists that I linger by these watery graves, to observe a measure of grief. It is a whisper that has echoed in the ears of a lost generation (or more) of Sri Lankans who have had to deal with sudden death when it comes knocking on their door. 

Whether by dawn’s early light, as the ocean wreaked its revenge on humanity’s excesses that fateful day in December 2004. Or in those cold dark quiet nights, as masked intruders in unmarked vehicles took away our sons and daughters – never to be seen again. Or by dint of a ‘sudden accidental fall’ off the fifth floor of that Lubyanka of ours that passes for a CID HQ, as happened to a middle-aged woman mid-week.

Once, a mother of a slain journalist affirmed that she was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. At least, the reef-ringed currents washed her quiet yet outspoken son’s body back ashore. 


Bring up the body

But I will not bore you with grave injustices committed against a brace of other women and the children of one of them, in the political circus that insisted on bringing up the body of another slain journalist, time and again, because they could not – or would not – bring the assailants of a free media and a fractured society to book. 

It is these bodies we too still bring up – in memory, in conversation, in articles; year after year – in order to seek and never experience or enjoy closure. There are tears in things.

So, let us honour them if we can these horizontal men – though we value none but the vertical one. 


Who were these? What identity? Why? 

They stand – or lie – as emblems of the known and unknown dead. These are the symbols of Sri Lanka’s ‘national problem’. A culture of impunity compounded by a careless attitude to the sanctity of life and nature. Underscored by a compromised socio-political ethic and its sorry companions: realpolitik, irrational justification of the respective (often murderous) regimes we voted into office (they call it power and make a desert of peace) and our so-called resilient ethos. 


The body count

The numbers in terms of related atrocities are interesting and alarming. 

Those missing in our country’s 26-year civil war tally 23,586 (including about 5,000 security forces personnel) – all declared dead after the event by executive decree a year ago. Some 19 journalists (25 if you count media workers) were killed in the line of duty between 1992 and 2022, embodying at least 10 suspected murders. 

Over 50 actors, artists, civil society activists, military officers and other persons of political significance were allegedly bumped off by state-endorsed assassins or shadowy paramilitaries between 1971 and 2009. 

Who remembers the emblematic case of 17 aid workers extra-judicially executed as a group? What justice for the 11 youth abducted between 2008 and 2009 – allegedly by powerfully connected and high-ranking military officers – where the case was dropped by the AG’s Dept., though the courts subsequently gave no leave to do so? 

Sri Lanka has the world’s second-highest number of enforced disappearances in modern times.  

In prison riots and massacres: 26 political prisoners of an ethnic minority were slaughtered in gaol (Bindunuwewa: 2000) by an ethnic majority mob when the Army withdrew its protection and Police posted to ensure the same refused to defend the victims; 11 were killed and 117 stood injured when guards opened fire to contain a protest against prison under pandemic conditions (Mahara: 2020); 27 inmates of jail were killed and 40 others wounded (Welikada: 2012) when the STF raided the prison in search of concealed drugs and opened fire on armed inmates.

The total number of extrajudicial killings in Sri Lanka is unknown; but rest (or don’t) assured, it is horrendously large for a sunny little island such as ours. Our life is cheap even in an ethic that compassionately wishes all beings to be happy. 

The JVP, LTTE, State terrorists and underworld criminals have contributed in no small measure to this appalling track record for an ancient culture nestled in the final-resting-place of Dhamma, struggling to emerge as a civilised nation. Forget culture, nature, adventure – we have to become human again, first.


Island in the sun

Let none of the above diminish our prospects on the way forward – especially in the light of Colombo being named just this week as those among CNN Travel’s best destinations in 2022. Or detract too much from previous accolades such as Condé Nast Traveler’s fifth in its 2021 Top 20 ‘best countries in the world to visit’ – ahead of Italy, Greece, Croatia and the Maldives – among a panoply of other achievements. 

In fact, let it spur both citizens and governors to make the ‘Blessed Isle’ a paradise for travellers, as much as it is a haven for natives. And in this ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year’, let’s hope the authorities develop their five-year, $ 10 billion by 2025, Global Communication Campaign to attract 6,000,000 tourists a plan with integrity that walks the talk of ‘an isle like no other’.

Death is a beach in the lull between bust and boom. Smooth between sea and land is laid the yellow bloodstained sand. And I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky. Not to swim or run an unforgiving mile. 

Nor in fear of saltwater crocodiles who prey on unsuspecting souls; or their human counterparts who shed bitter, salty tears for themselves and their tattered reputations. But to ask if Sri Lanka will ever see its summer days, its glory, that elusive plenty of prosperity with peace and justice, again?

Also what more can you and I do to stem the rot and reverse the tide? Maybe closer neighbourhood watches to stave off vigilante action. Perhaps build better communal bridges with police and other law-enforcement watchdogs. Jettison the cynical thinking encapsulated in the axiom ‘Who will guard the guards?’ Hold my local MP and other politicos far more accountable for the rising body count, in the same breath as bewailing the fate that has befallen us in the midst of life...

If only to count myself a part of the humanity I own with the race of islanders whose fate you share, let’s go down – together – to that sunless sea and count the bodies again. Ask who they were. And what it might mean to the guardians and the guarded that generation after generation, we let the dead bury their own dead, after war, prison riots, escaped prisoner shootouts (22 between November 2004 and October 2005, to cite but one year’s scandalous slaughters!), killings in Police custody, water seekers being gunned down...

No man, woman or child is an island. Even in an increasingly integrated yet ironically, strangely isolated world. Those bells toll for all of us. And I beg you: amidst the changes and chances of a weary world, to stop and count the cost... 

( Journalist down by a sea | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer counting the cost, and numbering the unnamed bodies) 


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