(Previously published on UNICEF’s Voices of Youth)
I grew up with a war. So did another 6 million Sri Lankan children of my generation. Just like most of them I’ve been rushed out of school through explosion sites, seen burning corpses on the sidewalks, I’ve waited for weeks at a time by the telephone to hear from my father, a Sri Lankan Army officer away on duty during the war.
A war for peace; an oxymoron my father and hundreds of thousands other military men and women committed their lives to. Growing up, I was often pitied for being a military child. But for me, my father being who he is, was all the strength I needed to wake up every morning and go to school, in a city that one of the most lethal terrorist organizations in the world, used as a punching bag. I knew that whatever it was I saw, being where he was, doing what he did, he’s seen worse.
With its many natural harbors and geographical location in a trade hub that forms a flawless triangle with India and China, its turquoise beaches and bright red sunsets, the massive fields of gem filled land in its center, Sri Lanka is far from an ordinary country. To this day, Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world to provide all its citizens with free healthcare and education.
There was a time, back in the day, when Sri Lanka used to be the benchmark for building nations. In the 1950’s Sri Lanka’s economy was used as a model to build Singapore; one of the strongest economies in the world today. With so much to lose, you cannot imagine how much 30 years of terrorism hurt my country. Most of all, its youth.
The war was my childhood. It’s all I remember. I remember the horror stories of how my father’s colleagues were tortured to death by the terrorists, and seeing my brother’s entire school mourn when their hockey team was killed together numerous other civilians in a suicide bomb attack in the heart of Colombo. I remember the story of how my friend Sachini, lost her mom to the Central bank bombing of 1996, when the LTTE drove a truck loaded with 440 pounds of explosives into Sri Lanka’s Central bank tower, bringing it down to rubble, killing Sachini’s mom and hundreds of others, injuring thousands.
I remember the how LTTE set off a bomb in a bus that shuttled women and children to the monthly health clinic at the Horowpathana hospital, killing close to a hundred women, and children under the age of five. I remember how even the sound of a balloon pop gave my classmates goose bumps. I remember the metal detector that welcomed me into my preschool and the bomb evacuation drill that I memorized in middle school. When the war ended in 2009, so did my childhood. I was a young adult in a country without war.
When you’ve lived your whole life in a civil conflict bubble filled with personalized tragedies built around the uncertainty of your own life, your mentality is restricted. Your mind isn’t accustomed to think too far into the future, compassion doesn’t come as easy, you become so numb to the idea of men, women and children of your country being victims of terrorism in broad daylight.
You yearn for an explanation as to why you deserve to live in a civil conflict that isn’t yours to begin with. You wish you were there when it began; that you could have nipped it in the bud. You wish you could have saved all those lives. You feel lost, trapped in a war that was already smoking outside the hospital window when you were born. Somehow, with time, you begin to believe that this was your struggle, that you earned this civil conflict, although it was handed down to you on a silver platter. In 2009, when the Sri Lankan Army defeated the terrorists and the war was finally over, the conflict bubble burst. My generation, the children of conflict, was orphaned.
About a year into the end of the war, I got the rare opportunity of visiting a rehabilitation program for ex-terrorists, funded by the Sri Lankan government. I did not know how I would feel about being in a room full of people who were responsible for the lost lives of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans. To my surprise, seeing them made me feel no different. There was relief in their faces, as they sang, danced and played cricket. While a few of them had willingly joined the LTTE, most of them had been forcefully taken away from their homes as teenagers to be trained terrorists. I realized that as ironic as it was, they too were victims of terrorism. When I shared this experience with my friends, they asked me how I could possibly have a casual conversation with the people who, not too long ago, wanted to take my father’s life.
The answer was simple. Civil conflicts are never personal. They are bigger than ourselves or anything else in our lives. So big, that nobody will ever take responsibility for the mass destruction they cause generations of people. There are no winners in civil conflicts, just losers; losers of freedom, losers of justice, losers of happiness. There is nobody who will give people back their lost loved ones, or pay the country back for its lost time.
For thirty years Sri Lanka’s national priorities such as education and economic and social progress were replaced by a struggle against unbearable amounts of daily violence. It sure took a toll on its children and youth. Terrorism stole my childhood. I understand that there is nothing I can do to bring it back. But I could make sure my children have a happy childhood; that they will never see what I’ve seen. It’s time to rebuild the country, forgiving the past and holding on to the lessons learnt. It’s the least I can do for the beautiful island that kept me safe through one of the most brutal wars in history.